Spain’s New Culture War – European Council on Foreign Relations

After the longest suspended parliament in its recent history and a new general election, Spain finally has a new government. Pedro Sánchez will stay at La Moncloa, the prime minister’s residence, but it’s hard to say how long. He is counting on the smallest majority ever to inaugurate a government in the Spanish Congress – 167 votes against 165, with 18 abstentions. Even though he has formed a coalition government (the first since democracy was restored in 1978), Sánchez can only rely on the combined 155 seats held by his socialist party and Pablo Iglesias’ Podemos, making him dependent on the support from eight other parties. . Given that no previous Spanish government has needed the support of ten parties to pass legislation, this adds an element of instability to its leadership.

But Sánchez’s problems don’t end there. To establish this small majority, he won the abstention of two toxic parties: Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya (ERC) – a left-wing Catalan independence group led by Oriol Junqueras, who is currently serving a prison sentence for sedition – and Basque EH Bildu , the political arm of the former terrorist organization Euskadi Ta Askatasuna, which killed more than 850 people. Sánchez won the abstention from the ERC by signing a document promising to open a new phase of dialogue with the Catalan separatists and possibly to carry out a consultation with the Catalan people. The fact that the document does not limit the talks to the 1978 Constitution or define their objectives – and that it speaks of a “political conflict”, a main demand of the separatists – has created a political storm. Indeed, even some socialist leaders argue that Sánchez sold the Constitution for a handful of votes (he rejects these accusations). The document is sufficiently ambiguous to support the arguments of both parties.

Sánchez is now weaker than he was in April, when he failed to form a government coalition with Podemos.

In any case, this investiture session revealed that Sánchez is now weaker than he was in April, when he failed to form a government coalition with Podemos. His expectation that he would crush Iglesias and win a majority in another election proved misguided. His risky bet also backfired in the sense that, during the election campaign, he made strong commitments to uphold the Constitution and fight against separatism (with the motto “Ahora España”, or “Now the Spain”). Due to his U-turn on these issues, he lost his credibility and exacerbated his weakness.

Unfortunately, this eventful nomination session will not end with the government’s approval vote. There is at least one area in which Spain is profoundly different from the rest of Europe. While elsewhere on the continent, culture wars typically revolve around European integration, foreign policy, immigration – and moral issues such as LGBT rights, abortion and gender – the Spain maintains a broad consensus on these topics. The most emotional divisions between Spanish parties and voters emerge in areas such as national identity, the Constitution, the monarchy and the legacy of the Franco regime. When controversies around these topics are dormant and the 1978 consensus holds (albeit uncertain), Spanish elites can make the most of a country with broad consensus in their dealings with other states. But, when these controversies resurface, Spain faces many of the same problems as other European countries: political polarization, institutional weakness, media bias and public opinion dominated by angry leaders on social media.

Today, the inauguration of the most fragmented parliament since the 1979 elections will usher in a period of culture war centered on national identity. This will probably have two main consequences for Spain’s foreign policy. Firstly, if foreign policy has suffered from the need to ensure Spain’s economic survival under the conservative government of Mariano Rajoy, the Catalan mess will consume a lot of energy in the same way, as the Spanish parties continue their fights at home within the European institutions. This process has already begun: the European Court of Justice recently ruled that Junqueras and Carles Puigdemont, the former president of the Catalan government, could sit as MEPs – a decision whose implications in the European Parliament are disputed by the People’s Party and Ciudadanos .

Second, although there are indications that Podemos leaders will not control any powerful ministry – which should ensure the continuity of foreign and defense policy – rising tensions in Bolivia, the Middle East or Venezuela could provoke a clash between the opposing visions of foreign affairs held by the Socialists and Podemos. This will likely weaken the international credibility of the Spanish government. Spain will therefore still try to complete their return to the international scene, which Sánchez began in June 2018, but they will have to do so with much greater instability at home.

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