Between Two Nationalisms

The Spanish Challenge

Breathe easy. Spain’s Socialist leader, Pedro Sánchez, has won a second term in office.  This is the best possible outcome of the July election. Not just for Spain but also for Europe.

The anti-Meloni: Pedro Sánchez.

If the centre-right Partido Popular (PP) had won by a more significant margin, it would have formed a government with a fascist party.

Vox would have been the first such party in government since 1977 and would have reinforced far-right EU regimes in Finland, Hungary and Italy.

The question remains as to whether this will be a pyrrhic victory.

For some weeks, it has been clear that the only coalition allowing Sanchez to retain his seat would include the left fringe, Movemiento Sumar, and parties of the separatist fringe in the País Vasco and Catalunya.

This last was the most problematic aspect of Sánchez’s victory and might still prove to be so.

The two main Catalan parties, Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya and Junts per Catalunya, made their price amnesty for hundreds of supporters jailed or on the run since the failed bid for independence in 2017.

These included Junts’ leader, the former journalist Carles Puigdemont, who has spent most of the intervening period in Belgium, sometimes as an MEP, sometimes as a semiprivate citizen.

Puigdemont has also had the occasional run-in with the authorities when he ventured beyond the Belgian border, in Germany in 2018 and again in Italy in 2021.

This presented Sánchez and the PSOE with a difficult choice.

Catalan separatism is not terribly popular in the rest of Spain, either on the far right or the left.

Conservatives tend to espouse the view that Catalunya is an integral part of Spain, and the influence of this view carries into the political centre.

For the left, the issue is less the preservation of the imagined (though by no means imaginary) community of Spain and more about the question of who is promoting the split.

Catalunya is one of the most economically dynamic regions in the country.

From the left’s perspective, the drive for Catalan autonomy has less to do with an upsurge in national consciousness and more with keeping profits from being lost to the central government.

Still, Sumar chief Yolanda Díaz knows on which side the proverbial bread is buttered.

Her party made it clear that it would be willing to accept movement on reductions to the work day and increasing the minimum wage as incentives to join a coalition with Sánchez’s Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE).

In early October, a spokesman for Sumar told reporters that amnesty was “not an issue where we have disagreements at the moment”.

The choice was clear: either live with the unpalatable consequences of acceding to the demands of the Catalan parties or face new elections in January.

There, another danger lurks. The People’s Party is a relatively straightforward group by the standards of European conservatism.

In most important respects, it is comparable to the German Christian Democratic Union or the British Tories. But Vox is another matter entirely.

It is not quite fifty years since Spain drew a line under Franco’s dictatorship with the so-called Pacto Olvido (“pact of forgetting”).

Spanish fascism has cast a long shadow over the country’s political right, and the general feeling is that support for PP was diluted in the recent elections by their proximity to Vox.

Support for the PP was also diluted by a scandal that came to light shortly before the election.

PP leader Alberto Feijóo’s reputation was damaged by a photo that emerged of him spending recreational moments with a known drug dealer.

The fact that the picture was some thirty years old didn’t prevent it from exerting downward influence on the PP’s electoral fortunes.

Still, the PSOE was unwilling to subject itself to the vagaries of another general election, and Vox’s stock has been on the rise for the last few years.

There was no guarantee that an even larger proportion of voters might overcome their distaste at Vox’s fascist stylings. At the same time, the shelf life of scandals such as the one that blighted Feijóo’s campaign is notoriously short.

The question raised by this is whether the PSOE erred in backing one variety of ethno-nationalism (Catalan) to fend off another (Vox). Only time will tell.

But how things are shaking out in Spain makes clear that ethno-nationalism continues to exert immense power over European politics.

This is of particular interest in the case of Spain, where, much like in France, a number of non-Spanish nationalities are comprised within the Spanish state.

The history of movements against nationalist centralisations in the Basque country is well known.

For decades, the Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (ETA) built itself a position as the most feared purveyor of armed militant groups in Europe (with the possible exception of the IRA).

Catalan resistance to the centralising efforts of the Spanish state has generally been less violent, even in the era of Franco, when considerable force was brought to bear to smash any element of Catalan national feeling.

The rise of 21st-century Catalan nationalism has had less to do with grassroots interest in cultural separatism than with the need of elites in Catalunya to find a basis for appropriation of economic and political power.

At the other end of the spectrum is Vox, the Spanish cognate of groups like Germany’s Alternative für Deutschland and Giorgia Meloni’s Fratelli d’Italia, functioning in a culture in which fascism is not so marginalised.

The PSOE’s somewhat unpopular deal with the Catalan separatists creates the impression that Spanish voters will be confronted with the choice of a nationalism that wants to dismember the state or one that wishes to bring it together.

Writing about the recent results of the Polish election, where the Law and Justice Party suffered a major defeat (garnering only 35% of the vote), Jan-Werner Müller argued for a change in the narrative.

While much of the talk about populism has characterised it as a movement from below, Müller contends it is more a creation of political elites.

In the Spanish context, this has put the left in conflict with elite-driven parties promoting nationalism to encourage the middle and lower classes to ignore their economic and political interests.

The other side of the coin is that the PSOE didn’t have many alternatives.

A further point made by Müller is that national populist parties in power tend to have an easier time building support for their governments.

Müller’s prime example is Hungary, where the original rise of Orbán’s Fidesz party resulted from protest voting.

Once in power, Fidesz could use the state’s resources to strengthen its position.

In this light, the challenge for the PSOE is clear.

Conceding power to an alliance between the PP and Vox creates a significant danger of using the Spanish state to prevent the regeneration of the left.

While Poland presents a counter-example to this, it should be noted the PiS was in power in Poland for the better part of a decade, and their political downfall was, at least in part, a product of their own bungling rather than the positive actions of their opponents.

The PSOE must do two things.

The first is to build strength in Catalunya and other potentially restive regions to strengthen a Spanish state based on a federalist principle.

This offers the best prospect of rebutting the group’s elite-driven populism.

The second is to take steps to strengthen the integrity of party organisations. All too often, the political prospects of the PSOE have been derailed by scandal.

In the current, highly polarised situation of Spanish politics, any scandal presents a hostage given to fortune, as the PP discovered most unfortunately.

The situation of the PSOE reflects the condition of parties of the moderate left across Europe.

Confronted by nationalism, for which politics is about the sanctity and survival of the nation, the challenge to social democracy is to promote equal justice for all, not just heterosexual, white Christians.

The tenuous balance struck by the PSOE between Spain’s two nationalist projects has given it breathing room to govern for the time being.

What remains to be seen is if this can be converted into a project that moves beyond obsessions with the nation-state.

Photograph courtesy of PSOE. Published under a Creative Commons license.