Can Europe Make It?

Brexit aftershocks hit Spain

Did Brexit have anything to do with the disappoiting results for Podemos in Sunday's Spanish elections? Español

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Francesc Badia i Dalmases
30 June 2016
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A woman with the Spanish flag on her glasses. AP Photo/Manu Fernandez

Huge Brexit shockwaves hit the coasts of Spain early Friday morning, when the smell of powder’s smoke and the bitter taste of cheap bubbly were slowly fading away, after the popular party of “San Juan” marked the arrival of the Summer solstice.

The country burnt €18 million in fireworks this year, in a celebratory mood, fuelled by upbeat economic perspectives (GDP in Spain has been growing lately above 3%) and genuine optimism about an upcoming political change after the elections to be held that Sunday, June 26.

Over the last eight years or so, millions in the middle class have struggled to stay afloat and many young Spaniards have had to flee their country seeking opportunities – many to the UK. But now, thanks to a domestic power battle among ambitious right-wing politicians, their future has been jeopardized, while the prospects of a progressive political change in Spain have vanished.

Brexit shockwaves affect real people. According to some calculations, as many as 200,000 Spanish migrants currently live in the UK. And, seeking a better and cheaper life – or simply fleeing a country where, if you are not particularly affluent, life can be cramped and miserable – about 700,000 British nationals are now living in Spain. They enjoy fair weather, good food, quality infrastructures and first class social services amid a welcoming and tolerant society. But now, without having a say in what is being decided, the Brexit referendum results may trigger unexpected consequences for their lives and prospects. 

This is just one domestic illustration of the appalling consequences of calling for a referendum that can be everything but democratic, if only because leaving so many directly concerned unable to express their will is fundamentally wrong and undemocratic. If Brexit ends up happening, how British pensioners living abroad are going to be affected is not clear, but the fall of sterling is already tightening many budgets across the Mediterranean shores.

Furthermore, British professionals earning their lives in EU countries would eventually become extra-communitarian workers, and could end up having the same status as Moroccans, Pakistanis or Ecuadorians. This, of course, will only happen if things get nasty and exit negotiations end up badly.

Many questions remain unanswered: Why so many people were denied the democratic right to vote in a matter so important to their status? How come there was no plan B in case Brexit won? 

Referendums, it is said, are loaded by the devil. As much as their defenders argue about their intrinsic democratic nature (what is more democratic, they argue, than asking people what they want to do?) – in fact it is not. In a recent article, Jeremy Fox reminds us of Margaret Thatcher once referring to referendums as ‘a device for dictators and demagogues’. I would not go that far, but would argue that referendums, particularly those destined to change history, are essentially flawed. They polarise. They push people to vote emotionally and not necessarily rationally.They prompt people to choose between black and white, obliterating the vast array of greys that lay in between. And they tend to be promoted by those who want to see a particular outcome (independence, in the case of Scotland; Brexit, in the case of the UK). If their goal is achieved, that’s it, it's irreversible (Brexit case). But if it is not, you will claim the right to call for another chance (Scotland case). This is fundamentally asymmetric, because it favours one of the options and diminishes the other. And then, there is the issue of majorities. In the case of Brexit results, only 37% of the census voted Leave (51.9 % of 72.2 %): far from the “majority of British people” the winning camp claims. Can a majoritarian minority change the fate of a nation? Apparently yes. Is this genuine democracy? Well, personally I think the conditions on where you put the binding majority (I would favour a supermajority) for such a referendum should be decided through a broad agreement in parliament, voted by at least two thirds of the people's representatives.

Furthermore, a referendum on “independence” was always going to stir the ugliest ghosts of fear, nationalism and xenophobic feelings among a scared, deprived and anxious population. And blaming a foreign enemy (in this case the EU) for all the evils at home – as many populists and autocrats know well – always yields fruit. It was historian Tony Judt who, in the early nineties, already described the dangers of having so many citizens left behind by globalisation’s side effects, including the breakdown of the job-creating industrial model and of the welfare state, two of the worst long-term consequences of the neoliberal project set up by Reagan and Thatcher. Referring to the rise of Le Pen voters in the depressed neighbourhoods of France’s middle-sized towns, he said:  the losers of globalisation are turning into far-right demagogues. It is a vote of anger, fear and despair.

On top of this, a vote on leaving the EU was inevitably going to be mystified with the mirage of past imperial glories and the misunderstanding of what sovereignty really means in the highly interdependent and integrated world of the twenty-first century. All in all, Brexit has been an epochal error that may take at least a generation to backtrack.

The “take back control” slogan, calling for the country to be devolved to “the decent people”, sounded Orwellian. Even if, as many of us wish to think, the UK will end up not calling article 50 to leave the EU, Brexit will trigger a deep political crisis, before Westminster politicians have the guts to recognise their catastrophic error, and start to backtrack.

Impact in Spain

In last Sunday’s general election, perhaps shocked by the fear of Brexit’s consequences for their own stability, many Spaniards defeated their own prospects of seeing progressive political change in their country. One out of three of those who voted on June 26, voted conservative. And thus the Popular Party, mired in overwhelming corruption, having passed repressive laws and championed harsh austerity policies (dubbed ‘reforms’), won the elections.

Militant right-wingers celebrated their victory with an unprecedented nationalist enthusiasm, cheering their leader in front of the party’s headquarters in Madrid well into the night. Again, the occasion reminded us why there is not a far-right populist party in Spain: it is embedded in the Popular Party. And this, after all, is the good news, because in so far as the moderate wing of the conservatives sits together with the ultra-nationalists in the same party, it neutralises them in some way.

In the coming few weeks, and if things do not derail (calling for a third election would be unpalatable), the PP will finally form a minority government. Access to power will continue to contain the populist far-right within the party, averting the danger of a spillover that could reproduce in Spain the rise of a xenophobic, euro-sceptic party, similar to those we have seen rising across the continent, in the UK, and beyond. Nevertheless, the nationalist chants at the PP headquarters’ celebrations last Sunday constitute a worrying development that deserves to be watched.

No “sorpasso”, no referendum

Bewildered analysts and political scientists are now trying to decipher the real impact of the Brexit referendum outcome on the Spanish results. It is not clear if and how the news had any influence, but we might speculate that fear of turmoil and of disintegration played a role in scaring people, making them flock around the PP, who added 600,000 votes and 14 seats to its previous score in December. This came as a surprise, as all polls were predicting a PP tighter victory, and not an increased gap of 50 seats with the PSOE, who finally came second, and lost 5 seats.

In Spain, and across Europe, the left had high expectations of a victory championed by the Podemos party, who presented a coalition candidacy with the former communists of Izquierda Unida. Opinion polls had unanimously predicted that Unidos Podemos (as that candidacy was called) would gain numerous seats and perform a “sorpasso” of the old, conservative socialists of the PSOE. But “sorpasso” there was not. Many complex factors might explain this, but one could well be the electoral use of a fiddly political issue in Spain: the referendum on Catalan independence.

Throughout the campaign, Podemos, in what some saw as a courageous move, continued to defend the need to hold a referendum in Catalonia. There is an urgent need to overcome the relentless territorial tension and, their rationale goes, only holding a referendum on independence will solve it. While declaring, in the name of a rebranded “patriotism”, that they will vote ‘remain’ and not ‘leave', they seem convinced that 'remain' will win and, thus, the question will be over once and for all. But this might be overoptimistic.

Once a referendum is conceded, it is probable that it will be repeated, should the pro-independence camp fail (see Scotland). Also note that Mr Cameron, when begged by his senior colleagues in Brussels to drop his intention to hold a referendum on Brexit insisted emphatically: “no need, the ‘leave’ will only amount to 30% of total ballots anyway”. He was wrong, badly wrong. And he had no Plan B.

Conceding a referendum is considered a very risky business and is not on the agenda of the other three national parties in Spain, whose proposals go from redrawing the constitution in a more federal manner (PSOE), to striking a “constitutionalist” deal (Ciudadanos), to simply doing nothing (PP). The narrative of a diverse Spain, of a ‘nation of nations’, might be attractive to many open-minded Spaniards, but when it comes to conceding the right to self-determination, those many shrink to a few. After all, no modern nation-state contemplates disintegration through regional referendums in its constitution, except for the UK, which lacks a written constitution, and perhaps Canada (Clarity Act).

The issue of the Catalan referendum is said to have blocked the potential centre-left government proposed by PSOE and Ciudadanos. There are probably many other and more important issues that blocked such a pact, but undeniably the Catalan referendum played its part.

The same can be said about the failure (at least in terms of the expectations generated) of the radical left on Sunday: there are many reasons – inflated polls, a weak campaign, doubts about the leadership, doubts about the benefits of getting a junior party in the coalition, softening red radicalism to embrace rosy social-democracy – but, in my opinion, the issue of the referendum might well have been one of them.

Opening the door to potential disintegration sells badly in Spain, left and right. At the end of the day, purple Podemos’ coalitions won in the only two territories where regional nationalism is hegemonic: the Basque Country and Catalonia. All the rest of Spain was PP blue.

And here we are, with a nasty hangover, assessing the huge blow to the possibility in both the UK and the EU to remain united, left with flawed referendums fanning the flames of nationalism and self-interest above cosmopolitanism and solidarity.

Reduced to speculating if Brexit had something to do with frustrating the hope of a progressive government to take office in Spain, a lot of us feel miserable. Meanwhile, far right movements are toasting with Le Pen’s champagne or Putin's vodka. Our duty now is to stand up, come together and rebuild Europe.

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