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Spain: Tough election campaign – but not because of European issues

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European elections 2024

European elections

Spain's parties are attacking each other harshly in the EU election campaign. But their issues are mainly domestic and have little to do with the EU. Voters, on the other hand, are interested in other issues.

Kristina Böker, SWR

At the start of the election campaign of the Spanish conservatives, the Partido Popular, supporters are eagerly waving flags, although significantly more red and yellow Spanish flags than European flags.

Around one of Madrid's city gates, the Puerta de Alcalá in the centre of the Spanish capital, they cheer party leader Alberto Nuñez Feijóo as he rails against Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez of the Socialists, the Spanish social democrats.

And against the amnesty that Sánchez's left-wing coalition government has implemented for Catalan separatists. Sánchez is not just the state, says Feijóo. “We are all Spain, we want to stress that. And we demand that the amnesty law be withdrawn and that the Spanish be allowed to vote again.”

What is meant is a new election in Spain – not the upcoming European elections.

Sánchez is also trying to improve domestic policy

At election campaign events, Sánchez counters that he wants to govern for another three years until the end of the legislative period. And: his party, the PSOE, will win the European elections: “The PSOE will stop the right and the far right, just as we managed to do it in Spain, we will also succeed in Europe.”

In the most recent Spanish parliamentary election almost exactly a year ago, the conservatives narrowly won, but did not gain a majority in the House of Representatives.

Questions “that have nothing to do with the EU”

Spain's European election campaign seems to have little to do with Europe. Political scientist Pablo Simón from the Carlos III University in Madrid had already expected that June 9 would be more of a referendum on the policies of the Sánchez government, with the conservatives trying to extend their lead over the socialists and the socialists trying to catch up.

“There will therefore be a strange paradox,” said Simón, “namely that we will be talking about the amnesty, about the separatists in Catalonia and about the Spanish government. In other words, about issues that have absolutely nothing to do with the European Union.”

What is important to voters

The electorate would certainly be interested in content. In the latest sentiment barometer from May 2024 by the Institute for Sociological Studies CIS, which is close to the government, most Spaniards see unemployment and the economic situation as their country's biggest problems.

The poor behavior of politicians ranks high on the list of problems, coming in fourth place. The amnesty law is only way down in 52nd place.

Climate change is in 13th place, despite the fact that the Spanish provinces on the Mediterranean in particular have had to contend with severe droughts in recent years. There, too, many tourists ensure that more water is consumed per capita in the coastal region than elsewhere.

And Spain, as a country on the EU's external border, is also massively affected by another European issue: irregular migration.

According to information from the Spanish Interior Ministry, almost 22,000 migrants arrived in Spain in the first five months of this year, more than twice as many as in the same period last year. The vast majority came via the currently highly frequented and particularly dangerous escape route via the Canary Islands.

Vox brings together Europe’s Right-wing populists

The Spanish right-wing populists of the Vox party have the issue of migration – which ranks seventh in the CIS issue rankings – firmly on their agenda. But the rising migration figures are not giving the party any extreme highs.

In the latest polls for the European elections, Vox is at around ten percent. That is around four points more than in the 2019 European elections, but around two points less than in the Spanish parliamentary elections a year ago.

Nevertheless, Vox wants to contribute to the expected strengthening of the right in the European Parliament. Many right-wing celebrities attended the election campaign launch in front of 11,000 supporters in Madrid in mid-May. Marine Le Pen from the French Rassemblement National appeared in person, and Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni sent a video message.

Argentine President Javier Milei was celebrated like a rock star. Socialism leads to “slavery or death,” Milei shouted to the crowd. And Vox leader Santiago Abascal thanked him for “the terror you have instilled in the left.”

Again a high Voter turnout?

It is questionable whether there will be more contentious debate in the final stages of the election campaign in Spain, which is polarized on the left and right. For political scientist Pablo Simón, it is clear that Europe is well regarded in Spain. After the dictatorship, Europe was a ray of hope for Spain. And Spain benefits from EU funds.

“We are one of the most pro-European countries, and therefore parties that represent reactionary or Eurosceptic positions will have little chance of winning seats.” Simón calculates that a good 90 to 95 percent of the representatives that Spain will send to parliament will be pro-European.

It is difficult to calculate whether this will also be reflected in a high voter turnout: most recently it was around 60 percent, well above the EU average of around 50 percent.

If the Spanish people go to vote in large numbers again on Sunday, it will probably be more out of sympathy with the EU than because of the Spanish EU election campaign.

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