Executive Summary

Hard-hit by COVID-19
Spain was one of the countries around the world most affected by COVID-19, both in terms of the number of infections and number of deaths. Available data points to the bulk of COVID-19 infections and deaths in Spain being attributable to structural factors (e.g., demographic structure) that Spain shares with most western European countries. In 2021, Spain’s COVID-19 vaccination campaign progressed very well.
Decade of
crisis mode
The political and institutional context in which the pandemic hit Spain was far from placid following recent political and social turbulence. Although economic growth and job creation remained solid prior to the pandemic, Spain has been in crisis mode for the last decade. The fragmentation of the party system has intensified since the November 2019 general elections, and polarization has proved to be a significant obstacle to cross-party agreement. Due to increasing polarization in parliament, the government could not continue to extend the state of alarm, and restrictions were lifted in June 2020. According to virologist and immunologist experts, the relaxation of restrictions came too early to prevent the second wave.
Erosion of parlia-
mentary effectiveness
According to some observers, this political context had by 2020 eroded the effectiveness of parliamentary institutions by 2020 in such a way as to affect the quality of democracy. However, Spain overall remained one of countries with strong democratic quality in electoral and liberal terms, as assessed for example by the Varieties of Democracy project.
First coalition
since 1930s
Since January 2020, a minority left-wing coalition government consisting of the PSOE and Unidas Podemos (“United we can”) has held power – the first national-level coalition government since the Second Republic (1931 – 1939). Despite concerns about the stability of the coalition, the coalition government pushed an ambitious legislative reform agenda through parliament while fending off a wave of hostility from the political right. The minority coalition government secured parliamentary support for the budget plans of 2021 and 2022, ending years of budget gridlock. However, the government made extensive, for some excessive, use of royal decree-laws, and crisis management efforts (and actions beyond this topic) had an important impact on the balance between legislative and executive powers, raising questions of input legitimacy.
flaws exposed
The pandemic revealed the weakness of the healthcare system, both in terms of public health policy and patient care. Funding cuts to healthcare following the 2008 financial crisis have led to increasing variability in the quality of healthcare services across the autonomous communities that are responsible for the delivery of healthcare. However, the healthcare system and other public services across the country did not break down. As of the time of writing, the sixth wave of coronavirus in Spain had been on the rise since December 2021, putting hospitals under great pressure. In Catalonia, COVID-19 patients occupied 41% of ICU beds at the beginning of 2022.
economic decline
The pandemic has shown how vulnerable the economic system is. The measures taken in response to the coronavirus pandemic from 2020 – 2021 resulted in an unprecedented contraction of economic activity. Although indicators in 2021 have left the impression that the most critical stage of the crisis has passed, the economy is recovering less vigorously than previously estimated. In addition, health risks and other new risks still remain, such as the price of energy raw materials, which are at all-time highs, and the emergence of manufacturing bottlenecks.
Growth returns as restrictions ease
Macroeconomic experts are not predicting a total economic recovery until the end of 2022. Nevertheless in 2021 a disconnect between the health crisis and employment can be observed. The falling rates of unemployment during 2021 were facilitated by the lifting of coronavirus restrictions, the advance of the vaccination campaign, and higher consumer spending levels thanks to the savings that households had accumulated during the pandemic.
Structural impediments
to coordination
The COVID-19 crisis has also revealed the structural weaknesses in and cyclical problems of the Spanish territorial model. It has become especially clear that intergovernmental coordination instruments and joint decision-making bodies were unable to respond to the crisis appropriately. Moreover, tensions between the constitutionally determined framework legislation of the central government and the reality of a model consisting of heterogeneous regional healthcare systems became apparent. Due to institutional weaknesses, decisions were taken very late and slowly. However, as the crisis unfolded, intergovernmental coordination improved, and representatives of the various health authorities met frequently to exchange information and reach common agreements.
Hopes for second
modernization of
Spanish economy
The Recovery and Resilience Plan (RRP) was a crucial issue during 2020 and 2021. In spring 2020, the government played an important role in the design of the European recovery strategy. The government presented its RRP in October 2020, one of the first EU member states to do so. During the presentation, the government emphasized that the plan would trigger the development of the second great modernization of the Spanish economy. In June 2021, the European Commission adopted a positive assessment of the plan. The RRP is based on four pillars: ecological transition, digital transformation, gender equality, and social and territorial cohesion. The RRP also contains several reform commitments. Some were already implemented in 2020, while others have been on the agenda during 2021 (e.g., labor markets, pension system).
Increased executive capacity
For the design and implementation of the RRP, several administrative departments have been strengthened, and new governance structures have been created to increase the government’s executive capacity and accountability.
Kölling, M. (2022), COVID-19 & Federalism in Spain, en: Rupak Chattopadhyay, Felix Knüpling, Diana Chebenova, Liam Whittington, Phillip Gonzalez, Federalism and the Response to COVID-19 – A Comparative Analysis, Routledge, ISBN 9781032077901

Erkoreka, M.; Grau Creus, M.; Kölling, M. (2021), Decentralisation and COVID-19: the Spanish territorial system under pressure, en Nico Steytler (ed.) Comparative Federalism and COVID-19: Combatting the Pandemic, Routledge.

Lazarus, J.V., Bassat, Q., Crespo, J. et al. (2021), Vaccinate fast but leave no one behind: a call to action for COVID-19 vaccination in Spain. Commun Med 1, 12.

Juan Rodríguez Teruel (2020): La resiliencia democrática española tras una década convulsa, Real Instituto Elcano. Available at:
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