In advance of the upcoming UK general election, which is set to define British politics for a generation, the recent Spanish election has produced a long-anticipated coalition between the Socialist Party (PSOE) and its left-wing rival Podemos. To discuss the challenges facing the Spanish left as it attempts to govern within confines of the EU’s fiscal compact, as well as the significance of Vox’s surge, journalist Eoghan Gilmartin sat down with Podemos co-founder and MEP Miguel Urbán.

“This government will be the best vaccine against the extreme-right.” So claimed Unidas Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias after he reached an initial agreement to form a coalition with the centre-left Socialist Party on 12 November. The deal was signed two days after Spain’s second general election in six months – and its fourth in four years – which saw a historic surge for the hard-right Vox party and high abstention among left-wing voters.

Talks over a more detailed program for government are ongoing while the PSOE leader Pedro Sánchez still needs to secure the votes of the Catalan and Basque parties for his investiture vote. Yet it looks like Spain could have its first left-wing coalition since the Second Republic in the 1930s by as early as Christmas.

“You can be serious and left-wing too.”

The response from the EU and Spain’s corporate elites has been swift. Last week the European Commission’s Financial Chief Pierre Moscovici called for new structural reforms in the face of a possible economic slowdown in Spain as well as 6.2 billion euro in further cuts in 2020. His message to the future government: “You can be serious and left-wing too.” Meanwhile the Head of the CEOE (Spain’s business association) warned that “ideological formulas (for a government), rather than practical ones, would not be beneficial for the economy or businesses.”

Under pressure from these economic and political elites, and forced to operate within the constraints of the EU’s fiscal compact, the coalition face an uphill battle from the beginning. Also in contrast to 2015 when a pact between PSOE and the radical left Podemos was first muted, the balance of power within the coalition will be tilted very much in favour of the establishment Socialists. Four years ago the gap between the two forces was only 19 seats with Pablo Iglesias’s party securing 69 seats. Now after four gruelling years in the institutions and internal splits, Unidas Podemos finds itself on 35 MPs – in comparison to PSOE’s 120.

According to Miguel Urbán, Unidas Podemos’ position in government can only be harnessed to secure social gains if it is backed by serious mobilisation in the streets.

‘Enormous challenges’

EG: Governing with the PSOE is going to present enormous challenges for Unidas Podemos. The initial pre-agreement does not specify much in terms of policy but how would you evaluate the deal? And what are the risks and opportunities for Unidas Podemos in this new scenario?

MU: This agreement was far from Sánchez’s first preference and only came about thanks to a serious miscalculation. He called November’s repeat election believing PSOE would improve upon its result in last April’s poll and so be able to either govern alone in minority or via some sort of governing pact with the [liberal to right] Ciudadanos or the conservative Partido Popular [PP].

The electoral result, however, ruled out these options. The Socialists lost 700,000 votes, and three seats, meaning it was not going to be able to form a single-party government. At the same time, Ciudadanos’ vote collapsed – eliminating it as a viable coalition partner – while Vox’s surge meant that the PP could not risk a governing pact. Such an agreement would have left Vox free to make further inroads into its right flank.

Instead leading figures in the PP suggested the party would only be willing to abstain and allow the PSOE to form a government in exchange for Sánchez’s head. It was at this point that Sánchez turned to his left. It was a massive U-turn – going from claiming he would have “sleepless nights” if there were members of Podemos in his cabinet to offering Pablo Iglesias a deputy premiership within a matter of months.

Between Brussels’ straightjacket…

In terms of the agreement’s implications, we still do not have a program for government – only a rather short declaration that lays out various priorities for the proposed coalition. But even in this document there are a number of concerning elements. First we have agreed to “budgetary control”, which in itself is a rather ambiguous term. But what this means in practice for the EU was spelled out yesterday by the European Commission, which is demanding that any future increases in revenue in Spain go towards paying down the national debt.

Whatever is finally agreed between Sánchez and Iglesias, ultimately the future government will still be tied to the fiscal compact it has with Brussels. Indeed the European Commission and the Troika will have its own representative within the cabinet – the Economy Minister Nadia Calviño. She was formerly the Director General for Budget in the European Commission and will now become the First Deputy Premier, with Iglesias holding the position of Second Deputy Premier.

…and the challenge from within

A second point of concern is Catalonia. The agreement talks about working towards improved “social co-existence” within “the parameters of the constitution”.  But the Catalan crisis is not one of coexistence but rather is political in nature and can only have political solutions. This is what Podemos has always defended – the need to recognise the Catalan people’s right to self-determination.

This is not something that can be ignored. Even for the coalition to proceed, it needs the parliamentary support of the Catalan sovereigntists. It won’t have a majority otherwise and so Sánchez will need to make at least some concessions to the Catalan left.

EG: What policy commitments need to be in the final programmatic agreement that were not in this initial statement?

MU: There are a series of measures that we have always put on the table when negotiating with PSOE, such as repealing Spain’s gag law and neoliberal labour reforms, as well as introducing rent controls, an anti-eviction law and a new tax on the banks so as to recuperate the 60 billion euro lost in rescuing them in 2011. And more generally we need progressive tax reform – targeting the wealthiest elements in society so as to strengthen the welfare state and ensure things like our public pension system are protected.

All these measures have been supported by Sánchez when the PSOE was either in opposition or during election campaigns but never in government. They were glaring omissions from the initial pre-agreement and so we will have to see if these make into the final coalition deal.

Confronting adversaries, domestic and international

EG: In terms of advancing such progressive policies where will the greatest resistance come from – Brussels or Spain’s corporate sector?

MU:  Our adversaries are always the same – the oligarchies and elites who govern without standing in elections. These includes the European Commission and the Troika but also the CEOE [Spain’s Business Association], Banco Santander and the IBEX 35 financial sector. My concern, though, is that if we confront these elites, can we consider the Socialist Party to be our ally in this fight? I don’t think it is. It has been a fundamental part of Spain’s establishment for decades.

Spain’s corporate elites are likely to fiercely resist any reforms but Sánchez can expect a certain degree of breathing space from the EU, at least in the beginning. It cannot afford to be as aggressive as it was with the Syriza government in Greece – not least because a PSOE-led coalition is a much more moderate prospect. With the EU facing problems of governability and instability across the Union, it needs administrations that it can work with.

The question is how long this will last. All the indications suggest we are heading towards a new economic crisis. In such a context, with Brussels no doubt demanding renewed austerity so as to socialise the losses, Unidas Podemos will find itself in a difficult position. It will be the junior partner in this coalition and will need a strong left-wing presence in the streets that is able to leverage pressure against the government and push it to complete its programme.

Support the extra-parliamentary left

We need to strengthen the autonomy of social movements and the extra-parliamentary left so that it is not only the oligarchic powers that are making their weight felt. Otherwise we risk leaving the field open for the extreme-right to channel popular anger and capitalise on a future crisis.

EG: What impact can the coalition have within the wider EU where the broader trend over the last decade, despite some exceptions, has been a clear drift to right?

MU: We are the junior partner in this coalition and so our ability to influence the positions that Spain takes in the European Council will be limited – as will our impact on policy debates that are ongoing within the Commission. Similarly it is the PSOE who will be representing the government in other key bodies like the Eurogroup [made up of Eurozone finance ministers] while in terms of foreign or trade policy, these will almost exclusively be determined by the Socialists as well.

Instead the immediate challenge for Unidas Podemos is going to be how to respond to the budgetary impositions from Brussels. It is important to remember that Pedro Sánchez voted in 2011 for the change in the Spanish constitution which enshrined the ideas of budgetary stability and the prioritising of debt repayment on the same level as other constitutional principles. This constitutional reform, which is not specifically Spanish but rather a European imposition, has not been up for debate in the coalition negotiations – even though it was one of the key demands around which Podemos initially organised.

A new challenge: the far-right party Vox

EG: The other major development coming out of the elections was the surge for the extreme-right Vox party, which became the third largest party winning 15.3 percent of the vote. You have just published a book on the xenophobic party. So how would you explain its surge and where do you place Vox within the wider European extreme-right?

MU: We normally view the extreme-right in Europe as if it was a single political family and so to understand Vox a lot of people simply look towards Marine Le Pen as a comparison. But I think it is more useful to look to Kaczyński’s Law and Justice Party in Poland, Viktor Orbán in Hungry or even Bolsonaro in Brazil.

Whereas Le Pen and Salvini push a more populist line around social protectionism, Vox is an ultra-neoliberal organisation and profoundly conservative in moral and cultural terms. Its roots can be traced to the neo-conservative movement in Spain that was founded at the turn of the century by the likes of [former PP Prime Minister] José María Aznar and his FAES think-tank. This is where Abascal and Vox’s other leaders come from.

Similar to Bolsonaro and the Brazilian dictatorship, Vox has re-appropriated a certain Francoist mythology – reformulating it for a contemporary context. It talks, for example, about the need for a new “reconquest” of Spain – connecting this old Francoist trope with contemporary Islamophobia.

‘Radicalisation of the Spanish Right’

In this respect Vox is the expression of a certain radicalisation of the Spanish Right. Whereas Salvini and Le Pen have succeeded in winning over ex-left-wing voters – normally after a long period in abstention – and in channelling a more generalised anti-establishment rage, Vox has not. Its breakthrough has been based on radicalising the existing right-wing vote around questions like Catalonia, immigration and opposition to the feminist and LGBT movements. When you look at the polling data, it is incredible how few votes transferred between the left and right in the last elections.

This also explains why they have no interest in cultivating a more popular image for themselves- why for them being posh and aristocratic is not a problem. The party’s leadership is focused primarily on this dispute over the right-wing of the political field. And so for example it openly boosts that it has met with executives from the City of London –explaining that it has reassured them they had nothing to worry about from Vox’s institutional advance.

This is not something Le Pen would ever do but Vox has no interest in appearing anti-establishment or a threat to the status quo. It also does not question the EU’s existence in anyway. It is not so much Eurosceptic as euro-reformist.

However it is also true that in the final days of the campaign they began to deploy a certain social rhetoric but one which was more reminiscent of Spanish fascism, as well as more recent neo-nazi groups like Hogar Social. One example of this was when Vox ended up in a polemic with the pop star Rosalía after she tweeted “Fuck Vox”. Their response was to post a picture of her in a private jet with the message: “The only people who do not need the homeland are the rich.” This phrase comes from Ramiro Ledesma, one of the main theorists of Spanish fascism in the 1930s.

We will have to see if the party will now try to incorporate more of this type of rhetoric going forward, but will probably depend on the more Falangist sectors within the party gaining greater weight.

‘Worst expectations’: The EU institutions

EG: You have spent five years now in the European Parliament. What has your experience been like there and what have you learnt about the EU from inside its institutions?

MU: Unfortunately it has confirmed my worst expectations. The Parliament has no real say in the major decisions being taken at a European level. It lacks any means of oversight or control over the European Central Bank and the Eurogroup which together decide the economic policy within the Eurozone. Also the balance of power within the Parliament leans very much to the right.

This has been an institutional system that has been in crisis for the last decade – with Brexit as just one further example of this.

‘Also a space for building alliances’

My time here, though, has also confirmed the idea that the European Parliament can operate as an important platform to ensure greater exposure for certain causes and social struggles. It can also act as a space from which to build alliances between various radical forces from across the continent.

We have to not only avoid a naive pro-EU stance that embraces this elite construct but also the dead-end of identitarian nationalism. If we are to construct an alternative to neoliberalism, which will begin with disobeying the structures being imposed from Brussels, this cannot be done from Greece or Spain alone but will require coordination, however difficult and uneven.

How can we question the existing basis of the European Union without questioning the necessity of Europe? This has been part of what we have been grappling with during the last few years.

by Eoghan Gilmartin

Originally published on 27 November 2019 at as part of the In historical thunder and lightning series which examined the Impact of Brexit.

About the author: Eoghan Gilmartin is a journalist and writer based in Madrid who writes about Spanish politics for a range of left-wing outlets. Miguel Urbán is an MEP, co-founder of Podemos and author of El viejo facismo y la nueva derecha radical [The old facism and the new radical right] (2015).