December 2023 marks the end of the Spanish Presidency of the Council of the European Union. Pedro Sánchez’s Socialist-led coalition has just been sworn in as the next Spanish Government and the far-right Vox party, having lost ground, has been kept out.
On 5 December, Grassroots for Europe (GfE) hosted a Round Table event forming part of a series intended to seek perspectives from different countries in the EU on what is happening in the UK and in the EU, and where we are heading. This session focused on views from Spain. The speakers were Carlos Fresneda, the London correspondent for El Mundo, Spain’s second-largest newspaper, Dr Arantza Gómez Aruna, senior lecturer in international relations at Northumbria University, and Rachele Arciulo, co-president of the Spanish branch of the pan-European political party, Volt.
The session was attended by representatives from a range of organisations that advocate for the UK to rejoin the European Union, and for democratic and human rights, including European Movement UK, Unlock Democracy, Pro Europa, Brexpats Hear our Voice, and GfE branches affiliates from around the UK. It was chaired by Lisa Burton, Vice Chair of Bremain in Spain.
Perspectives on Brexit
As a regular traveller between the UK and Spain, Carlos Fresneda has a dual perspective on politics in the two countries. Not just in Spain, but around the world, the UK’s reputation has been gravely damaged by Brexit and the ensuing political chaos.
After the referendum Carlos was very tempted to move back to Spain with his family. His son was bullied at school because of his immigration status and although tensions have eased to a degree, the sadness and frustration felt by Europeans in all communities are still very much alive. He has recently written about the devastating effects of the UK’s self-inflicted exclusion from the Erasmus scheme.
For the Spanish media, Brexit is now old news. Carlos wrote an article on the recent National Rejoin March, which was republished in English in North East Bylines. However, it was difficult to get editors interested in covering it until the impressive size of the demonstration made it newsworthy. Ironically, Farage’s appearances on TV and radio have given Spanish journalists an opportunity to remind readers that even Mr. Brexit himself admits that Brexit is not working.
Fortunately, the ties between Spain and the UK remain strong, through tourism, study, football, gastronomy, and numerous other areas of life. Names like Banco Santander and Scottish Power (a subsidiary of Spanish utility firm Iberdrola) are familiar to British people. More than 400,000 British citizens live in Spain, and many others have second homes or visit regularly. Carlos is optimistic that these ties mean relations between the two countries will improve, in particular if Labour wins power, and there is goodwill on both sides to resolve the Gibraltar issue.
For Dr Arantza Gómez, one of the most critical and shocking moments came when the UK government requested that universities submit names of academics teaching about the European Union together with the content of their lectures. After Brexit, European academics had to apply for settled status. The process made many Europeans feel unwanted, leading to many of them departing the UK, and with recent legislation fanning anti-immigrant sentiment in the UK, few are coming to replace them.
Although there are still strong feelings in the UK about Brexit, Dr Gómez notes that her 18-year-old students were just 10 years old when the referendum was announced. All their young political lives have been lived in the shadow of Brexit. It is not surprising that there is Brexit fatigue, not just in the UK but in other European countries. When returning home, she is aware that Brexit has become a thing of the past for most Spaniards.
The rise of the far-right
Until recently, Dr Gómez was very concerned about a move to the right following European Parliament elections next year. However, although she feels that the results will be polarised, the outcome of the Polish election does give rise to hope.
2023, meanwhile, was a turbulent year for Spanish politics. Regional elections in June this year saw the centre-right Partido Popular (PP) and the far-right VOX party make considerable gains, taking power in several regions, sometimes in coalition. In response, Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez called a snap election for July. PP won the most seats in the election, but not enough to form a coalition government with VOX. A Socialist-led government was sworn in last month, with coalition partners including the Catalan nationalist parties, Junts and Esquerra Republicana, whose support is contingent on an amnesty for Catalan activists. This may have kept the far-right at bay for now, but it has been controversial, as evidenced by large-scale demonstrations across Spain.
Rachele Arciulo believes we are now at very important moment of political history in Spain, the old post-Franco system of two major parties alternating in power having been replaced by two rival, alternative party blocs, with the Socialist party and Sumar on the left, and PP and VOX on the right. The right-wing parties were expected to do well. However, an interview in which the journalist debunked many of the claims made by PP leader Alberto Núñez Feijóo, followed by a debate which Feijoo refused to attend and the Vox candidate relied on fake news and personal attacks, led many Spaniards to conclude that the two parties were not fit to govern. Carlos Fresneda also points out that opinion polls are never totally reliable, and people were mindful about what would happen if VOX were to repeat their success in the local elections.
Dr Gómez agrees that the local elections were a shock, and many voted to head off greater problems. She also notes that VOX’s popularity is largely built on a backlash in much of Spain to the Catalan independence movement, and fortunately tensions in Catalonia have subsided to some extent. If feelings were still as strong as they were in 2017, the vote for VOX could have been much higher.
Engaging young people
Young people in the UK are very active in climate protests, but pro-European groups struggle to engage them. Dr Gómez noted that young people’s involvement in the major issue of climate change may not extend as far as a new will to engage with Europe. Furthermore, if young people are pro-European, then right now there is no major party they may feel like voting for. There is still tremendous public confusion about Brexit and the damage to trust in politics has been huge. According to Rachele Arciulo, initiatives like the recent Conference on the Future of Europe engage with and listen to young people’s views, but the powers that be just thank them for their participation and then decided what, if anything, to do with the information. Volt tries to engage with young people and connect them with others across communities, towns and villages to try and spread the message that they are not alone. Young people are impatient, they don’t want to wait for the end of a five-year mandate to see political change. They need to see it now.
A new kind of democracy
Rachele’s background as an Italian living in Spain means she sees her European identity as fluid. She is acutely aware of how the far right is gaining hold throughout Europe, including among young people and that political dialogue is being eroded in Spain, Italy, and the UK (especially with Brexit). This demands a new kind of democracy and political participation that emphasises our common European values and local activism. Volt is keen to see “our UK family back”, calling for Europe-wide activities and projects including, but not only, Erasmus, to encourage movement among young people and ease the UK’s return to the EU.
Volt aims to create a sense of community in facing shared transnational problems such as climate change, migration and threats to democracy. The idea is to empower people to take the lead with new ways of doing politics, based on ‘community organising,’ in which individuals can be their own project manager, leading the change they want to see. The fundamental principle is that we all face the same problems, such as the rise of the far right throughout Europe, so issues must be addressed from a pan-European approach.
Spain’s system of proportional representation is one of the drivers of the move away from a two-party system. In the UK there has also been a move away from binary voting patterns where the electorate is either the elite or working-class, argues Arantza Gómez. People are tired of lies, unfulfilled promises and the politics of discontent. The green agenda, gender issues, migration and security concerns do not fit into a strict two-party political mould and are better represented through PR. Although coalitions can sometimes prove difficult and there is no perfect political system, they are becoming the norm across Europe, and need to be better understood in the UK.