View from Madrid: A polarised election context

The reactions of Spanish officials and political leaders to the Brexit vote converge around three main messages: the need to maintain political stability, reassurance for Spanish residents in the UK, as well as support for the political integration project.

The reactions of Spanish officials and political leaders to the Brexit vote converge around three main messages. These are: the need to maintain political stability, reassurance for Spanish residents in the UK (a quarter of a million of them, according to some sources), as well as support for the political integration project – especially from the pro-EU mainstream parties – reflecting a shared consensus on the need to avoid a domino effect.

The referendum overlapped with the final stretch of a polarised electoral contest in Spain. Brexit, its economic impact, and general uncertainty over the future of the EU entered the electoral fray, with the spotlight having turned on the leftist Podemos, due to its pro-sovereignty stances. There is some speculation on the impact the Brexit vote had on election results that, with a lower turnout than before, essentially saw the ruling conservative Popular Party of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy winning again, and the PSOE withstanding the challenge of a Podemos-led leftist coalition. PP clearly seems to have benefitted from fears of political and economic instability in Spain and a struggling EU, and many Podemos voters have turned their backs on them. But it is far-fetched at this stage to see Brexit as a game changer in these elections.

The Spaniards remain generally pro-European, but this support has been dented by years of EU and Spanish crises, with some recent polls showing a skyrocketing of mistrust in the EU since 2007. Mistrust now stands at around 50 percent – on a par with that in France. For the first time, the new parliament will face influential forces that are clearly opposed to mainstream European policies, whether on the economy or on foreign and security policy (e.g. sanctions on Russia).

Official reactions

Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, after expressing regret for the decision of the British people, has appealed for calm, emphasising the fact that the framework of the UK-EU relationship remains the same, for now. He referred to Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, which triggers the exit process, and said he would consult other parties and EU leaders on the topic in the run up to next week’s European Council. Rajoy emphasised that Spanish citizens working in the UK would maintain full rights as EU citizens, at least for the next two years, and stressed the Spanish “vanguard’s” commitment to the integration project, though recognising the need for the EU to be closer to its citizens.

Socialist Party leader Pedro Sánchez laid the blame on the combination of a populism based on false pretences with an “irresponsible” conservative leadership that has “outsourced its leadership problems to the UK”. The way forward for Spain and Europe, he added, was not the politics of fear nor of renationalisation, but rather progressive and reformist responses to the challenges faced by European societies.

Former Prime Minister Felipe González (PSOE), in even harsher terms, accused Prime Minister David Cameron of being irresponsible, and called for a firm EU response to avoid contagion, warning against anti-EU populists on the left and right. A similar recognition of the threat of populism came from the leaders of the liberal party, Ciudadanos.

Meanwhile the leftist Podemos, that unexpectedly suffered the loss of a more than a million voters on Sunday, is taking pains to distance itself from the pro-sovereignty, pro-popular vote and even pro-leaving the euro stances – which are still held by forces within their coalition. Leader Pablo Iglesias, somewhat backtracking from his previous sovereigntist rhetoric, expressed his regret over Brexit, placing it in the context of EU austerity policies, and appealing for a fairer EU that citizens would not vote to leave. Podemos supports the repatriation of some powers from the EU, a stance which has opened it to accusations of joining forces with europhobic parties such as France’s Front National. It also took the toughest position regarding the UK renegotiation deal brokered in February.

Gibraltar and Catalonia

Brexit has also brought two topics back to the domestic discussion: Gibraltar and the spectre of another pro-independence vote in Scotland, with repercussions for Catalonia. On the former, Foreign Minister José Manuel García-Margallo has stated that Brexit is a game-changer for Spain’s claims on Gibraltar, given that the territory voted massively to Remain. On Catalonia, the general perception is that, with Scotland sooner or later voting to leave the UK and pushing to stay in the EU, the present policy of the ruling PP of muddling through on the Catalan issue could be even less sustainable.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


ECFR Alumni · Head of ECFR Madrid Office & Policy Fellow

Subscribe to our weekly newsletter

We will store your email address and gather analytics on how you interact with our mailings. You can unsubscribe or opt-out at any time. Find out more in our privacy notice.