EU election: idea of Europe remains powerful in Spain

The ruling Popular Party is suffering from the effects of the economic crisis. EPA/Alberto Martin

Very much like the rest of the European Union, two features define the European Parliament election in Spain: a lack of interest on the part of voters, and the supremacy of national issues over European ones.

A recent poll conducted by the national Centre for Sociological Research (CIS) shows that more than three quarters of Spaniards express little or no interest at all in following the news related to the election, and only 17% know the exact date of the election (the survey was taken in mid April).

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In spite of efforts to “Europeanise” these elections, the same poll showed that for each Spaniard saying that EU issues will be more important that domestic ones when casting her vote, there are six that say that national concerns will be more important – a historic low for this type of elections in Spain.

Source: CIS Pre-electoral surveys 2004, 2009 and 2014

In this context, the European discourse of the two largest parties: the Popular Party (PP) and the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE) remains obscure. The PP campaign tries to capitalise on the supposed good news on the economic front – employment destruction seems to have come to an end (although unemployment remains at 26%). Currently holding power in Spain, the PP and tries to stress the importance of keeping to economic policy commitments within the EU, with a strong defence of Spanish national interests in Brussels.

These messages seem to be aimed not at garnering popular support for its policies, but rather to mobilise its partisan supporters in an attempt to limit the punishment it will receive given the unpopularity of its administration.

Despite the fact that bad economic conditions and widespread discontent are usually good news for an opposition, the PSOE is likely to suffer even larger losses in this election. The causes are multiple and mostly domestic, but European issues are also probably to blame. The PSOE leadership and campaign message is generally seen as unambiguously pro-integration, dspite the fact that its support has grown significantly more Eurosceptic during the economic crisis.

Source: CIS Preelectoral Surveys, 2009 and 2014

The PSOE’ campaign has tried to solve this contradiction by promoting the idea that the EU has been governed by “the right” during the crisis. But it is difficult to sell this message when the president of the Eurogroup (the meeting of finance ministers of Eurozone countries) is a Socialist, the vice-president of the Commission in charge of economic and monetary affairs is a Spanish socialist, and the socialist candidate for the European Commission presidency is the current president of the European Parliament.

As the Spanish president, Mariano Rajoy, bluntly put in an interview, “at the end of the day, we are always the same people”, in reference to the fact that conservatives and socialists are jointly in charge of economic policy-making in Europe, and that even Angela Merkel governs with the support of social-democrats.

On top of that, rumours in Spain of a future grand coalition make it even more difficult for Socialists to present themselves as a clear alternative, both in Europe and in Spain, to the people who are responsible for the dismal state of the economy.

Two-party system under threat

Given the unpopularity of PP and PSOE, the fact that EP elections are often considered of “second-order” and the specificities of the electoral system for European elections in Spain (proportional representation in a large national electoral district of 54 seats with no electoral threshold), one would expect that this election will threaten the stability of the two-party system (or “bipartidismo”, as it is called in Spain) that has dominated Spanish politics during the recent democratic era.

If one looks at the polls it appears that small parties are set to make significant gains. United Left (IU) and the liberal-reformist and centralist Union Progress and Democracy (UPyD) might triple their representation, peripheral nationalists will consolidate or grow (particularly the secessionist Esquerra in Catalonia) and new parties might enter in the EP for the first time.

But in fact, most of the discontent towards PP and PSOE looks set to translate into voter apathy – turn-out is expected to be around 40%. About 60% of the votes cast look likely to end up with the two largest parties. So it looks as if reports of the demise of “bipartidismo” may be premature.

Source: EP Results 2009 and CIS Pre-electoral survey 2014.

In spite of this turbulence in the party system, Spain remains immune to the emergence of openly Eurosceptic and populist parties. This reflects how powerful and attractive the idea of Europe still is among the Spanish public, even in a context of growing pessimism towards the EU’s policies.