Spain – EU Parliamentary Elections

Political Background

Spain joined the EU in 1986, along with fellow Iberian new democracy Portugal. Spain has been a member of the Euro since its inception.

Spanish politics has long been marked by a struggle between the centre and peripheral nationalist movements. When the industrial revolution came to Spain it arrived in peripheral regions such as the Basque Country and Catalonia, whereas politically dominant Castille (home of Madrid) remained rather undeveloped by comparison. This meant that these peripheral regions developed well educated and wealthy elites who were subsequently able to resist attempts at creating a single Spanish nation-state, leading to the retention of regional languages, cultural practices and ultimately, identities.

These regional identities differ in strength. The strongest regionalist movements are in Catalonia and the Basque Country.

Catalans speak a language (or dialect, it is a subject of some debate) closely related to Spanish, they are based in the North East of the country with their capital in Barcelona.

Basques, however, are totally unique. The Basque language is an isolate, almost certainly totally unrelated to any other existing language. Basque predates Indo-European languages and Latin and is thus the oldest language in Europe. Its origins are totally mysterious. According to linguists there are tiny perceptible similarities between Basque and some Caucasian languages spoken in Southern Russia but these similarities are only perceptible to linguists and it is unclear whether this hints at an incredibly distant common origin or whether this is an example of parallel evolution. Basques also culturally differ from the Spanish a great deal. The Basque Country is located in the mountainous North of Spain.

Other regions of note include that of Galicia, Andaluscia, the Canary Islands and Valencia. Spain’s dominant region is Castille and some argue that Spanish nationalism is, in truth, Castillian nationalism.

In addition to nationalism and regionalism Spain has also suffered from major splits on religious lines, and on the question of a republic versus monarchy.

1931 saw the creation of the First Spanish Republic, with a heavily secularist constitution, large amounts of regionalism and a very left-wing bent. Just as much of Europe was moving towards dictatorship Spain was experimenting with democracy.

With the Great Depression’s effects being felt, the Republic saw the radicalisation of both left and right.

An attempted coup in July 1936 led to the Spanish civil war. The civil war was a flashpoint in European history, seen as a proxy war between the radical left and the radical right. The Spanish right, known as the Nationalists, received support from Hitler’s Germany, Mussolini’s Italy and Salazar’s Portugal. The left, the Republicans, received support from the USSR and tacit support from France. Both sides received foreign volunteers, though activists in left-wing political organisations were particularly active. The international brigades included George Orwell, who recorded his experiences fighting for the Marxist but anti-Stalinist Worker’s Party of Marxist Unification (POUM) in his book Homage to Catalonia, often considered to be one of the best books on the civil war and, in this author’s opinion, Orwell’s best work, full stop.

The Nationalists won the war, and set up a dictatorship, in 1939, under General Francisco Franco. Franco was not a fascist as such, more a traditional Spanish arch-conservative, but built a regime which brought together conservatives, fascists (known as the Falange in Spain), monarchists, the military, and Catholics. Franco acted as a referee between these various factions and promoted or sidelined factions depending on how he saw fit (for instance, after WWII he side-lined the Falange in favour of the Catholic faction to gain foreign acceptability).

The state under Franco was deeply repressive towards anyone suspected of holding liberal, leftist or secularist ideas. He also banned the usage of languages other than Spanish.

Franco’s regime was, theoretically, monarchist, but Franco left the throne empty, in theory because the current heir to the throne, Don Juan, was too liberal, but more because he personally preferred to keep power, himself. Franco was, instead, to rule as regent and decide who took the throne and when. Don Juan’s son and heir, Juan Carlos instead became Franco’s choice for the throne. Juan Carlos appeared to publicly support the regime, and upon Franco’s death became King. Yet, to the surprise of many, who’d thought him a hardline Francoist, he began a process of transitioning the country towards democracy.

Spain’s first free elections in decades were held in 1977. Juan Carlos played a key role in stopping an attempted military coup in 1981 when he went on national television and denounced the coup, calling for loyalty to the democratic government and telling the army to go back to their barracks.

The democratic Spanish state adopted a unique structure. The conservative forces of the military refused the left’s preference for a federal Spain, recognising multiple nations. Instead a compromise was reached whereby the Spanish state recognised one nation: Spain, and multiple ‘nationalities’. A system of regional autonomy was introduced, similar to devolution in the UK (which may have been modelled on Spanish autonomous communities). Every part of Spain is today covered by an autonomous community. Devolution is asymmetrical, with different communities holding different powers.

A good measure of relative power between levels of government is always how much money they spend relative to other levels. Spanish autonomous communities spend around 35% of all state spending in Spain, more than in most federations. Some Spanish unionists have begun to see federalism as a way of halting further devolution of power downwards.

The most powerful communities, the Basque Country and Catalonia, have wide-ranging powers over education, culture, taxes, the police, healthcare, justice and other policy areas.

Spain’s economy grew rapidly both before, but particularly after, the transition to democracy. Spain experienced a rapid property boom from 1997 to 2007, with economic growth of between 3 and 5% year on year.

The bubble inevitably burst in 2008. Over 80% of Spaniards own their own homes, and at its peak the construction industry represented 16% of GDP and 12% of employment. Household debt was 125% of incomes by this point.

The bursting of the bubble saw the country’s budget deficit climb, as tax revenues had been largely reliant on the property boom. Public debt had actually been rather modest pre-crash at 36.2% of GDP, but the country’s budget deficit climbed to 11.2%.                    Spain’s banks were also in huge amounts of trouble, exposed by households unable to pay their debts. Unemployment rocketed. It is currently 26.7%, only Greece has higher unemployment in the EU (and then only by 0.6%). Though ‘real’ unemployment is arguably lower as many people find work in the grey market of cash in hand jobs.

Spain’s struggling banks have been bailed out by the European Union.

The country has implemented austerity measures, especially under the new conservative Premier, Mariano Rajoy.

Austerity has been particularly tricky in Spain due to the autonomous communities set-up. Many autonomous communities have large debts themselves which the Spanish government has difficulty compelling them to resolve.

The Spanish state has suffered from a crisis of legitimacy, following the crash. This has been increased by corruption scandals involving the ruling People’s Party, up to Rajoy. The Barcenas Affair is a 2013 scandal which showed that the PP kept a parallel bookkeeping system to record unrecorded party donations which were used to give bonuses to senior members of the Party, including Rajoy, who allegedly received €25,000 a year.

Perhaps even worse, the Spanish monarchy, the symbol of the nation, has also been involved in scandal. In November 2011 the King’s son-in-law, the Duke of Palma de Mallorca, was accused of diverting public funds into personal bank accounts in tax havens. His wife, Princess Christina, was charged with tax fraud and money laundering in January 2014, becoming the first member of the Royal Family to appear in court as part of a criminal investigation.

Juan Carlos, once seen as an icon of democracy, has become incredibly unpopular, and polls show that up to two thirds of Spaniards would like him to abdicate. Juan Carlos has long had a reputation for spending public money on fast cars and sailing. Juan Carlos has also become unpopular due to his reputation as a womaniser.

Disaffection from Spain’s ruling elite unleashed waves of protesters known as the indignados (‘the indignant’) in 2011. The indignados oppose austerity, unemployment, corruption, and Spain’s political system. As many as 8.5 million Spaniards may have taken part in protests.

Spain’s problems have also provided fuel for Catalan nationalism. As Spain’s wealthiest region there is much resentment in Catalonia over seeing Catalan money go to other ‘wasteful’ regions. There is a Catalan independence referendum scheduled for November 2014, though it will not be legally binding as such a referendum requires approval from the Spanish parliament.

As such the Spanish state currently suffers from multiple challenges to its own integrity, economically, politically and territorially.

Spain has historically tended to be one of Europe’s most pro-European countries. Spain was one of only two countries to approve the European Constitution by referendum, which it did in 2005 with 81.8% approving the constitution. The Spanish have become slightly more Eurosceptic post-crash and even before there were complaints that the Euro had raised prices.

Electoral System

This year Spain will elect 54 MEPs, the same as after the Lisbon Treat redistribution.

Spain uses a closed list system to elect its MEPs, in which parties rank candidates on lists. Parties get seats broadly in proportion to their vote. Spain is one big constituency for the day, and there is no threshold, making Spain’s system second only to Germany in terms of proportionality.

The effective threshold in the Spanish European Parliament election is less than 1.4%.

Spanish regionalist parties have tended to form alliances and joint lists for European elections.

2009 Election Result

Party European Political Party Votes Seats
People’s Party (PP) European People’s Party 42.1% 24
Spanish Socialist Worker’s Party (PSOE) Socialists and Democrats 38.8% 23
Coalition for Europe (CEU) Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe/European People’s Party 5.1% 3
United Left (IU) & Initiative for Catalonia Greens European United Left/European Green Party 3.7% 2
Union, Progress and Democracy (UPyD) None 2.9% 1
Europe of the Peoples (EdP) (Has splintered this year, Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC) is running a separate campaign, most of the rest have aligned in LPD or PE European Free Alliance 2.5% 1

New parties since 2009:

Citizens – Party of the Citizenry (C’s)

European Spring (PE)


The People Decide (LPD)

Likely results

Like every election since 1982, the election is theoretically dominated by the fight between the PSOE and the People’s Party, with the latter likely to barely pip the former to be the largest party.

Yet both are largely discredited in different ways. Both parties are associated with hated austerity, and seen as part of a widely despised Spanish elite which is increasingly seen as out of touch and illegitimate.

Both will lose seats as a result.

The gap will primarily be filled by the United Left, who seem likely to roar back to life and who will likely take 6-8 seats. The UPyD will also take 3-4 seats. The CEU will largely stay still, likely to hold its 3 seats, but other regionalist groupings will do well, the Republican Left of Catalonia perhaps able to take 2 seats, and European Spring and The People Decide may be able to get a seat each.

Citizens could also perhaps take a seat as could Podemos.