Dr Paul Kennedy: Brexit: The View from Spain

Posted in: Brexit, European politics, Migration

Dr Paul Kennedy, Lecturer in Spanish and European Studies, Department of Politics, Languages and International Studies.

With no government in place since the general election held on 20th December 2015, and successive rounds of negotiations failing to prevent another general election on 26th June this year, the Spanish people might be forgiven for having their minds on that date rather than on the UK Brexit referendum, which will be held just three days before. The possibility of Brexit has nevertheless stimulated considerable debate within Spanish society, with the media and academic commentators expressing concern at the prospect of a UK withdrawal from the EU and the possible consequences for Spain. Since joining what was then the European Community in 1986, Spain has been one of the most Euro-enthusiastic member states, and not without reason. Although economic integration with the rest of the continent made significant progress during the latter half of Franco’s 40-year dictatorship, the nature of his regime effectively barred the country from EU membership. It is within this context that Spaniards were socialised into equating European integration with democracy, peace and progress, as famously encapsulated by the philosopher, José Ortega y Gasset, a century ago: ‘if Spain is the problem, Europe is the solution.’ Although enthusiasm for European integration has inevitably waxed and waned during the three decades of Spain’s EU membership, it nevertheless remains the case that no major political party currently considers it advantageous to adopt a stance of outright opposition to the European project, much less advocate actual withdrawal from the EU. Even the anti-austerity Podemos (‘We Can’) has confined its criticisms to particular aspects of integration, such as the need for a reform of the European Central Bank’s (ECB’s) statutes and more lenient deadlines for public debt and deficit repayment. Neither ‘Spexit’ nor withdrawal from the euro are advocated by Podemos, nor, indeed, by any major political party. It might also be noted that the current Catalan government, which comprises a number of nationalist parties which are in favour of the region obtaining its independence from Spain, is equally wedded to remaining within the EU. Whether the EU would be prepared to accept an independent Catalonia is another matter.

Given this context of overwhelming support for the European ‘project’, debate within Spain on the deal reached by David Cameron at the European Council meeting in Brussels in February, and his decision to submit the issue to a referendum, has been characterised by unease as regards what Spain – and the EU more generally – might lose in the event of the UK electorate voting in favour of Brexit on 23rd June.

In articles produced for the prestigious Madrid-based think tank, the Real Instituto Elcano, Salvador Llaudes and Ignacio Molina indicate that Brexit would deprive the EU of an original, influential member state with a robust capacity to challenge Brussels decision-making.[1] Moreover, they argue that the UK strengthens the EU with respect to its profile on the world stage and an economic flexibility which contrasts favourably with the statist approach of the other two leading member states, France and Germany. Notwithstanding its reputation as the ‘Awkward Partner’, the UK has been adept at negotiating advantages and opt-outs in key areas including the country’s budget contribution, monetary policy and its exclusion from the Schengen area. The authors nevertheless draw attention to the fact that with regard to Cameron’s negotiations in Brussels, the centre-right Popular Party government has concerns about several areas, including its unease at the possibility that that any deal might constrain euro zone members’ right to advance towards greater economic and political union; that reference to an ever-closer union should be maintained in the treaties; that changes to the EU’s legislative procedures should not make them even more complex; finally, as regards immigration, the Spanish government continues to give its full support to the principle of free movement of people within the EU, whilst nevertheless adopting a muted approach concerning the UK, given that there are many more UK citizens resident in Spain than there are Spaniards in the UK, and the Spanish government has been keen not to draw attention at the domestic level to the growing number of Spaniards moving to the UK in search of job opportunities which simply do not exist at home. In essence, Spain backed the EU’s efforts to assist David Cameron’s efforts to obtain a deal which would contribute towards a rejection of Brexit at the June referendum with the proviso that key EU principles would not be sacrificed in seeking to accommodate the UK. From the viewpoint of Madrid, boosting the prospect of the UK remaining within the EU ultimately merited the EU’s relative generosity towards Cameron in agreeing a deal.

As has been noted, the number of Spaniards living and working in the UK has increased over recent years, exacerbating concerns within Spain about the implications of Brexit. In a report published in April 2016 by the Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford entitled, Pulling Power: Why are EU citizens migrating to the UK?, the number of people born in Spain and living in the UK more than doubled between 2011 and 2015 from 63,000 to 137,000.[2] With Spain’s unemployment rate remaining above 20 % (and marginally below 50% for under 25s) – going some way to explaining the chief ’push’ factor for those opting to leave the country – the report indicates that the UK’s flexible labour market is thought to have contributed to the relative ease with which migrant workers have been able to find jobs in the UK, particularly when compared with countries with stricter labour market regulation. Here, it should be noted that despite a major reform of the Spanish labour market in February 2012[AT1] , the country still has some way to go in terms of tackling the disparity in working conditions between the three-quarters of the working population on permanent contracts and the remaining quarter employed on short-term contracts. There is no one single ‘pull’ factor that attracts migrants from the EU to the UK, but a combination of economic and social factors does appear to have made the UK an attractive destination. The report concludes that ‘Job growth in the UK and the strength of the economic recovery in southern European countries in the short to medium term… are all likely to influence the pressure for EU citizens to migrate to the UK.’

The concern of many within Spain at the prospect of a vote in favour of Brexit at the referendum was conveyed by José Manuel García-Margallo, the country’s acting Foreign Minister, in an interview published in El País on 18th April, in which he draws attention to the referendum being held at a particularly delicate moment for the EU, with Greece’s bailout and the refugee crisis remaining unresolved, and member states reluctant to share sensitive information in the fight against jihadi terrorism. He concludes, ‘If Cameron’s domestic problems are added to the above concerns, there is a genuine risk that a no vote might prevail. And that really worries the Spanish government’.[3] The Popular Party government’s unease at the possible consequences of Brexit is linked to its wish not to lose a key ally in the promotion of market-friendly economic policies throughout the EU. Concern that a vote in favour of Brexit at the June referendum might spark off turmoil within the financial and bond markets will also concern the Popular Party government; it only narrowly avoided having to request the kind of EU bailout required by Greece, Ireland and Portugal just months after entering office towards the end of 2011. Although the Spanish economy has recently been enjoying the highest average rate of growth in the euro zone, there are fears that recovery is starting to show signs of running out of steam, a development which has not been helped by the country’s protracted political stalemate. These concerns are shared by the centre-right Ciudadanos (Citizens), which may well have a decisive role to play in the formation of a coalition government following the general election in June. The socialist PSOE also supported the decision of acting Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy to support the deal reached between David Cameron and the EU at the Brussels Council meeting in February, indicating that the agreement was necessary in order to reduce the possibility of a vote in favour of Brexit at the June referendum. The anti-austerity Podemos nevertheless recommended that Rajoy should refuse to back the agreement. Pablo Bustinduy, Podemos’s spokesperson on the Parliamentary Foreign Affairs Committee, warned that the EU’s proposal to avoid Brexit set a ‘terrible legal and political precedent’ given that it discriminated between EU workers on the basis of their country of origin.[4]

As noted at the beginning of this piece, Spain is currently in a period of political limbo, and parties’ failure to strike a deal on the formation of a stable coalition government has hardly endeared them to the Spanish electorate, who will have to vote again six months after the last general election. Should its UK equivalent vote in favour of withdrawal from the EU days before that election, Spaniards will at least go to the polls in the knowledge that the level of uncertainty in the immediate aftermath – no matter what the result – will be as nothing compared to that of the UK following the referendum.


This blog post is part of a new IPR Series – all related to the BREXIT debate and the EU Referendum. This collection of commissioned blog posts will be published as an IPR Policy Brief in May 2016. Sign up to the IPR blog to get the latest blog posts, or to our mailing list to receive invitations to our events and copies of our Policy Briefs.
[1] ¿Merece Reino Unido un nuevo acomodo en Europa?: http://www.realinstitutoelcano.org/wps/portal/web/rielcano_es/contenido?WCM_GLOBAL_CONTEXT=/elcano/elcano_es/zonas_es/molina-llaudes-merece-reino-unido-nuevo-acomodo-europa/&utm_source=Newsletter188&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Feb2016

and, Spain’s stance on Cameron’s negotiations: http://www.realinstitutoelcano.org/wps/portal/web/rielcano_es/contenido?WCM_GLOBAL_CONTEXT=/elcano/elcano_in/zonas_in/ARI24-2016-Llaudes-Molina-Spain-stance-Cameron-negotiations

[2] http://www.migrationobservatory.ox.ac.uk/commentary/pulling-power-why-are-eu-citizens-migrating-uk
[3] Entrevista con el ministro de Asuntos Exteriores en funciones, José Manuel García-Margallo, http://politica.elpais.com/politica/2016/04/15/actualidad/1460744154_168408.html
[4] Para evitar "un mal mayor": El PSOE asume que Rajoy debe firmar el acuerdo para evitar el 'Brexit', http://www.europapress.es/nacional/noticia-psoe-asume-rajoy-debe-firmar-acuerdo-evitar-brexit-20160214125945.html

Posted in: Brexit, European politics, Migration


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