Financial Times

No takers for euroscepticism in Spain

By Tobias Buck in Madrid

Nationalists more obsessed with secession than migrants
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Mariano Rajoy has every reason to look ahead to next year’s European Parliament elections with trepidation. Recent polls have not been kind to the Spanish prime minister, who is battling not just sky-high unemployment but also the fallout from a damaging corruption scandal.

There is one crucial worry, however, that Mr Rajoy does not have: unlike most of his peers in Europe, the Spanish leader faces no meaningful challenge from far-right or populist movements campaigning against Brussels. The rise of eurosceptic parties, destined to be the defining feature of the forthcoming electoral contest, has passed Spain by.

There is no Spanish equivalent to anti-European platforms such as Britain’s UK Independence party or Germany’s Alternative für Deutschland. Spain has also survived more than half a decade of economic crisis without spawning a far-right anti-immigrant movement like France’s Front National or the Dutch Freedom party. Populism, it seems, does not travel well across the Pyrenees.

Whatever electoral punishment awaits Mr Rajoy and his ruling Popular party, it will most likely come at the hands of regional parties in the Basque country and Catalonia, and the centrist UPyD. Neither is anti-European. Catalan nationalists insist, for example, that they want a breakaway state of Catalonia to remain an integral part of the EU.

Polls show that Spanish trust in the EU has dropped sharply in recent years, fuelled by frustration over Europe’s austerity-driven response to the crisis. That anger, however, does not translate into wholesale rejection of European integration, or loud calls for a repatriation of power. Spaniards may have less faith in European institutions than before the crisis – but they seem still to regard Brussels as a better political steward than Madrid.

That attitude is, of course, coloured by the country’s recent history. Spanish democracy is less than four decades old. Most Spaniards over the age of 40 still have vivid memories of the failed military coup of 1982. When Spain joined the European Community only four years later, many looked to Europe’s institutions as guarantors of the country’s fledgling democracy.

“Spain is one of those countries in which people think that democracy and the EU are two sides of the same coin. The union certifies your democracy,” says José Ignacio Torreblanca, a senior fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations. It is an attitude that typically trumps the daily frustrations over the workings and policies of the EU. As Mr Torreblanca remarks, “you have a hard time discussing the democratic deficit here”.

Spain’s electoral system, which strongly favours large parties, is another crucial factor, as is the absence (so far) of a charismatic leader able to galvanise simmering resentment against Brussels into a coherent political platform. Add to this a facet of Spanish nationalism that does not exist elsewhere, namely that the country’s right is far more obsessed with the threat of secession, especially in Catalonia, than with migrants. What makes the blood of a Spanish nationalist boil is not the sight of a minaret, but of a Catalan independence flag hanging from a Barcelona balcony.

This leads to perhaps the most important reason why Spanish voters are not flocking to eurosceptic or far-right parties: the country’s remarkably warm attitude towards its migrant communities. Spain absorbed more than 4m immigrants between 2001 and 2009, lifting the share of foreigners from slightly more than 3 per cent of the population to more than 12 per cent. What is more, in 2004 Madrid became the scene of the deadliest attack by Islamist terrorists on European soil, when 191 people perished in bomb attacks on the Atocha railway station.

Spain is one of those countries in which people think that democracy and the EU are two sides of the same coin. The union certifies your democracy

- José Ignacio Torreblanca, European Council on Foreign Relations

Neither the huge rise in the immigrant population nor the blood-splattered train carriages triggered a backlash. Even today, with more than one in four Spanish workers looking for a job, it is extremely rare to hear Spaniards complain about foreigners taking away their jobs.

Spain’s friendly attitude towards foreigners has many reasons, most importantly the country’s own experience of sending millions of economic migrants abroad. But it clearly helps to keep not just the far right but also anti-European parties in check: analysts say there is a very close correlation between hostility to migration and hostility to Brussels. Without the first, the second rarely flourishes.

For Mr Rajoy, all this may be of little comfort as his party braces itself for a severe electoral defeat. Spanish society as a whole, however, has every reason to take pride in the way it has kept its migrants safe and the far-right at bay. For all their economic worries, Spaniards never turned on those who came to their country during the best of times, and who lived with them through the worst. It is an achievement that is set to be ratified, regardless of the precise outcome, when Europe goes to the polls in May.