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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Can Nicola Sturgeon keep Scotland in the EU?

For Sturgeon, Scotland's rightful place is in the EU. If that means independence, so be it.

In the aftermath of the EU referendum, when Remain voters were still nursing their hangovers, a meme began to circulate on Scottish Facebook pages. It was an image of Nicola Sturgeon, the First Minister, her arms outspread, with a simple message: “F***in’ calm doon. Am oan it.”

At a time when British politicians are mired in the kind of chaos seen once in a generation, Sturgeon has emerged as a figure of calm. While her fellow Remain campaigners were speaking tearfully to news cameras, she addressed EU citizens, telling them: “You remain welcome here. Scotland is your home and your contribution is valued.”

When Boris Johnson declared, “Project Fear is over,” she retorted on Twitter, “Project Farce has now begun.” Her message has been retweeted more than 6,000 times. Faisal Islam, the political editor of Sky News, remarked on air that she seemed to be “the person with the most thought-through plan”.

Sturgeon now presents herself as Scotland’s anchor to Europe. Yet critics view her actions as those of a veteran independence campaigner seizing a chance denied to her by the Scottish referendum two years ago. In reality, she is working for both objectives.

It is hard to imagine now but the Scottish National Party was once suspicious of the idea of an independent Scotland in Europe. The idea took hold thanks to Jim Sillars, the Labour MP who led the 1976 breakaway that formed the Scottish Labour Party. He defected to the SNP in the early 1980s and became one of its strongest pro-EU advocates. The promise of an independent state within a larger framework was soon a mainstay of the party’s campaigns. The 1997 manifesto promised voters “the restoration of self-confidence and the creation of a modern democracy in the mainstream of European life”.

In the early years of the Scottish Parliament, Sturgeon’s approach to the EU was one of a negotiator, not an idealist. In 2003, she put forward a motion that the Scottish Executive should oppose the reduction of Scottish seats in the European Parliament from eight to seven. “Scotland, with no seat on the Council of Europe, no commissioners and fewer MEPs than comparably sized independent member states, has little enough influence in the EU,” she argued.

Her interest in representation emerged again in 2005 when she described an EU proposal on software patents as “a serious threat” to developers. She noted that: “There was apparently no Scottish minister at the Council to represent Scottish interests, the UK instead being represented by an unelected member of the House of Lords.”

Sturgeon’s commitment to work with the EU has not always been reciprocated. In the Scottish referendum, as deputy first minister, she promised the continuity of EU membership. Yet José Manuel Barroso, the then president of the European Commission, said it would be “extremely difficult, if not impossible”, for an independent Scotland to join. Some consider his statement to have been crucial to the success of the No campaign.

When the EU referendum arrived, Sillars, the architect of the SNP’s Europhile agenda, criticised the “love affair” that he believed his party was indulging in and joined the campaign for Brexit. Sturgeon made a different calculation. She threw herself into the Remain campaign, though she was careful not to stand alongside David Cameron. She played down the Scottish independence line – when asked, in the run-up to the vote, if she was a unionist, she described herself as “an enthusiastic European”.

She turned her reputation as a “nippie sweetie” to her advantage. Once viewed as a dour machine politician, now Sturgeon was warm to voters while cutting Boris Johnson down to size. There was no need to scaremonger over Europe, she said. A positive campaign was enough. There is no doubt that she tapped in to the popular feeling: 62 per cent of voters in Scotland opted to remain in the EU, compared to 48 per cent in the UK as a whole. Every local authority area north of the border voted Remain.

As the referendum results rolled in, she prepared to go it alone. “There are no rules,” Sturgeon told Andrew Marr. “The status quo we voted for doesn’t exist.” To her, Scotland’s rightful place is in the EU and if that requires independence, so be it.

She offered to meet Brussels diplomats. She contacted EU institutions. She put forward a motion in the Scottish Parliament demanding “the Scottish government to have discussions” in pursuit of “protecting Scotland’s relationship with the EU”.

Yet Barroso’s warnings may come back to haunt Sturgeon. She has always painted a picture of an independent Scotland in Europe as one that is nevertheless tied to the British Isles. Its currency is the pound; Scots and the English move freely between Glasgow and Carlisle. EU member states may seize on her proposal, or use it as a way of repeating the rebuff of 2014. Sturgeon the nippie sweetie negotiator has her plan for a European Scotland. Now she must wait for Europe to answer. 

This article first appeared in the 30 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit lies