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9 January 2020updated 08 Apr 2020 10:02pm

Spain’s new government could play an outsized European role

If it overcomes domestic instability, the Socialist-Podemos coalition can reshape the EU.

By Jeremy Cliffe

Its opponents call it the “Frankenstein government”. The centre-left Socialist (PSOE) and hard-left Unidas Podemos (UP) parties that will make up Spain’s first coalition government since the pre-Franco era hold only 155 of 350 parliamentary seats and relied on eight additional parties to win a vote of confidence on Tuesday. Six leftist and regionalist outfits backed the new government, taking it to 167 votes. The abstentions of left-wing Catalan secessionists and a Basque secessionist party squeezed the “no” votes to 165. Thus PSOE leader Pedro Sánchez, who became prime minister in 2018 following a no-confidence vote in the conservative People’s Party (PP) government, squeaked across the line.

The wider circumstances in which the new government takes office are tricky, too. Spanish politics used to enjoy almost German levels of stability, with four prime ministers from 1982 to 2018 and the PSOE and the PP dominant. But three interlocking crises – the economic slump from 2008, corruption scandals and the rise of Catalan separatism – have fractured the old landscape.

The UP emerged in opposition to austerity. Ciudadanos, an initially centrist party rooted in anti-independence segments of Catalan society, took votes from the PP, while Vox, a hard-right party channelling malaise at Spain’s rapid social modernisation, has risen in recent months. Each has morphed over time. Podemos struggled as the crisis receded and merged with another left party to become the UP; the drama of the Catalan crisis has nudged Ciudadanos towards the nationalist right; once a rural hunting-and-bullfighting party, Vox is establishing urban footholds.

Born of the opposition to the old PSOE-PP casta, or political class, the UP makes a difficult bedfellow for the PSOE. The two share instincts on social justice: the new government is committed to increasing the minimum wage, hiking taxes on high earners and rolling back some of the PP’s labour reforms. But they have quite different cultures; the PSOE has always looked to the mainstream European social democrat tradition and prides itself on having steered Spain back to continental respectability in the 1980s, while the UP has an altogether more radical calling. Podemos’s founders were scholars of Latin American liberation movements who long scorned what they saw as the PSOE’s willingness to compromise with the old Spanish establishment. The mistrust caused coalition talks to collapse last summer, prompting the second general election of the year in November and losses for the left.

With both parties chastened, the optics are now better. Sánchez and Podemos leader, Pablo Iglesias, sealed their pact last month with a hug. The latter even shed tears of happiness in the Cortes on Tuesday when the investiture vote passed. The two sides can look to neighbouring Portugal for a model of a successful minority-left government backed by the hard left. Still, already there are signs of tension. PSOE officials bridled when the UP unveiled its ministerial line-up ahead of a scheduled announcement next week (alongside Iglesias as deputy prime minister, the party takes the labour, equalities, consumer rights and universities portfolios). Iglesias is used to being in control – he fell out with his more moderate deputy, who quit UP last January to form his own party – and might struggle to fit into a broader team.

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Then there is the rolling drama in Catalonia, which has intensified over the past decade. An unconstitutional independence referendum held in 2017 fuelled nationalist sentiment in the rest of Spain, which was then opportunistically exploited by the PP, Ciudadanos and Vox. When nine of its organisers were sentenced to jail sentences last October protesters clashed violently with the police. The PSOE and Podemos both take a relatively conciliatory position. Sánchez was willing to offer secessionists further talks and the prospect of de-escalation (possibly involving greater devolution) as the price for their support, but the deal is fragile and does not resolve the secessionists’ underlying demand for a referendum – to which Sánchez, the self-declared guardian of Spain’s constitutional order, cannot accede. It could easily break down. 

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Sánchez’s biggest friend in the coming months is the question: what alternative? His ramshackle coalition and its band of wavering sometime allies in parliament may be imperfect (the Portuguese government’s moniker of “geringonça” or “contraption” seems apt here too). But with no parliamentary majority for the right and no prospect of a left-right grand coalition, the only alternative is yet another election, possible further gains for the right and perhaps a government reliant on Vox. For the time being, that spectre should be enough to keep the show on the road. The new government’s first tests will be whether it can pass a budget and stabilise the Catalan issue.

If Sánchez manages to hold his contraption together on the domestic front, the result will be significant for Europe. Not just because Spain is the continent’s only large country with a wholly left-wing government (Italy’s centre-left Democrats are in coalition with the populist and sometimes quasi-rightish Five Star Movement). But also because Spain can play a major role at a decisive time for the EU.

Consider the bigger picture. Franco-German relations are at a low ebb. Emmanuel Macron has grand plans for a more hard-nosed, self-reliant and, in many places, more integrated Europe. In an age of Trump, climate change, new security threats, he believes, Europe has to make big leaps forward. (Ursula von der Leyen, the new European Commission president, shares some of his ambition for a greener and more “geopolitical” Europe). But a political transition looms in Berlin and in any case Germany lacks the appetite for major change and is frequently distracted by its own often trivial domestic disputes. It has differed with France over foreign policy, carbon targets, Brexit and recently, with Macron’s characterisation of Nato as “braindead”, defence and security. Paris-Berlin relations have always been marked by disagreements, but usually of a more constructive sort than the ones Europe is currently witnessing.

Even if the Franco-German engine were whirring, pulling Europe together would be more difficult than in the past. At 28, soon 27, members and with fault lines over climate change, Russia, migration, defence and the Euro criss-crossing the continent, the club is a more sprawling and heterodox beast than in the old days of Giscard and Schmidt, Mitterrand and Kohl. To forge ahead, other large players need to attach themselves to France and Germany to build compromise and consensus bridging Europe’s disparate parts. But Britain is leaving, Poland is in the hands of populist nationalists and Italy is politically fragile (with a reasonable chance that hard-right Lega leader Matteo Salvini will be prime minister by the end of the year).

In Spain, by contrast, Paris, Berlin and Brussels have a resolutely pro-European partner. Sánchez and those around him took office in 2018 determined to make their country a third leg in the Franco-German alliance. Distracted by 2019’s political turmoil, they had to park that ambition, but are now returning to it. 

“The new government is very keen to be more active than previous ones on the European stage,” says Miguel Otero of the Elcano Royal Institute. He predicts that “Spain will push hard on ‘ever closer union’ on many fronts”, including eurozone reform, migration, decarbonisation, social rights and the single market. It will particularly try to improve decision making on areas where unanimity cannot be reached; pushing for the extension of qualified-majority voting where possible and elsewhere better support for vanguards of states that want to go ahead. Sánchez, who unlike his predecessors speaks good English, has in allies like economy minister Nadia Calviño and José Manuel Albares (a possible foreign minister) experienced Europe hands. In Brussels his former foreign minister and close ally Josep Borell is the EU’s new high representative for foreign affairs. The network is there.

And so are its potential uses. In a Europe of shifting alliances, Spain can be agile. Sánchez can position himself as a voice for the European left. He did that in the institutional carve-up following the European Parliament election last May, pushing for a socialist Commission president and thus helping to lever two powerful socialists – Borrell and the Dutch Frans Timmermans – into top positions under von der Leyen. His MEPs also helped rally other European centre-leftists behind von der Leyen in her investiture vote in the European Parliament, making her reliant on him and them. (The deal with Podemos could give him a mild credibility boost among political forces further to the left.)

Sánchez’s pro-Europeanism and moderate credo also make him a natural ally for liberals – most notably Macron. A hint of the two leaders’ ability to set the agenda came at the EU summit in Romania last May when they rallied eight socialist-and liberal-led western states to push for a zero-carbon Europe by 2050; other initially sceptical countries, including Germany, gradually fell in behind their lead. And Sánchez’s government can be a geographic pivot. The EU’s long-suffering southern states have lacked a forceful and credible European voice since the fall of Italy’s Matteo Renzi; in Sánchez they have their most natural leader in years. And at a time of global turmoil a more worldly government in Madrid can help reinvigorate Spain’s role as a sensitive interlocutor with the Arab world and Latin America, and as a leader on migration debates. 

None of which is certain. The more hamstrung Sánchez is by domestic turmoil, the less energy he can devote to raising Spain’s European profile and the more likely it is that internal differences will spill over into Spanish foreign policy (disputes over Latin America could easily become a proxy battleground if tensions with the UP grow, for example). But if he manages his domestic quandaries, Spain’s freshly elected prime minister could yet play an outsized role on the European stage. Whisper it softly but, despite everything, Spain may be back.