Spanish regional nationalism is a curse and a blessing for Rajoy

Regional parties mitigate the threat of a single populist party winning national support.

Once Catalonia’s regional election completes on 25 November, Spain’s electoral calendar is scheduled to be blissfully clear for at least 12 months. But anyone hoping this will keep a lid on political instability in the country will likely be disappointed. Spanish politics is primed for a difficult 2013.

The reasons for this are no secret: a worsening economy, painfully high unemployment, and an austerity programme which is likely to exacerbate these issues further. What is less clear is how the inevitable fall in the government’s popularity will affect Spanish politics at both the national level and at that of its restive, independence-minded regions.

Polls suggest that Artur Mas, leader of the Convergence and Union party, is likely to win Catalonia’s regional election in November. He has made the promise of a vote on Catalan independence from Spain a central plank of his campaign. Any referendum would be illegal without the sanctioning of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy’s government, which has vehemently rejected such a possibility. But whilst the law may be on the government’s side, popular support is with Mr Mas (polls show over 70 per cent of Catalans want a referendum). The constitutional standoff that looks set to take place will at best be an unwelcome distraction for an already harried government; at worst it will thrust Mr Rajoy into a destabilising power struggle, greatly inflaming regional nationalism and sapping the confidence of Spain’s creditors. If the centralisation of powers which has been necessitated by the drive for deficit reduction (i.e. newly-legislated powers to take over the budgets of overspending regions) is perceived to be threatened, markets may well lose faith in the central government’s ability to rein in the activities of its recalcitrant autonomous regions.

But whilst the risks are real, regional nationalism is also likely to serve a more benign purpose. Its capacity to absorb anti-government sentiment should work to reduce the risk of national populist parties gaining support, as they have to disruptive effect in other peripheral countires. If Spain’s national parties lose legitimacy then regional parties will fill the gap, dissipating opposition to the government and mitigating the threat of a single populist party gaining enough support country-wide to challenge the mainstream establishment.

This is important as, currently, Spain’s political profile is following the same inglorious route that Greece laid out in 2010/11. The absolute majority the People’s Party (PP) holds in parliament is comparable to that which George Papandreou’s PASOK enjoyed following its overwhelming victory in the 2009 election. The rapid collapse PASOK suffered thereafter (as its unpopular budget measures fomented increasing opposition and dissent) is being mirrored to an even more precipitous degree by Rajoy’s PP. PP support has slumped from 46% in March to 30 per cent in October and seems likely to fall further as the recession persists. The less likely, but far more concerning risk in Spain is of a disintegration in the government’s majority brought about by the deepening unpopularity of the People’s Party.

Spanish voting intentions (2008-present)

Source: ASR Ltd. / CIS / Obradoirp / NC Report / MetroscopiaG

The difference between a ruling party which is ahead in the polls and one which is terribly unpopular is difficult to underestimate. The control party leaders have over their members is almost entirely predicated on their ability to advance, hinder or, occasionally, destroy political careers. With a degrading party brand and the increasing personal unpopularity of the leader, party discipline is an almost inevitable casualty. That process is ongoing for Rajoy’s People’s Party, albeit at an early stage. The absolute parliamentary majority it enjoys, at just ten seats, must be considered vulnerable, just as PASOK’s proved to be in Greece in 2011.

Greek voting intentions (2006-present)

Source: ASR Ltd. / CIS / Obradoirp / NC Report / MetroscopiaG

The expulsions and splinter party formations that eroded PASOK’s majority were the result of a conveyor belt of austerity packages that became ever more austere as target after target was missed. Spain is in danger of being locked into a similar cycle. Its 2013 deficit targets are based on growth figures considered over-optimistic by everyone except the Spanish government. The need for further austerity seems certain to grow, and the potential for a disruptive political shock in Spain will grow with it.

Richard Mylles is a political analyst at Absolute Strategy Research

Supporters of independence for Catalonia demonstrate in Barcelona. Photograph: Getty Images.

Richard Mylles is a political analyst at Absolute Strategy Research, an independent consultancy based in London.

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What Brussels can learn from the Italian referendum

Matteo Renzi's proposed reforms would have made it easier for eurosceptic forces within Italy to gain power in upcoming elections in 2018.

The Austrian presidential elections can justifiably be claimed as a victory for supporters of the European Union. But the Italian referendum is not the triumph for euroscepticism some have claimed.

In Austria, the victorious candidate Alexander van der Bellen ruthlessly put the EU centre stage in his campaign. “From the beginning I fought and argued for a pro-European Austria,” he said after a campaign that saw posters warning against “Öxit”.

Austrians have traditionally been eurosceptic, only joining the bloc in 1995, but Brexit changed all that.  Austrian voters saw the instability in the UK and support for EU membership soared. An overwhelming majority now back continued membership.

Van der Bellen’s opponent Norbert Hofer was at an immediate disadvantage. His far right Freedom Party has long pushed for an Öxit referendum.

The Freedom Party has claimed to have undergone a Damascene conversion but voters were not fooled.  They even blamed Nigel Farage for harming their chances with an interview he gave to Fox News claiming that the party would push to leave the EU.

The European Commission, as one would expect, hailed the result. “Europe was central in the campaign that led to the election of a new president and the final result speaks for itself,” chief spokesman Margaritis Schinas said today in Brussels.

“We think the referendum in Italy was about a change to the Italian constitution and not about Europe,” Schinas added.

Brussels has a history of sticking its head in the sand when it gets political results it doesn’t like.

When asked what lessons the Commission could learn from Brexit, Schinas had said the lessons to be learnt were for the government that called the referendum.

But in this case, the commission is right. The EU was a peripheral issue compared to domestic politics in the Italian referendum.

Alberto Alemanno is Jean Monnet Professor of EU Law and an Italian. He said the reforms would have been vital to modernise Italy but rejected any idea it would lead to an Italian Brexit.

“While anti-establishment and eurosceptic actors are likely to emerge emboldened from the vote, interpreting the outcome of the Italian referendum as the next stage of Europe’s populist, anti-establishment movement – as many mainstream journalists have done – is not only factually wrong, but also far-fetched.”

Renzi was very popular in Brussels after coming to power in a palace coup in February 2014. He was a pro-EU reformer, who seemed keen to engage in European politics.

After the Brexit vote, he was photographed with Merkel and Hollande on the Italian island of Ventotene, where a landmark manifesto by the EU’s founding fathers was written.

This staged communion with the past was swiftly forgotten as Renzi indulged in increasingly virulent Brussels-bashing over EU budget flexibility in a bid to shore up his plummeting popularity. 

Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker even publicly reprimanded Renzi for demonising the EU.

Renzi’s vow to resign personalised the referendum. He gave voters a chance to give him a bloody nose when his popularity was at an all-time low.

Some of the reforms he wanted were marked “to be confirmed”.  The referendum question was astonishingly verbose and complex. He was asking for a blank cheque from the voters.

Ironically Renzi’s reforms to the constitution and senate would have made it easier for the eurosceptic Five Star Movement to gain power in upcoming elections in 2018.

For reasons best known to themselves, they campaigned against the changes to their own disadvantage.

Thanks to the reforms, a Five Star government would have found it far easier to push through a “Quitaly” referendum, which now seems very distant.  

As things stand, Five Star has said it would push for an advisory vote on membership of the euro but not necessarily the EU.

The Italian constitution bans the overruling of international treaties by popular vote, so Five Star would need to amend the constitution. That would require a two thirds majority in both houses of parliament and then another referendum on euro membership. Even that could be blocked by one of the country’s supreme courts.

The Italian referendum was closely watched in Brussels. It was hailed as another triumph for euroscepticism by the likes of Farage and Marine Le Pen. But Italians are far more likely to be concerned about the possibility of financial turbulence, which has so far been mildly volatile, than any prospect of leaving the EU in the near future.

James Crisp is the news editor at EurActiv.com.