Spain’s general election matters not just for the country’s future but also for the future of Europe.

Spain’s general election matters not just for the country’s future but also for the future of Europe.

Gordon Brown | Spain’s general election could pave the way for the formation of its first far-right government since the death of Franco. The alliance between the conservative Popular Party and the hyper-nationalist Vox will embolden extremist nativist movements throughout Europe.

By Gordon Brown*

Spain’s general election Sunday matters not just for the country’s future but also for the future of Europe.

A defeat for socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez would likely propel the extreme right-wing Vox party from back street demagogues to parliamentary power, and if, as is widely expected, Vox and the Popular Party (PP) enter into a coalition government, it will mark the end of Spain’s long aversion to far-right politicians, which has endured since the death of Generalissimo Francisco Franco in 1975.

Should Vox become part of Spain’s government, its chilling, hyper-nationalist, anti-LGBTQ, anti-feminist, and anti-immigrant agenda would push Europe one step further into a right-wing abyss. The capitulation to Vox by Spanish center-right conservatives, who have traditionally rejected alliances with the far-right but are now desperate to return to power, would reverberate across the continent, particularly given that Spain recently assumed the presidency of the Council of the European Union.

This alignment between Spain’s conservative and far-right parties has resulted in an election campaign dominated by culture-war issues. Lurid Vox propaganda has demonized immigrants, gays, and feminists, portraying Sánchez and his party as enemies of the state. Isabel Díaz Ayuso, the PP president of Madrid, has labeled her political opponents “communists.” Seeking to evoke memories of the anticlerical violence throughout Spain before and during the Spanish Civil War, she even accused the opposition of wanting to burn down Catholic churches.

In reply, Sánchez has characterized the upcoming election, which follows the Socialist Party’s poor showing in local and regional elections in May, as an existential battle for the future of Spanish democracy. And now, in the last few days of the campaign, the socialist former Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero has raised the stakes, claiming that “the center-right no longer exists,” only the ultra-right, and that having abandoned the center, PP “has gone off the map.” Ayuso has already responded in kind to such attacks: “When they call you a fascist, you know you’re doing something right.”

In addition to targeting civil rights, Spanish rightists have set their sights on rejecting regional autonomy. For years Vox has proposed banning the Catalan and Basque nationalist parties, and there is a genuine risk that after years of relative calm under Sánchez’s leadership, a divided Spain could witness a resurgence of separatist, secessionist movements.

The right’s embrace of the culture wars is a deliberate strategy to obscure the threat that their neoliberal economic policies pose to living standards and social equity. The PP’s agenda, which is taken straight from the Reagan-Thatcher playbook, seeks to abolish Spain’s current wealth tax, slash the personal income tax, privatize the country’s utilities, and cut social security. When former UK Prime Minister Liz Truss attempted to implement a similar outdated agenda in 2022, she nearly tanked the British economy.

At the same time, the PP’s focus on culture-war issues is aimed at diverting attention from the economic achievements of Sánchez and his coalition as well as his green agenda. Since taking office in 2018, Sánchez’s government has made significant strides in reducing high levels of inequality and poverty in Spain.

Moreover, Sánchez has successfully brokered an inflation-stabilizing agreement on wages, endorsed by both unions and employers, calling for a 4% wage increase in 2023 and 3% increases in 2024 and 2025, and, currently, the country has the highest growth rate and one of the lowest inflation rates in the eurozone.

If re-elected, Sánchez would focus on housing, which he views as Spain’s “great national cause” for the next decade. He has also proposed new health-care guarantees, including maximum waiting periods of 60 days for specialized outpatient consultations and 15 days for psychological care for teenagers and children under the age of 15.

Spain is far from the only European country where the rise of the extreme right poses a threat. Across the continent, the growing popularity of far-right parties has driven previously moderate parties to embrace extreme positions.

In Germany, the nativist Alternative für Deutschland, now rising in the polls, is pushing the Christian Democratic Union and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union, further to the right. And in Finland, the ultraconservative Finns Party has formed a coalition government with the center-right, forcing it to pursue tough anti-immigration policies. A similar pattern can be observed in other Western European countries from Sweden to Austria, and it may appear in next year’s European Parliament elections. And, of course, Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, leader of the Brothers of Italy party, is further right than any leader the country has had since Benito Mussolini.

The emerging symbiosis between Europe’s far-right movements has been supported by wealthy allies in the United States. In September 2022, representatives from 16 European nativist parties, including Poland’s ruling Law and Justice, Slovak populists led by former prime minister Robert Fico, and former Slovenian Prime Minister Janez Janša’s far-right movement, gathered in Miami for the National Conservatism Conference, where the keynote speaker was Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who is also a Republican presidential candidate and Donald Trump impersonator.

The Florida conference bore a striking resemblance to another far-right summit organized by the same group and held at Rome’s Grand Hotel Plaza in February 2020, just before the COVID-19 pandemic. Hoping to establish a far-right alternative to the annual World Economic Forum meeting in Davos, attendees championed nationalism, tradition, and the nuclear family as bulwarks against “globalist” attempts to destroy Europe’s countries and their respective cultures. It was during this gathering that Meloni outlined her agenda, which ultimately resonated with Italian voters, for “defending national identity and the very existence of the nation-states as the sole means of safeguarding people’s sovereignty and freedom.”

Ironically, each member of this unlikely global coalition of anti-globalists claims to speak for their own country’s unique cultural heritage and their desire to be free from international entanglements while simultaneously using identical us-versus-them xenophobic rhetoric to stoke nativist fears. It has been 175 years since Karl Marx heralded a specter haunting Europe. Today, however, it is not the specter of communism, as Marx had hoped, but that of populist nationalism. The outcome of Spain’s election could highlight the gravity and urgency of the threat.

*Gordon Brown, a former prime minister of the United Kingdom, is Chair of Education Cannot Wait’s High-Level Steering Group.

© PS, 2023.

Previous guest essays:

Economic Statecraft for the Green Transition
The European Union has recently undergone a “geopolitical awakening,” with member states recognizing the need for greater sovereignty to ensure their security, not only in terms of defense, but also with regard to the economy and, more broadly, Europe’s vision of the world.
The Return of EU Enlargement
With Ukraine and Moldova having been recognized as candidates for accession to the European Union, the next European Commission is expected to make enlargement one of its top priorities. After a decade in which enlargement had stalled, the EU is now poised to revive its most successful policy ever.