Spain: The European oasis

Spaniards remain fervent believers in the European project despite the lasting effects of 2008 financial crisis. 

Our recent and massive poll ahead of the European elections (Unlock) confirms Spaniards as one of the most ardent believers and defenders of the European integration project. For 46 percent of Spaniards, being European is as important as their own nationality, while less than 20 percent reject Europe, a percentage significantly lower than the one we see in Germany, Italy, or France.

Spain has always been shaped by philosopher José Ortega y Gasset’s proverb: “Spain is the problem, Europe is the solution”. The “Glorious Thirty [Years]”, during which the rest of Europe raised its living standards, only arrived in Spain after the reintroduction of democracy and accession to the European Union. As a consequence, the idea of a democratic deficit associated with belonging to the EU does not find traction in Spain. Contrary to that, Spaniards are only second after Romania among those who think that membership of the EU protects them against the excesses or failures or their national governments. This data is consistent with the European Commission’s latest Eurobarometer (Spring 2019/91) which shows that 75 percent of Spaniards think their country has benefited from EU membership.

So ingrained in Spanish psychology is this, that, even though Spanish ‘Europeanism’ was tested by the 2008 crisis, we now live in a paradox: where Spain was once the “light of Rome, the heretic’s hammer, and the sword of Trent”, the reserve of illiberal national-Catholicism and the voice of Franco, it is now considered the spiritual home of Europeanism and one of the few remaining leaders of the European project. Despite austerity and the legacy of inequality and unemployment left by the 2008 financial crisis, Spaniards are deeply in favour of the euro, well above their fellow Europeans. With 42 percent of Spaniards worried by unemployment (second only to Italy) and 39 percent about corruption (second after Romania), Spaniards see in Europe more of a helping hand than an obstacle to fight against these two ills.

The usual complaint, both in last month’s general election and this month’s European, regional, and municipal elections, is that Europe is not spoken of and the debates are not duly taking into account EU issues. Many outside of Spain, however, look on with envy at how none of the four candidates for prime minister or any of those heading up the EU election lists sink to blaming Europe for all the nation’s woes. Even more impressive is the fact that Spain stood out after years of being seemingly invulnerable to the threat of a far-right, xenophobic party. Contrary to the majority of EU members, in which migration is the first issue worrying citizens after Islamic radicalism, Spaniards are more worried by economic issues (jobs, mainly) and by the re-emergence of nationalism than about migration. In fact, Spain is one of the countries, together with Poland, Hungary, and Romania, in which people confess to be more worried about their nationals leaving their own country than about others coming in.

Although Vox has not only succeeded in turning immigration into a national issue, its European proposals (aligning itself with the Visegrad Group) are so nonsensical that they do not deserve one moment in the spotlight. Even Podemos, which, at times, has spoken of Spain as a German colony while calling for a strike on the Brussels establishment with an audit of the debt acquired by Spain during the crisis, are still critical – as they should be – but not belligerent when it comes to the European project.

No, the Spanish are wise and they do not blame Brussels for their ills: they know perfectly well that their problems are their own and that they are self-inflicted. They also know that Europe is not the sole solution to these problems, and that Spain cannot solve them on its own. Looking around and seeing Brexit, the gilets jaunes, Italian interior minister Matteo Salvini’s proclamations, the authoritarianism of Viktor Orban, it seems that all the rest of Rome’s former empire has gone mad.

Spain wants to promote the military and defence autonomy of Europe, to complete the eurozone, to establish an intelligent immigration policy and, most of all, it wants to promote a more cohesive and social Europe. These are very commendable goals. The best that Spain can do for Europe at the moment is to bring common sense, avoiding tropes and backlashes, and to strengthen the resolve of other Europhile countries. Come to Spain to test the European waters. It will do you good.

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


Head, ECFR Madrid
Senior Policy Fellow

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