VOX: Spain’s Far Right Party Shakes Up Spanish Politics

In the recent years while witnessing the worrying rise of extreme nationalism all across Europe I, as a Spaniard, couldn’t help but feel a slightly selfish sense of relief, completely sure that this trend wouldn’t reach my home country. As a nation, we had decades of darkness and suffering under Franco’s dictatorship and I assumed all the cruelty of that regime was enough to make Spain immune to the advances of the extreme right. I was wrong. Vox, an ultra-conservative Spanish nationalist party, took 11 per cent of the vote in last December’s Andalusian elections. The 12 seats were the key to form a right coalition government with the right People’s Party (PP) and centre Ciudadanos that has ended 36 years of socialist rule in Spain’s most southern region.

It is the first time the extreme right has played any role in the formation of a Spanish government, regional or national, since Franco’s death in 1975. It would be wrong to believe that Vox is a result of the nostalgia for the old dictator. Their manifesto is simple and sounds familiar to other parts of Europe. It revolves around sovereignty, national identity and very conservative Catholic values. The party, created in 2013, is led by a former Basque parliament member, Santiago Abascal who in recent interviews has shared his enthusiasm and admiration for Donald Trump’s ‘America first’ stance and his will to control its borders and protect its identity and economy. Abascal is very adamant to distance himself from any similarities with Franco’s vision but he has certainly exploited the notion of defending Spain and its unity against the independent forces in Catalonia. The issue is still unresolved by the main parties and people’s disappointment in politics keeps growing. For those whose views on the Catalan secession are filled up with resent and hatred, Vox is rapidly becoming the answer as the defenders of the homeland and its promise to defend its unity whatever the cost might be.

Vox is a direct result of the main parties incompetence to make a stand against corruption within its members, combined with their failure to get any further in the reshaping of a country that needs to change, in order to accommodate the increasing needs of its different regions. Vox is not the answer to Spain’s problems. As much as they and their newfound voters constantly repeat the same old “we are neither extremist nor dangerous”, one only has to look at their social policies to realise how dangerous they are indeed. The party is against same-sex marriage and abortion and has launched vicious attacks on migrants and the Muslim community. They want undocumented migrants to be denied medical help in Spain and have also spoken of putting up a wall in the Spanish enclave cities of Ceuta and Melilla in North Africa as Trump wants to do with the Mexico border. In a Vox rally in Madrid, last October Santiago Abascal said: “The living Spain has awoken, thank God. Spain does not rise up randomly. A nation reacts when it has historical inertia, when there is blood coursing through its veins, and when it is aggravated, as Spain is being aggravated now.” Language from a time that should be confined to history. Whether Vox will keep rising remains to be seen. As it stands now it does look very likely they will be again a key in future regional elections across Spain. It has proven to be a useful tool for the Popular Party to gain power, but it is a fire, with Spain’s history, that shouldn’t be played with.

Socialist Sanchez can clense Spain’s rotten political scene

It was only last year when Pedro Sánchez, the new Spanish PM, won back his role as the leader of the Spanish Socialist Party (PSOE). No one in his party or anywhere in Spain could ever imagine that months later he would be named prime minister. The former right government were swamped by indignation from a Spanish society completely disgruntled by corruption cases in within the Popular Party.

Mariano Rajoy, who served as PM for seven years, struggled all this time to shield himself from the stain of corruption but was unable to endure the political anger after Spain’s highest criminal court found his party had benefited from an enormous and illegal contracts scheme, known as the Gürtel case. Mr Rajoy was forced out with a successful no-confidence motion and Pedro Sánchez now leads the Spanish government with just 84 deputies (176 are needed for a majority) and he is doing so despite being the first prime minister in Spain’s history who is not also a deputy in Congress.

Sánchez resigned from his seat two years ago because he refused to take part in Rajoy’s investiture session. He did not want to follow his party’s decision to abstain from the vote but he did not wish to vote against his party either. It was a draining and bloody feud that divided the Spanish Socialists deeply and saw Sánchez expelled as the leader of the PSOE.

It is obvious Sánchez has an iron will. He is proven to be resilient and perseverant when all the odds stood against him. He is going to need that will if he is to govern until 2020. In his first interview since his inauguration on June 2, Sánchez said that the decision not to call early elections is founded on the need to “normalise” the country’s political life but his opponents claim he is going to try to implement his own policies even though doesn’t have the parliamentary majority.

There is no rule for what should happen after a no-confidence motion but surely his first job should be trying to repair the social and institutional damage done by the corruption of the former PP government so we are ready for a more stable general election in the future. His time won’t be easy. The Catalan crisis is still unsolved. His government is going to have to accommodate the very different demands of the parties that backed his motion and in a party level, he needs to convince the socialist supporters that he is the right candidate for the job. PSOE is showing signs of recovering in the polls but still far away from the Popular Party despite all the corruption, despite everything else.

Internationally it is a good opportunity for Spain to find its place after years of non-existent presence from Mr Rajoy. A firm believer in the European Union, Sánchez has assembled a strongly pro-European cabinet to the delight of Brussels. His economic minister is a former budget general director for the European Commission and his foreign minister is a former head of the European Parliament.

The new government wants to push for deeper integration in Europe and sees France, more than Germany, as it’s best ally to deeply reform the migration policies and tackle the so much needed reform of the euro. Spain is looking forward to strengthening its position in the EU, especially with Brexit around the corner. The final goal is to show the EU that Spain can be a reliable member ready to become the voice of the European south. His orders to welcome in Valencia more than 600 refugees was not only a humanitarian duty but also an opportunity to show the EU his government is the complete opposite of Italy’s new populist leaders. A change of air in the Spanish rotten political scene. Only time will tell for how long the new prime minister will be able to hold onto power for but for now, it is good news to be able to smell something more than corruption in Spain.

Brexit: The rocky issue of Gibraltar

During the campaign of the Brexit referendum, very little or almost nothing was debated about the consequences of leaving the EU with respect to the British Overseas Territory of Gibraltar. One might think the importance of the fate of over 30,000 British citizens is minor compared to the outcome of a whole nation, but try to tell that to the Gibraltarians who voted to remain with an overwhelming 96% choosing to stay in the EU. This massive support to the Remain campaign cannot be read as an unconditional love to the EU and its values but more likely as an attempt to protect their own status quo.

 

Gibraltar’s economy is very strong. Many bookmakers and online gaming companies operate from the Rock due to their very favourable corporate tax regime. Tourism benefits from VAT free in goods and services and a special tax treatment for international business saw the growth of private banking and other branches of financial services. There is no surprise only 4% voted to leave the EU. The Gibraltarians voted indeed with their wallet and not with their heart knowing that an exit from the EU could jeopardize their financial stability.

 

About 13,000 people, 8,000 of them Spaniards, walk into Gibraltar to work each day. It’s estimated that Gibraltar spend around €500m a year on Spanish goods and services. Their non-official language is llanito, an English-Andalusian Spanish dialect unique to Gibraltar. Such is the depth of the relation forged in the area that the local trade unions and heads of commerce have constant meetings to highlight the importance of a smooth border and “a sensible, orderly and well-managed Brexit”.

 

It’s not a surprise that the common sense seen in the locals is nowhere to be seen in both Governments. Spain could use this opportunity to try to get Gibraltar back and fulfill an obsession that has lasted for centuries and if Madrid uses its veto in the Brexit negotiations to exclude Gibraltar from any Brexit deal between the EU and the UK, Gibraltarian authorities have threatened with rescinding the rights and protections enjoyed by Spanish and other EU nationals living and working in the territory. This outcome will be an immense disaster in the region, in particular to Gibraltar’s Spanish neighbours, the town of La Línea de la Concepción, which grew up on the trade from Gibraltar.

 

As we have seen in Northern Ireland, Governments are too quick to forget recent History. Twice have the Gibraltarians voted to stay British and in both occasions (1967 and 2002) by an impressive majority. Whether their reasons are economical or patriotic the llanitos wish to remain British so any attempt from the Spanish Government to get Gibraltar back will only add more anguish to an already delicate future post Brexit. Avoiding a hard border should be a priority. Under the dictatorship of Franco the border was permanently closed in 1967. He did not like the result of their referendum. Darkness grew in the area. Families were separated on either side. Everyone remembers the images of grandmothers meeting their grandkids over the fence. The economic consequences in the region were also extremely severe. Politicians might have forgotten the pain but the resentment is still palpable in the population and so is the fear to be isolated once again. The border was only reopened to pedestrians in 1983 and fully to vehicles ahead of Spain’s entry to the EU in 1985.

 

In an ironic twist the llanos face again the uncertainty of a future they voted vastly against. Their financial paradise is in danger and only time will tell how British they will remain if their status quo is compromised. The solution is not for Spain to try and regain the Rock, but to offer Gibraltar and the British Government a new diplomatic route towards a new and adventurous bilateral status. This could give the Gibraltarians the best of both worlds. That will require a huge amount of good will and imagination. An almost impossible task against the clock but one that is needed if we are to avoid history repeating itself.

The illusion of a soft Brexit must end

Jeremy Corbyn finally confirmed this week that the Labour party will support Britain to stay in a customs union after Brexit. The Labour leader has kept an extremely ambiguous semi silence since the Brexit referendum. This probably has to do a lot with his own euro sceptic beliefs but I suspect it is more to do with a finely calculated electoral strategy, to keep equally content those who voted to leave in the old industrial strongholds and those who voted to stay in. As a PM in waiting he has it easier than Theresa May. She has being juggling this divided nation since the referendum happened with her party in a perpetual state of war. Her weakness and her imprecisions come from her intention to please everyone and she is failing to do so with the world and especially the EU watching every single step.

Mr Corbyn has being juggling with exactly the same divisions but away from the relentless media focus. Both are making precisely the same mistake trying to see Brexit as an electoral opportunity instead of a question of state. Jeremy’s new found position is not a very plausible soft version of Brexit which is aimed only at the Government. It not a plan for the future of the country. It is a stratagem to bring down this incapable Tory government by splitting them even further.

It is time now for the main parties to stop disguising reality. There is no such thing as a soft Brexit. It is wrong to keep going on about the choice this country needs to make between a harder or softer version of leaving the EU. The real choice is staying in or leaving. There is no magic formula capable of pleasing everyone. Not even staying in a customs union will provide the perfect solution. Corbyn aims for a customs union where the UK will be able to have a say in future agreements between the EU and third parties which so far the EU bluntly refuses to accept.

On paper being a member of a customs union will be the best solution for the UK. You can have all the trade without the free movement or paying into the European Union chest or being supervised by the European court of justice (ECJ), and most importantly it will bring no hard border between the UK and Ireland. It is not that simple though. The EU has so far agreed to frictionless trade only for countries that have accepted free movement as members of the European Economic Area like Norway. The only example of a country outside the EU with which it has a customs deal is Turkey. It was signed with the hope that one day they would join the EU but as the deal stands now it is not an example of what the UK needs. Their agreement covers only goods and not services or finances and it does follows EU rules on production of goods. Brexit was voted to regain control of the countries own business so neither of these examples will suit this mandate. Same applies to the illusion that membership of a customs union outside the EU would free Britain from the jurisdiction of the ECJ. Something else will have to arbitrate disputes between Britain and the EU. The European Free Trade Association (EFTA) has been mentioned but EFTA does indeed follow ECJ rulings. The UK will end up following EU trade policy anyway to sell into the EU marketplace but with no power whatsoever to decide its current policies or any changes in the future.

So once you have faced all the facts it seems that a customs union will only work really for the Irish border issue. For the rest it seems a soft Brexit is merely a weapon against the Tories “Brexit means Brexit” as in fact it will leave the UK as close as possible to the EU without being one of its pillars anymore. Immediately the question pops up… why leave then? And so it all starts again. The dilemma this country is facing needs a second referendum. The main parties have proved incapable to look no// further than their own interest when it comes to the future of the country. Brexit means Brexit. No hard. No soft. Completely in or completely out. The final decision should be made by the people not the parliament. Whatever that decision might be. It cannot be worse that this utter nonsense.

Catalonian independence in a mess as Puigdemont remains absent

Over past two months, since the regional elections in Catalonia, and the narrative of the push for independence has taken a turn towards the most deluded surrealism. The same surrealism so loved in the art of an illustrious Catalan, Salvador Dali, but in this case it is driving the Catalan region to the point of no return.

The recent election saw Catalonia’s three secessionist parties secure a combined 70 seats in the regional parliament, two more than the 68 required for a majority in their 135-seat assembly. It was not a clear victory; if a victory at all as the unionist Ciudadanos party, was by far the most voted for party with 1.1 million votes (25.37%) compared to its nearest rival Junts per Catalunya, who won 940,000 seats (21.65%). However all the anti-independence parties (Ciudadanos, Popular Party and Socialists) together could not make up the required 68 seats.

After the recent demonstrations in Catalonia, one may think any ruling party would plan a new route that will lead them eventually to independence. Independence as a unilateral project has already failed and it will fail again, the Spanish state has demonstrated that it is able to stop independence, the EU fails to recognise the new state. It’s citizens who are living divided and fractured are growing both tired and weary.

It does come as a shock though that Carles Puigdemont will be the only candidate to be elected as the Catalan president, the same Carles who is currently in self-exile after failing to deliver independence for his homeland. Let’s not forget that Puigdemont fled Spain because he is facing trial for the serious charges of rebellion and sedition, whilst several of his former parliamentary colleagues are still in prison. However lets not forget that these charges have landed on Puigdemont’s lap for fulfilling a democratic mandate. He hasn’t shown any signs that he will respect the law and has taking no responsibility at all for his actions which caused Catalonia lose its self-government powers. “Between a prisoner and a president, I would rather be a president, because at least now I can get things done, but in prison I wouldn’t be able to,” he said recently in an interview with Catalunya Radio.

Catalan parliamentary lawyers have issued a report stating that chamber bylaws forbid remote appointments, as the candidate needs to be physically present at debate, but Mr Puigdemont keeps building up his international image to portray a martyr scorned by the Spanish government. He seriously believes he can run a country via Facetime from Brussels.
It is extremely worrying that no one in the secessionist camp can see how much damage Mr Puigdemont will inflict on their region if he get to be its president once more. First he needs to find a way to be a premier in exile, and if he manages to do so Madrid’s immediate answer will be to prolong its control over the Catalan region indefinitely.

The pursuit for a Catalan Republic is very valid but in their eagerness they have forgotten the other half of the country, those who are content with being both, Spanish and Catalan. A new tactic is needed. New blood. A push to try at least to re shape the Spanish nation into a more federal scenario where ideally Catalans of all creeds will be happy to live in.
Political forces in Span have been discussing, for a while, how to renovate the Spanish constitution, and have made their intention to include Catalan well known.

Nothing has changed

Tomorrow, the region of Catalonia is going to the polls to choose not only their new Government, but more importantly, to define themselves as a nation. It is impossible not to read the outcome of the referendum as a declaration of will from the Catalans who are expected to go to vote in record-breaking numbers. The contest has been simplified, and rightly so, between those determined to go ahead with their secessionist plans, against those who want to protect the unity of Spain. All the latest polls published by the Spanish press agree on how tight it is going to be. There are 135 seats in the Catalan parliament, which means that any party or bloc of parties will need at least 68 of those seats to hold a majority big enough in order to govern. According to all the vote intention surveys none of the blocs will reach that majority leaving their fate in the hands of Catalunya en Comu-Podem, the Catalan branch of the Spanish antisystem party Podemos. They opposed both to the application of the Article 155 and any kind of declaration of independence in the region and they have already declared they will not support either separatists or the so called constitutional parties.

Ahead in the polls parties wise is Ciudadanos. A young right party created in Cataluña back in 2006 and whose candidate, Ines Arrimadas, has managed to appeal with her strong stand against the secessionist to all those Catalans who just want their region back to normal after the crisis that saw them lose their autonomy. Behind Ciudadanos are the strongly pro-independence party, The Republican Left of Catalunya (ERC) led by Oriol Junqueras, who is currently in prison facing possible charges of rebellion for his role in the Declaration of Independence. With a possible 23% of the votes the ERC is the main independent force followed by Carles Puigdemont’s Junts per Cataluña. Mr Puigdemont is campaigning from Belgium and no longer under a European arrest warrant, but nevertheless still playing the martyr in this surreal battle for independence. His party keeps promising he will be back as the prodigal son of the Independence, but with the ongoing investigation over possible crimes of sedition, rebellion, and misuse of public funds, it seems that he won’t be returning home for Christmas anytime soon.

As we have witnessed in previous elections, polls are to be taken with a pinch of salt and only by Friday we will know how the Catalans have voted for sure. The fracture in their society is extremely deep and it will take a long time to heal. Once again this campaign has been riding more on emotions than in practicalities. The pro-independence parties haven’t explained why the declaration failed and neither have they proposed a well-studied plan to rectify mistakes and guarantee to their supporters they will get it right this time around. With the excuse of not wanting to go ahead with it because they feared a disproportional response from Madrid, they are making excuses for their own incompetence and madness. Truth is they were not ready for it. The backbone for their dreamed republic was still germinating. No financial, taxation or any other institutional structure in place. Just the dream. One would have thought they will be campaigning now explaining why they failed before and what have they done to rectify their previous mistakes. However, I am afraid this is not the case. Still the same old promises that it can happen, the EU will listen, the article 155 will be lifted and so on. The same can be said about the constitutional parties. They seemed pretty chuffed with themselves just stopping in their tracks the secessionists, with not much substance to explain what their project is for a nation who was put on the verge of collapsing by nationalism. There seems to be too much appealing to the heart and too many fire starters with no clue of what to do next.

Brexit Negotiations Hit A Dead End

Martin Luther King once said, “there comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but he must take it because conscience tells him it is right.”. I wonder if Theresa May and her cabinet deep inside know this is the time to start to position themselves for real and for once listen to other voices more than their own. We all have this sense of ambiguous calm regarding Brexit. The world hasn’t ended just yet and we are struggling with the same issues as before the Referendum. There has not been that massive Armageddon the pessimists were so adamant to predict. We all live in a Brexit denial. Denial for those who feel leaving the EU can’t come soon enough and for those who are spending a great amount of time holding on to the hopeless hope that Brexit can still be stopped.
This period all the way to Christmas will be crucial to determine the impact Brexit will inflict on the UK and in the EU territories, but I am afraid this Government needs to admit the mess they are in before any more progress can be made. May’s party is in turmoil and her cabinet cannot even agree on the only 3 things that both sides of the divorce are really keen on sorting out as soon as possible: how much the separation is going to cost, citizen’s rights, and Northern Ireland. May has promised to pay some money but refuses to give a final figure until the negotiations progress into trade talks. Unfortunately for the PM, failure to specify now how much and how the UK is going to settle its payments will be catastrophic. Brexit will stop being a pantomime to become an an extremely serious business and once we reach that point there will be no more living in denial for all of us. Damage will start.
As we have seen in Catalunya, just the thought of not being part of the EU if independence succeeded was enough to make almost 2000 businesses of all sizes to move to Spain. The impact was felt immediately. A messy and disorganised exit from the EU will have a similar effect in the UK. Instead of minimising the impact of Brexit you will get the opposite effect, multiplying the damage. It is beyond belief the current Government hasn’t explained with real figures the economical impact Brexit will have in a deal or in a no deal situation. The EU has been working on the 2020 budget because they know their losses after the UK leaves. Exactly 10,000 million of euros less every year. Give or take 16% less resources available for their regional programs. They are in no denial of the difficult times ahead. There is team called ‘Brexit preparedness group’ studying and preparing for the bumpy road ahead after the UK exit. Meanwhile what has this Government been doing? Rebelling against each other whilst promising us a land of opportunity and hope.
We are at a dead end. The EU is not bluffing. At the beginning of December Mrs May needs to send back Mr Davis to Brussels with a bit more than words of good will. The EU might have not been saying it out loud, but what they really want to know is what the UK Government expects to get from Brexit, because to negotiate everything to remain almost the same, it makes people wonder why leave then? We are leaving, on the 29th March 2019. A date that makes Brexit as inevitable as death or taxes. No vote on the parliament can change that date which makes any debate on the deal a slightly pointless one. With a deal or without one we can only hope the Government’s vision for the country Is as full of detail and contingency plans as it is full of dreams and exciting possible enterprise. Gandhi said, “the future depends on what you do today”, well at this moment in time seeing what this government is doing I rather stay in this limbo for a little bit longer.