Spain has been facing many challenges similar to those of other EU countries. In contrast to the rest of the continent, however, Eurosceptic parties failed to attract popular support. Héctor Sánchez Margalef explains the reasons for this exception and why it may not last forever.
The difficult case of populism
It is always tricky to define political parties as populists because the definition has never been clear. Diego Muro (2017) argues that “populism” is a label often given to a political party by its rivals, but those accused of being populists rarely identify themselves as such. Also, According to Muro “the term populism is used pejoratively in the European media to denote such diverse phenomena as a grassroots movement, an irresponsible economic programme, or a demagogic style of politics”.
If we take the definition of Cas Mudde, populism is a thin ideology which means it is not theoretically complex. Its unifying trait is to offer simplistic explanations of reality. To populists, politics must be the expression of people’s will; there cannot be space for pluralist views. Whoever is not sharing or living up to that will may be considered an enemy of the people. Ultimately, it divides society between “them” against “us”, the “elite” against the “people”, the “corrupt” against the “pure”.
Euroscepticism is a populist phenomenon as it offers an easy explanation for the world’s complex reality: “Europe is the source of our problems, and we, therefore, need to take our country back”. Also, it considers those who want to give up the sovereignty of their country as traitors. Eurosceptics divide society between “Brussels” or the elite against “any Member State” or its people. Populism and Euroscepticism have often gone hand in hand. Many hold that it has been the economic crisis starting 2008 that boosted the populist parties with their Eurosceptic, anti-migration and islamophobic approach due to the austerity measures implemented in the continent, the rise of unemployment and the arrival of refugees. This point is valid to some extent, but it is not a one-size-fits-all explanation. If that theory were true, countries hit by the crisis like Spain should have strong populist and Eurosceptic extreme-right parties – but it does not.
Has Spain changed during the crisis?
Yes, it has. Although now slowly getting back on track, the traditionally pro-European opinion of the Spanish society worsened during the gravest years of the crisis. Spain had all the ingredients to witness the emergence of a populist and Eurosceptic party. It went from 40 to almost 47 million inhabitants from 2000 to 2011; out of these 7 million, there was an increase of 1.4% every year that were immigrants. Previous to the crisis, around 13% of the population were foreigners. During the same period, unemployment skyrocketed from 8.2 to 26.1% on the crisis’ peak (2013) affecting around 50% of young job seekers. Income inequality and the risk to fall into poverty have increased throughout the crisis which is why Spain has now one of the highest inequality rates of the EU. For instance, the disposable income of the richest 20% of the population is 6.5 times higher than the poorest 20% (while the average in the EU is around five times higher). Furthermore, the Spanish society holds that structural corruption, affecting all the state institutions, has increased. This is reflected in the Corruption Perception Index of International Transparency, where Spain ranks 42 of 180 countries with a score of 57 points (100 meaning no corruption at all).
Unemployment, economic crisis, inequality, corruption and migration are variables that explain Eurosceptic populism. However, the case of Spain proofs that each country needs to be analysed individually because other factors can play a decisive role, too. Three events shaped the political situation in Spain during the hardest years of the crisis and helped to prevent Eurosceptic populism: the 15-M protests in May 2011, the birth of Podemos and its immediate impact on national politics, and the irruption of Ciudadanos (Citizens – C’s) in the national arena.
The rise of new parties in Spain
When the crisis started to affect employment and corruption scandals were popping out on a daily basis, the PSOE (socialist party) implemented the first austerity measures. The discontent was so big that spontaneous protests bursted out in May 2011 and the 15-M was born. The “indignados” camped at the cities’ main squares crying out against national politicians, bankers, the markets but, basically, against the status quo. Later, they were kicked out by the police and proofed unable to influence the regional and local elections that took place that month. The snap elections held in November produced an absolute majority for the People’s Party (PP) and severely punished the socialist party. The discontent on the streets did not translate into new political parties in the Congress, but their legacy remained there.
It was not until the European elections in May 2014 when an offspring of the 15-M obtained important institutional representation winning five seats. Since then, Podemos, whom polls were giving one or two MEPs maximum, captured the political momentum. Media gave them a significant share of attention and polls forecasted very good results on the local, regional and national elections of next year – which they got. Podemos started defining themselves as populists but never as Eurosceptic. They understood the term populism as the defence of the people’s will and emphasized the difference between them and the ruling elite –especially to the two political parties that had taken turns in governing since the restoration of democracy. Yet, when their rivals started using the term as an insult, Podemos stopped using it as a political category.
Ciudadanos did not get an extraordinary result in the European elections but with the bipartisanship system apparently retreating, C’s also sized momentum and, for the second time, they tried to move to the national arena. Although they started in Catalonia as a centre-left non-nationalist party, the crowded space in the centre-left spectrum (now disputed between Podemos and the socialists) made them move to the right of the axis. They labelled themselves as liberals, but their firm opposition to the independence movement in Catalonia has helped them to win votes from the PP’s most right-wing voters. That opposition has gone along with a firm Europeanism (in fact one of their symbols is a heart divided in three, displaying the Catalan, the Spanish and the European flags); and with a firm stand against corruption. These positions have allowed Ciudadanos to compete in a political space that had been the exclusive domain of the PP and, at the same time, occupy it, preventing other right-wing Eurosceptic forces to have success.
The question is why none of these two parties used Eurosceptic or populist tactics to get influence or at least tried to shape the agenda of mainstream parties in that direction as it has happened in other EU countries.
Why did the new Spanish parties not rely on Euroscepticism?
Because it would not have worked.
One of the extreme-right Eurosceptic populist favourite topics of discussion is over-debated in Spain: identity and sovereignty. The Spanish identity has often gone hand in hand with regional identities, which are very strong in Spain; but which of them is regarded stronger has always been an individual choice without generating any contradictions. When Podemos started using the term sovereignty, they meant the sovereignty of the country to guarantee the social rights that were being undermined by the economic crisis, not to disintegrate the EU but to build a different one. In any case, the enormous melting pot of identities that coexist in Spain plus the different interpretation of the concept of sovereignty makes it very difficult to organise a Eurosceptic party whose objective is to retake the sovereignty ceded to the EU. In addition, political forces who have tried to compete for the voters on the extreme right of the axis have crashed against an incredibly loyal vote to the Popular Party; who has traditionally obtained their vote regardless of not being completely aligned with those voters’ political preferences.
Another issue triggered by Eurosceptic populist parties has been migration as a threat to national identity. According to the European Social Survey, Spanish people see immigrants as a threat for employment (0.3 points above the average) and welfare state benefits (1 point above the average), although not a very serious one. Nevertheless, they do not see migration as a threat to their culture or their religious identity. In fact, the 11th position out of 38 in the Migrant Integration Policy Index shows that integration in Spain is working well, although there are still aspects that can be improved. Spain has also been in favour of the refugees’ quota; the government actually accepted it only to not comply with it afterwards. However, civil society has a quite open stand towards refugees and several demonstrations have been organised in favour of taking refugees in.
In fact, Spain is still in a sort of progressive “mood”. Since 2004 there has been only progress regarding social rights, positive attitudes to LGTBI rights, the right to abortion, gender equality, etc. (yet, there is still work to be done). This is reflected in the Social Progressive Index that ranks Spain the 16th out of 128 countries and recognises Spain as one of the most tolerant and progressive countries in the world.
What reduced the populist’s influence too is the role of the media and social networks. In contrast to other countries (UK being the most significant case) Spain does not have an influential tabloid like the Daily Mail promoting fake news against the EU; in fact, there is plenty of free media covering the full political spectrum. On the other hand, social networks are generally very progressive. Actually, the social networks played a very important role in the outbreak of Podemos who used social networks to reach a share of voters who were very active on the internet.
The case of Podemos
Whether Podemos is a populist party or not has not been settled yet. Its leaders started defining themselves as populists because they wanted to make very clear that there was a difference between them (the common people) and the mainstream parties that they considered elite, and whom they would call “la casta”. The strategy worked considerably well taking into account how fast the party grew. However, they decided to drop this definition the moment they started to have institutional power and their political rivals started using “populist” as an insult to attack their political credibility.
The same holds true for their approach to European matters. They were never in favour of leaving the EU, and in their electoral programme for the European elections, there was no mention of leaving the Euro. What the platform did say was to derogate the Lisbon treaty because they considered the EU a neoliberal entity. They were and remain in favour of European integration but in different terms. They have softened their demands and concentrated on the national scenario, where they have more to gain, as the reality shows that the Spanish population is pro-European; in fact, the derogation of the Lisbon Treaty disappeared from the programme for the general elections of 2015. Therefore, Podemos falls better in the category of Eurocritics rather than Eurosceptics.
It is true that Spain has been immune to the populist and Eurosceptic phenomena so far, but the soil is ready for sowing. These parties can grow on the grounds of objective reasons (economic crises, unemployment, impoverishing of the living conditions and inequality) and misguided perceptions. The former are still valid in Spain and if the latter combine low future expectations with fear, the result is the perfect cocktail for populist parties to grow. If the population’s perception does not match the politicians’ discourse – now claiming that we have left the crisis behind – these parties can become stronger and make an appearance in the Spanish political scene.
Macroeconomic numbers look great but if citizens are not feeling the recovery, perceptions can change. If the population does not perceive an improvement of their living conditions, it is possible that Spain may end up seeing a party, be it new or old, using Eurosceptic tactics to gain political power and shape the political agenda of the rest of the political forces, which would mean the end of the Spanish exceptionality.
Finally, it is worth mentioning that the still unresolved Catalan issue is a wild card – and one with no solution in sight. It is impossible to foresee the consequences of this issue in terms of political options and the debate on EU affairs.