Spanish election shows there’s hope yet for Europe

Spanish voters demonstrated their maturity. They were able to discern between fear mongering and reality.
Sunday 05/05/2019
Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez, of the Socialist Workers’ Party, speaks to  supporters while celebrating the result in Spain’s general election in Madrid, April 28.         (Reuters)
Welcome tonic. Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez, of the Socialist Workers’ Party, speaks to supporters while celebrating the result in Spain’s general election in Madrid, April 28. (Reuters)

The entry of the Vox party into the Spanish Congress following the April 28 election — the first time a right-wing group has done so in Spain since the 1980s — dominated international headlines.

Vox garnered 10% of the popular vote, setting off alarms for Spain’s centrist politicians and foreign nationals but also for pro-migrant groups around Europe. However, the real talking point of the Spanish election ought to have focused on the victors.

At a time when the rise of the right has become a trend across much of Europe, Spanish voters showed their refusal to yield. The victory of the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party, a left-wing socialist party, showed that not the entirety of Europe has transformed into a playground for far-right zealots.

Spain has persistently and successfully fought off the Europe-wide slide to the right in three recent national elections over the past four years.

Bearing in mind that right-wing sentiment around the continent has been tied to increasing inward immigration flows, it’s a remarkable achievement, especially when considering that Spain accepted more foreign migrants than any other European country last year. Take, for example, how, when all other Mediterranean countries refused to let the Aquarius rescue boat, carrying 600 migrants, dock last June, Spain opened its doors.

What has stopped Spain from turning the way of Sweden, Germany or Hungary? What’s its secret?

Part of the reason Spain has withstood the sensationalist, anti-immigrant rhetoric is because it boasts a shared — if sometimes combative — history with Muslim-majority countries and empires that goes back centuries.

That doesn’t tell the whole story. For decades, Spain has attracted immigrants from Latin America and sunseekers from northern Europe. It is home to more foreign-born people as a percentage of its population than even the United States, a country that, a 2017 poll indicated, one-in-five of all migrants would move to if they could.

More than one-third of foreign-born nationals living in Spain are from Latin America. Some conservatives in the United States claim that Spain succeeded in integrating immigrants from there because of shared cultural and skill sets, even suggesting that those attempting to seek asylum in America should try Spain instead.

That’s a half-baked argument. The people fleeing to Spain from the Middle East and North and sub-Saharan Africa have much in common with those from Central America in the 1980s. They, too, were running from murderous regimes and failing economies.

And while the Vox party’s leadership used inciteful anti-immigrant language on the campaign trail, it’s failed to gain much traction even as the performance of Spain’s economy languishes far behind the likes of Germany or Sweden.

None of this means that immigrants can expect a free ride or that Spain constitutes some kind of utopia. Nor can it be ignored that more than 2.5 million people voted for the anti-immigrant Vox party.

This is a party whose election campaign used the provocative slogan: “The Reconquista will begin in the lands of Andalusia.” Its rise is clearly cause for concern for liberals and centrists throughout Europe.

Incidents of Islamophobia are on the rise in Spain (as elsewhere) and vast sections of southern Spain face long-standing high unemployment and depressed wages, meaning the conditions for right-wing growth are in place.

Yet the underlying reason for the Vox party’s comparative rise has little to do with immigrants. It is, instead, tied to events in Catalonia, where separatists positioning for independence fuelled a nationalist backlash among Spanish voters. In addition, the Vox party took votes from the centre-right People’s Party because the latter has been scandalised by corruption allegations.

The prospect of Catalan independence has enveloped Spain in its biggest crisis for 40 years. If nationalist politicians succeed in further gains in future polls, it will be because of what’s happening in Barcelona, not because Spain is accepting more refugees and migrants.

Spanish voters demonstrated their maturity. They were able to discern between fear mongering and reality. That, in an age of sensationalism and Brexit hyperbole, is a welcome tonic for the continent as a whole. Let’s hope it spreads.

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