Chris Bambery: Spain: EU 'liberal democracy' has failed, neo-liberalism re-mobilises fascism

Co-author of Catalonia Reborn, Chris Bambery examines the broader political and economic context behind Spain’s trials of Catalan political prisoners, which began on Tuesday [13 February]

This article was first published on and edited by the Brave New Europe website.

NOT LONG AGO Spain was seen as a model EU state. Political stability was guaranteed with a two party system established in 1982 in operation with government office passing backwards and forwards between the corrupt centre left social democratic PSOE or the corrupt centre right Popular Party (PP) – the EU democracy model. Both political parties  were of course staunch supporters of the EU and its neo-liberal diktat. Along with Malta, Spain is the only EU state not to have had a coalition government. Until 2015 Spain seemed a paradigm of political stability.  This was democracy as the EU envisioned it – clinically dead. Then the Great Recession came, followed by German imposed austerity.

Spain, along with other Southern European states was hit for six by the post-2008 recession. For a decade prior to that the economy had boomed but it was based largely on a construction boom generated by banks issuing sub-prime mortgages to Spaniards who had little or no experience with credit and its risks. When the bubble burst property developments were left unfinished or were unsaleable, people were left with mortgages greater than the value of their homes; evictions began and reached 500 a day while construction jobs drained away. The banks had to be rescued by the state and the cost was austerity through massive government spending cuts.

Unemployment hit 26.9 percent in 2013, with youth unemployment at 43.5 percent, the highest in Europe. In the midst of this, Spain’s institutional corruption came to light. This went up to the highest political and business echelons. Even King Juan Carlos had to abdicate after his son in law was brought to court. He would eventually be jailed, though under very lenient conditions.

Austerity and corruption rekindled a fire long considered extinguished in Spain: democracy. In 2011 the main union federation called a one day general strike but when it was over people did not go back to work or their homes. Instead the 15-M Movement or Indignados movement brought hundreds of thousands out onto the streets occupying squares, public buildings and feeding a movement to stop evictions and to squat empty properties. It was from this movement that a radical left party, Podemos, would emerge.

“Austerity and corruption rekindled a fire long considered extinguished in Spain: democracy.”

The backlash against corruption saw the emergence of the obligatory new neo-liberal party pledged to root it out, Ciudadanos (Citizens), but also to deal with the new democratic tendencies in Spain. It was created in Catalonia but from the very outset took a hard-line against Catalan self-determination. Beating the nationalistic drum, its founding manifesto attacked the devolved Catalan government for their “anti-Spanish agenda” which was “more alarming than ever.”

The rise of these two parties, left and far-right, destroyed Spain’s  EU imposed two party system sham democracy. It does not look like it will return.

In the 2008 general election the combined votes of the Social Democrats and the PP was 84 percent.  Their share of the vote declined to record lows of support in the December 2015 elections. The PP was the biggest party but for 10 months it could not win sufficient votes to form a government. A fresh election in June 2016 saw the PP recover to 137 seats, but well short of securing a majority. Eventually its leader, Mariano Rajoy, was able to take office with the support of Ciudadanos and because the PSOE abstained.

During this period a lengthy corruption case, the Caso Gürtel, investigating the illegal financing of the PP, which came to an end with the Audiencia Nacional sentencing its ex-treasurer, Luis Bárcenas, to 33 years in prison. It also convicted former health minister, Ana Mato, and found the PP itself guilty, fining the party €245,000. Prime Minister Rajoy was forced to give evidence, but the highest Spanish criminal court of course avoided attaching any responsibility for the rampant fraud, money laundering, illegal kickbacks, and corruption in the Partido Popular to its leader and then Spanish prime minister.

READ MORE: Analysis: The Catalan trials are political, regardless of what the Spanish Government says

Following the court’s finding in May 2018, Rajoy would only remain in office for another month, when he lost a vote of no confidence moved by the rejuvenated past PSOE leader, Pedro Sánchez. Interestingly, the supposed anti-corruption party, Ciudadanos, failed to vote to remove Rajoy.

Under the terms of the Spanish Constitution, a Congress of Deputies was required to do more than simply say it had no confidence in Rajoy; it had to elect someone else prime minister in his stead, with an absolute majority. Sánchez was able to do that with the support of Podemos and the two pro-independence Catalan parties. As I write the future of the social democratic government hangs by a thread as it faces losing a budget vote defeat because the two Catalan parties will not vote for it in protest at the trial of 12 Catalan leaders on charges of rebellion and sedition in relation to the 1 October 2017 Catalan independence referendum.

Since he has been prime minister, Sánchez has been promising to seek “political solutions to a political problem” when it comes to Catalonia, to modernise Spain’s Constitution, to deal with the toxic legacy of the Spanish Civil War (something all parties agreed to sweep under the carpet after the death in 1975 of the dictator, General Franco), and to address stagnant living standards. 

As already mentioned the first has foundered on the prosecution of 12 Catalan leaders. For supporters of Catalan independence, promises of greater fiscal powers for the Catalan Parliament, extra funding for infrastructure and overhaul of the Constitution comes long after the horse has bolted. For social democrats money always trumps democracy; apparently not in Catalonia. Details of the purported constitutional overhaul have never been made public.

“Now, an openly Francoist party, Vox, pushing a strong anti-Catalan, migrants, and Muslim agenda, has made an electoral reappearance.”

In September of last year Spain’s Congress of Deputies voted to remove the bones of General Franco from his tomb at the Valley of the Fallen, a state funded monument built by the slave labour of Republican soldiers, the losers of the 1936-1939 Civil War. The Caudillo still lies there, alongside the founder of the fascist Falange Party, José Antonio Primo de Rivera. The government’s suggestion he could be removed to Madrid Cathedral does not seem very satisfactory, but did not appease Franco’s family, his adherents,  and sections of Catholic Church dedicated to a fascist heritage.

Sánchez has indeed hiked up the national minimum wage, but despite the much heralded Spanish economic recovery from the severe recession which followed the 2008 financial collapse; this has not brought a major improvement for the mass of the population.

It had seemed after taking office that Sánchez had bucked the trend of European social democracy, which has seen a major collapse in support because of its championing a neo-liberal agenda which harms its own base (two other exceptions are Portugal and England and Wales). Podemos also suffered because of its effective alliance with the corrupt Social Democrats and from internal battles as its leader, Pablo Iglesias, sought to exert control over the party.

Yet such hopes to capitalise on its opportunism were dashed at the close of last year with regional elections in the PSOE’s fiefdom, the southern region of Andalusia. In a spectacular reverse the PSOE lost to the right because of its own high profile corruption – Social Democrats will be Social Democrats – and despite boasts of economic recovery, a still high unemployment rate, especially among the young, and stagnant living standards.

READ MORE: ‘Self-determination is a right’: Solidarity protests mobilised across Scotland as Catalan trial begins

But the Andalusian elections also saw another dramatic change. Until then countless articles had pointed out that Spain was a welcome exception in Europe because the far right was of no significance. In part that was because the PP had integrated those who were nostalgic for Franco. The EU had accepted fascism in Spain as long as it waved the EU flag and hummed Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” with the rest.

Now, an openly Francoist party, Vox, pushing a strong anti-Catalan, migrants, and Muslim agenda, has made an electoral reappearance. Benefitting from a shift by fascists who had voted for the Partido Popular for decades and felt their time had come again. Vox won 12 seats while the PP, losing seats and votes, almost tied with Ciudadanos. The three right wing parties then came to an agreement whereby Vox voted to support a coalition administration of the PP and Ciudadanos. Not only had the fascist right captured seats for the first time since 1975 but the centre right had made a pact with them. What Partido Popular and Ciudadanos may be underestimating it the fact the people will abandon them with Vox offering the real thing.

What explains the re-emergence of fascism in Spain? The fascists have recognised the collapse of the sham EU democracy in Spain and the vacuum it left. Simultaneously business interests, national and international, fearing the wave of democracy this has released in Spain, be it the movements for self-determination in Catalonia and the Basque Country, or the discontent of many Spanish working people with the incessant EU imposed austerity, need a new bulwark to protect their interests. Fascism has always been a secure response. The Partido Popular and Social Democrats are discredited; Ciudadanos cannot appear as overtly fascist, although its ultra nationalist and neo-liberal policies would easily stand the brown test.

“What explains the re-emergence of fascism in Spain? The fascists have recognised the collapse of the sham EU democracy in Spain and the vacuum it left.”

Neo-liberalism has always understood that it can only thrive under authoritarianism. The methods used to attain this goal had never been of much concern – think back to Pinochet’s Chile. As long as “centrist authoritarianism”, defined by Francis Fukuyama as representative government, free markets, and consumerist culture held democracy in check, all was well. The myth of “liberal democracy” in the EU is collapsing on the economic realities of German imposed austerity, used to maintain its hegemony in the EU.

In Spain the far right has as usual concentrated on the most significant “others”, not only immigrants, but also racism, sexism or homophobia. Opportune has been the increasing self-determination demands of Spain’s traditional enemy, the colonised  region of Catalonia, which must puzzle those millions who flock to Barcelona. But as we’ve noted it is rooted in Spanish or Castilian nationalism. 

Since the Catalan independence referendum the right wing parties, now joined by Vox, have competed as to who is hardest on the Catalans, with Vox always likely to go that bit further. That has a pull on the Social Democrats which, although milder in rhetoric, share their unionist agenda.

Last month the Regional Assembly of Extremadura, a poor southern region, passed a motion moved by the PP calling on the Spanish Government to impose its direct rule on Catalonia. The PSOE, which holds 30 of the 65 seats and the presidency, voted with the 27 PP members and the two Ciudadanos representatives. Only the six Podemos members voted against. Just imagine that after this May’s regional elections you threw a few Vox members into that mix.

READ MORE: Exclusive: Exiled former Catalan president Carles Puigdemont tells CommonSpace the Spanish state must undergo 'de-Francoisation’

El Pais reports that there is considerable opposition to Sánchez’s reliance on pro-independence Catalans among his Social Democrats, never to miss an opportunistic chance:

“Regional party chiefs and mayors have conveyed their opinion to the government that it would be better if the budget plan did not make it through Congress. This would help end what has been described as the “submission” of the PSOE to the pro-independence forces by the PP, centre-right party Ciudadanos (Citizens) and far-right group Vox.”

There is nothing inevitable about Spain shifting right; think back to how in 2011 anger flowed leftwards to the anti-austerity movement and to the rise subsequently of Podemos. But today there is no anti-austerity movement and Podemos is in something of a mess.

And there is real anger which must find expression. 

The Spanish economy is supposedly booming and the EU sees its escape from recession as another success story to be boasted about. In fact in 2018 it grew by 2.5 per cent and that is expected to fall back this year. Hardly a boom. 

“Today there is no anti-austerity movement and Podemos is in something of a mess.”

Unemployment still stands at 14.5 per cent, with joblessness for the youth at 38.6 per cent. The low-pay work has given rise to gallows humour with a Twitter feed called Mierda Jobs that lists “shitty” jobs.

The bulk of new jobs which have been created are temporary, with contracts typically ranging from a few days or less to, at best, six months. Those working in the tourism sector in 2018 (2.65 million) outnumbered those in construction (2.55 million) for the first time since 2008, but 35 per cent of them were on temporary contracts. Tourism and construction would be badly hit by an economic slowdown in Spain and elsewhere in Europe (from where the bulk of tourists come).

The traditional north-south divide remains too, with the jobless rate in the Basque Country and Navarra at 10 per cent but at 23 per cent in Andalusia. Furthermore, 40 per cent of all unemployed had been without a job for more than a year; the longer they are out of work and the older they are the less likely the prospect of returning to employment.

Per capita income differences between the richest and poorest regions remain almost as wide today as 40 years ago. Extremadura’s income per person in 2017 of €17,262 was stillhalf that of Madrid’s, roughly the same gap as in 1980.

Another El Pais report found: “More than €100,000 separates the average income of Spain’s richest area – La Moraleja in Alcobendas in Madrid – from the poorest – Carrús in Elche in the eastern coastal city Alicante. The average income of families in La Moraleja, located in the north of the capital, is €113,642 – eight times that of Carrús, where it is just €13,286.”

Last November, in its annual report, the IMF noted that the Spanish economy is posting growth above the European average, creating jobs and achieving a more deleveraged private sector. But it also insisted on the need to act now to reduce the budget deficit (public debt is still close to 100 per cent of GDP) and debt levels to create a cushion in the event of a new shock

In the same month poll found 82 per cent of Spaniards expect another financial crisis before 2023. El Pais, which commissioned the survey noted: “There is… a nearly unanimous opinion that the political and economic elites have failed to introduce sufficient regulations and mechanisms to prevent such a crisis from taking place. Fully 91.8 per cent of those surveyed defend greater controls on the financial sector and on large companies.

“Asked who they believe was chiefly responsible for the crisis, banks and the political class came out on top, followed by the housing bubble, the government, the Bank of Spain, the global financial situation, the so-called Troika (the European Central Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the European Commission), big business, household debt, the European Union, globalization, and immigration, which came in last: 28.6 per cent of respondents blamed migrants to some degree.”

“There are reasons for Spaniards to be angry and the left cannot give a lead that is beginning to flow in a Spanish nationalist direction. Historically that is rather sinister.”

Asked if they thought Spain has escaped the crisis, 53.4 per cent believed it is still in a crisis, even though some indicators have improved, with 31 per cent saying Spain has not emerged from it in any way.

Corruption on an industrial scale remains. Spain’s score in the corruption perception index drawn up by the Berlin-based Transparency International dropped from 65 out of 100 in 2012 (the nearer to 100 the cleaner the country) to 57 in 2017, the largest drop after Hungary, and its position in the ranking of countries fell from 30th to 42nd; well above Italy but that’s not something to boast about.

Behind this lies the close connection between banks (now more centralised since 2008), the political elite and Spanish multinationals, often state owned under Franco and later privatised in a way reminiscent of the former Soviet Union.

There are reasons for Spaniards to be angry and the left cannot give a lead that is beginning to flow in a Spanish nationalist direction. Historically that is rather sinister. It can also only further alienate a large section of Catalans and make the Basques nervous too.

The myth of the EU is that it is a force for peace and democracy has proven to be an empty phrase. It has remained silent over Spain’s treatment of the Catalans and the current travesties of justice.

The neo-liberal poster boy is of course Emmanuel Macron. Last week he entered into a new European Parliamentary alliance with Ciudadanos. Previously he had attacked its deal with Vox in Andalusia, with one eye on Marine Le Pen, but last week he held his tongue. But Macron too is proof how cuddly neo-liberalism and social-liberalism can move in an authoritarian direction.

There is something nasty stirring in Spain. During the Spanish Civil War the President of the Spanish Republic, Manuel Azaña, was based in Barcelona in 1938. Observing the daily bombing of the city by fascist planes he said, tongue in cheek:

An acquaintance assures me that the need to bomb Barcelona every 50 years is a law of Spanish history…  It has worked for centuries.”

There is truth in those words.

Picture courtesy of Ben

HELP US BUILD A COMMON FUTURE TOGETHER: Support our work at allofusfirst.org/donate