The resounding defeat of Spain’s Conservative Party last weekend, after having moved to the right to offset the rise of VOX, a radical right party which emerged by surprise in last year regional election in Andalusia, has been a much welcomed surprise in a Europe characterized by pessimism about the possibilities of traditional parties to resist the push of far right anti-European and anti-immigration parties. Pablo Casado, the Conservative party’s new leader who adopted a strong nationalist tone, very conservative positions on abortion and gender issues, and the anti-immigration campaign themes of VOX, lost almost half of the party’s votes and more than half seats in Parliament (from 137 seats, 33% of the vote and 7.9 million votes in 2006 to 66 seats, 16.7% of the vote and 4.3 million votes).
The conclusion was evident: by turning right, Casado not only did not offset VOX (which still got 10.2% of the vote), but it also suffered heavy losses to Ciudadanos, the liberal party led by Albert Rivera (which jumped from 32 to 57 almost beating the Conservatives in votes). Spain thus emerges as a bastion of pro-European values and progressive immigration policies and sends an important message to other Conservative parties across Europe ahead of this May’s elections.
Conservative parties should think twice before giving up on their traditional values and policy positions
Oscar Wilde’s famous assertion that the only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it seems to describe quite accurately how Conservative parties across Europe have reacted to the emergence of far-right anti-Europe and anti-immigration parties. In each instance, rather than publicly and openly confronting them they’ve only hesitated between two strategies.
The first has been to remove from the agenda issues they could no longer compete on. Slowing down discussions on integration has been a recurrent strategy to avoid further alienating voters. The same can be said about immigration: confronted with the far right attempt’s to portray immigration as an existential threat to the country, either culturally or economically, Conservative parties have generally given up on explaining to voters the benefits of immigration for recipient countries: immigrants are on average younger and consume less social and health services, they can successfully compensate deficits in the labor market, offset demographic decline trends and, more generally, successfully integrate in host countries.
The second strategy has been to openly adopt the narrative of the far right. Delivering “less Europe” to voters, pushing for intergovernmental solutions and marginalizing the Community method, or even calling for devolution of EU competences to the member states. On immigration, Conservative parties have often wholly shifted their traditional policy mix. In the past they were proud of promoting progressive immigration policies at home and abroad (integration, family reunification, visa facilitation and development cooperation) and fearful of being associated with border control, detention centers and forced returns. But challenged by the far right, they’ve shifted to a policy consisting of boasting about short-term border management and securitization while shirking exposure to long-term comprehensive immigration management policies.
One way or another – from Germany to Greece, Sweden to Italy, The Netherlands to Hungary or Poland to Austria – Conservative parties (as well as liberal ones) have given into the temptation offered by far-right parties. But as comprehensive data from ECFR’s Unlock Europe’s Majority project polling 46,000 people in 14 EU countries ahead of the European Parliament election next May shows, and Spain’s election confirms, immigration is not the only issue voters care about. Voters still care a lot about jobs, the economy, corruption and even climate change. And when they do care about migration, it’s not only about inflows, as we would assume, but also about outflows, i.e. people leaving their country due to lack of opportunities at home.
Conservative parties, as Spain shows, should think twice before giving up on their traditional values and policy positions.
This article appeared originally in German on 1 May, in Welt.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.