Letter from Madrid: A chance for resolve on refugees

Dissatisfaction remains to the EU-Turkey migration deal amongst Spain’s opposition

The refugee crisis has, in my view, reflected the present gulf between the current Spanish government of the PP, the Conservative party, and its citizens.

According to a Eurostat survey from October 2015, Spaniards have an above-average willingness to take in refugees among Europeans. Eighty-six percent think that refugees should be more equally distributed, as opposed to 78 percent across the EU as a whole. The real significance of this lies in the fact that the idea of sharing out refugees does not yet mean the same thing in Stockholm as it does in Madrid. Recent polls suggest that many Spaniards put the refugee crisis low down on their list of concerns, though there is some social awareness of the gravity of the crisis for the European project and humanitarian impact, especially among a mobilised civil society. Though Spain has as yet made a negligible contribution to burden sharing, many Spaniards are saying in no uncertain terms that they want to take in more refugees. In the same survey, 78 percent said they favoured compulsory quotas.

However, when these quotas were being negotiated last summer, the Spanish government did everything it could to block them, and initially joined forces with the Visegrad Group. The interior minister famously coined a metaphor comparing the refugee crisis to a leaky house: the aim is to prevent the water entering, and not to spread it all over the house, he said. At the end of the summer, the government had somewhat changed track, either by popular pressure, pressure from European partners like Germany or perhaps both.

The refusal to accept transfers foreshadowed the agreement with Turkey – a country that many in Europe want to see turned into the “plug” that stops refugees “leaking” in. In many ways, the deal finalised with Turkey last week seems to take inspiration from the stance of the Spanish government. After all, it continually conflates irregular migrants with refugees; it does not mention human rights; and it ignores existing international commitments. Spain has followed a similar immigration policy for years, consisting of signing agreements with “plug countries” (Morocco, Mauritania and Senegal). Now the idea is to apply such policies to refugees, denying their right to international protection as laid down in the 1951 Geneva Convention.

The strangest part is that, at least in Spain, this position cannot be justified by pressure from Spanish public opinion (which points in the other direction), a surge in xenophobic populism (which does not exist), or the impossibility of taking in more people (a minimal number have been accepted so far).

The elections in December brought about a very different parliament, without an absolute majority of the PP government and with new political parties, which reflects more accurately popular sentiment regarding this issue. The majority of parliament refused to accept that this country should sign the agreement. Protests from these parties, established and new, forced interim Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy to agree to a government representative participating in a congressional debate on Spain’s position ahead of the European Council meeting of 17-18 March, as well as to reach out to the leader of Spanish Socialist Party, Pedro Sánchez, in order to broker a common position at the European Council.

However, the fact of the matter is that the agreement reached with Turkey is not in accordance with what was expressed by Spain’s Congress and Senate. The positions of both chambers were based on three tenets: the protection of those seeking asylum and refuge; the fulfilment by member states (including Spain) of their commitments to resettle refugees; and the need for a common policy on migration and asylum. In stark contrast, the spirit of the Council’s agreement places the entire emphasis on halting illegal immigration from Turkey to Greece, punishing people traffickers and, in the process, their victims. After a few days of the deal being put in place, we can see in practice what the wording led us to. In a word, fear. Refugees have been placed in detention centres and the objective is to return them as quickly as possible – one by one, perhaps, but in massive numbers. It is significant that the UNHCR has refused to cooperate.

What will Prime Minister Rajoy say when he stands before Congress to explain the agreement with Turkey? We do not know, but we can guess what the opposition’s argument will be. First, that the acting prime minister should have seen the parliamentary agreement for what is was: a mandate, given that his situation as acting prime minister legally prevents him from taking political decisions. Second, that had he accepted this mandate, he would not have signed the agreement. And third, that the dominant view among Spanish citizens and political representatives was not defended at the negotiating table.

The next step is that as soon as the Spanish government changes hands, Spain must change its policy on refugees. We must ensure that this is brought to the attention of Europe.           

Irene Lozano is an MP for the Spanish Socialist Party (PSOE) and an ECFR Council Member. She tweets at @lozanoirene



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


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