25 May 2015

Spain, Poland and Greece: shudders in Europe’s political foundations

“The economy’s recovering, so why are you punishing us?” That is the subtext of mainstream conservative responses to the two big election shocks last night.

In Spain, the radical left, campaigning under various regional brand-names linked to the new Podemos party, caused a political shock, winning the city of Barcelona and teeing up the possibility of a left coalition in Madrid.

In the Catalan capital housing activist Ada Colau, backed by a grassroots group called Barcelona en Comu, supported by Podemos, won the most votes.

Ms Colau is known for leading direct action against evictions, and mobilising thousands of people to resist home repossessions.

In Poland, Andrzej Duda of the right wing Law and Justice party won the presidential election, probably with the support of a youthful 20 per cent who had supported a populist right-wing rock singer in the first round.


These are two ends of Europe and two distinct politicial phenomena.

Podemos is a left-wing mass movement, born out of the million-strong indignados protest of 2011 which was, to its roots, anti-clerical. Mr Duda’s party is Eurosceptic, strongly Catholic and pro American.

There are common factors which should, on the face of it, have strengthened the incumbent conservatives.

Poland is motoring, with 1 per cent GDP growth in the first quarter of 2015. But the uneven distribution of wealth has seen Poles become the migrant workforce of Europe.

Spain too is recovering, but high levels of unemployment, combined with years of Brussels-imposed austerity, have taken their toll.

But what’s striking is the way how, in both countries, the existing power-elites have lost the trust of young people.

In Spain, there is the long-standing problem with the conservative “people’s party”, the Partido Popular (PP): Spain’s failure to prosecute and account for the crimes of the Franco regime left the PP mired in a decades old network of corruption that recent court cases have exposed indelibly into the minds of the young generation.

The emergence of a liberal, modernising centre right party, called Citizens, has happened late, and in any case did not dislodge the veteran PP hierarchy from its commitment to governing Spain in the old way.

Closer to EU break-up?

In Poland, though radical right-wing candidate Pawel Kukiz was knocked out in the first round, his mixture of “right wing politics with a left wing heart” sparked the enthusiasm of young voters: 41 per cent backed him in the first round (as compared to 3 per cent of pensioners).

Mr Kukiz played on a very similar anxiety to the one that helped Podemos break out of the indignado circles: that the post-1989 political class has become closed to the young generation, represents the elite and is prone to corruption.

This, combined with a fairly mild austerity programme mandated by the EU’s budget rules over the past two years, fuelled the protest vote, enough of which switched to the right last night to deliver victory for Mr Duda.

Both in Spain and Poland then – despite the vast differences in mood and ideology – centrist pro-EU politics is falling victim to its association with a crony-ist elite, its adherence to austerity, and its failure to tell a convincing story to the young, who even in times of growth feel locked out of the system.


Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias

Now both in Poland and Spain there will be parliamentary elections.

If the right wins in Poland that’s a small local difficulty for the EU, and will fracture some of Angela Merkel’s support. If the left wins in Spain it will be a revolution.

Podemos’ rise has not come only at the expense of the official centre left opposition the PSOE. In fact the PSOE’s vote held up in many areas, meaning there is – as in Madrid city council – the distinct possibility of a Podemos-PSOE coalition in November.

Since Podemos is in reality, and the PSOE in rhetoric, committed to a break with EU-imposed austerity, this would be the second act of the drama that began in Greece. The third and final act would be the victory of Marine Le Pen’s right-wing Front National in France.

There’s a lot of ifs and buts here – above all can the centre right in the Eurozone react to these shocks by moderating austerity?

If not, there are now clear steps towards the break-up of the Euro project – and we, the British bystanders, are not bystanders at all.

The EU is our biggest market and our strategic geopolitical partner in a continent beset to its east by revived militarism, to its south east by an Islamist caliphate, and to its south by hundreds of thousands of desperate people trying to escape violence and poverty.

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