Europe’s Far-Right Abyss: Gordon Brown on Spain’s Elections

For the former British Prime Minister, the emergence, after this Sunday’s legislative elections in Spain, of an alliance between the conservative People’s Party and the hypernationalist, anti-immigration Vox risks strengthening extremist nativist movements across Europe.

The general election in Spain this Sunday is important for the future of the country but also for that of Europe as a whole.

A defeat of Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez would likely propel the far-right Vox party from its current status as a backroom demagogue to that of a parliamentary force, and if, as widely expected, Vox and the People’s Party (PP) form a coalition government, the latter will mark the end of Spain’s long aversion to far-right politicians, in effect since the death of General Francisco Franco in 1975.

Should Vox become a member of the Spanish government, his chilling, hypernationalist, anti-LGBTQ, anti-feminist and anti-immigrant agenda will push Europe further into the far-right abyss. The capitulation to Vox of Spain’s centre-right conservatives – who have until now traditionally rejected far-right alliances but are now desperate to return to power – will have an impact across the continent, especially as Spain takes up the rotating presidency of the Council of the European Union.

Culture War

The alignment between conservative and far-right parties in Spain has resulted in an election campaign dominated by culture war issues. Vox’s sinister propaganda demonized immigrants, homosexuals, portrayed Sanchez and his party as enemies of the people. Isabel Diaz Ayuso, the PP president of the Madrid region, called her political opponents “communists”. In order to summon the memory of anticlerical violence in Spain before and during the Spanish Civil War, she even accused the opposition of wanting to burn down Catholic churches.

In response, Sanchez presented the upcoming election, triggered following the Socialist Party’s poor results in municipal and regional elections in May, as an existential battle for Spanish democracy. During the last days of the campaign, the former Socialist Prime Minister José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero even went further by affirming that “the center-right no longer exists”, that only the ultra-rights remain and that by abandoning the center of the political spectrum, the PP “has left the map”. Ayuso immediately responded by claiming, “When they start calling you fascists, you know you’re on the right path.”

Beyond attacks on civil rights, Spanish right-wing extremists have focused on rejecting regional autonomy. For years, Vox has proposed banning Catalan and Basque nationalist parties and there is a real risk, after years of relative calm under Sanchez’s leadership, that a divided Spain will see a resurgence of separatist and secessionist movements.

Economic successes of Pedro Sanchez

The right’s strategy of using culture warfare is deliberate, to mask the threat their neoliberal economic policies pose to living standards and social justice. The PP’s agenda, inspired directly by the Reagan-Thatcher textbooks, seeks to abolish the wealth tax, lower income tax, privatize public services and cut social security. When former British Prime Minister Liz Truss tried to impose this same outdated agenda in 2022, she came close to completely crippling the British economy.

Similarly, the PP’s focus on culture war issues seeks to distract attention from the economic successes of Sanchez and his coalition and his environmental agenda. Since coming to power in 2018, Sanchez’s government has achieved significant success in reducing high levels of poverty and inequality in Spain.

What’s more, Sanchez has successfully reached an inflation-stabilizing wage agreement, accepted by both unions and employers, which foresees a wage increase of 4% in 2023 and 3% in 2024 and 2025 and, at present, the country enjoys the highest growth rate and one of the lowest inflation rates in the eurozone.

If re-elected, Sanchez would focus on housing, which he sees as Spain’s “great national cause” for the next decade. He also proposed new health guarantees, including the imposition of a maximum limit of 60 days for obtaining a consultation with a specialist, and 15 days for psychological assistance for children and adolescents under 15 years old.

Growing popularity of far-right parties

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

In Germany, the nativist party Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), which is rising in the polls, is pushing the CDU and its Bavarian sister party, the CSU, ever further to the right. And in Finland, the ultra-conservative Party of Finns formed a coalition government with the centre-right, pushing it to adopt harsh anti-immigration policies. The same trend can be observed in other Western European countries, from Sweden to Austria, and it could emerge next year during the European parliamentary elections. And of course Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, leader of the Brothers of Italy (Fratelli) party in Italy, is the most right-wing leader the country has seen since Benito Mussolini.

The emerging symbiosis between far-right movements in Europe has been supported by wealthy allies in the United States. In September 2022, representatives of sixteen European nativist parties, including the Polish Pis, the Slovak populists led by former Prime Minister Robert Fico and the far-right movement of former Slovenian Prime Minister Janez Janša, gathered in Miami for the National Conference of conservatism, whose guest of honor was Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, also a Republican presidential candidate and Donald Trump impersonator.

The conference in Florida was strikingly similar to another far-right summit organized by the same group and held at the Grand Hotel Plaza in Rome in February 2020, just before the Covid-19 pandemic. Hoping to establish a far-right alternative to the annual World Economic Forum in Davos, participants had presented nationalism, tradition and the nuclear family as bulwarks against “globalist” attempts to destroy the countries of Europe and their respective cultures. It was during this rally that Meloni clarified his agenda which, in the end, met with a positive response from Italian voters, to “defend national identity and the existence of nation-states as the only means of preserving the sovereignty and freedom of peoples”.

Ironically, each member of this unlikely global coalition of anti-globalists claims to speak for the unique cultural heritage of each of their countries and to be free from international ties, while simultaneously using the same xenophobic us-versus-them rhetoric to incite nativist scares.

It has been 175 years since Karl Marx evoked a specter that would haunt Europe. Today, it is not the specter of communism, which Marx wanted, that haunts Europe but that of populist nationalism.

The outcome of the elections in Spain could reinforce the seriousness and urgency of this threat.

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