As Spain veers decisively to the right ahead of general election, where does this leave EU-UK treaty?
By F Oliva
The ruling PSOE Government suffered a crushing defeat at the hands of the PP (and Vox) at the recent municipal and regional elections in Spain, far less significant in number of votes – a difference of three percentage points -- than in the huge loss of political and institutional power incurred in ayuntamientos and regional parliaments up and down the country.
But the full seismic impact of the blue tsunami that ousted leftist coalitions from most large cities and from all but one of the autonomous assemblies – Castilla La Mancha, where PSOE clung on to a slender majority – was interrupted by President Sanchez’s surprise decision to dissolve the national parliament and convene a general election on July 23, effectively an all or nothing political ‘shootout’ that will determine Spain’s direction of travel for the next decade and possibly beyond.
Last chance saloon for Sanchez and the Podemos gang
There are two good reasons for Sanchez to take this huge electoral gamble: after the weekend he was a political cadaver whose career was hanging from a thread, and the scheduled December election would merely have prolonged his and the PSOE’s agony, while strengthening the right even further, en route to a foreseeable PP-Vox landslide at the polls.
Additionally and in a rare display of honesty, Sanchez acknowledged that the recent results should be seen as transcending the scope of a local election, as a frontal rejection and repudiation of the radical policies and configuration of a government, that has split Spanish society apart, reopening many wounds of the Spanish Civil War. His coalition of socialists, communists, separatists and former ETA terrorists sharing a desire to liquidate the legacy of the transition that brought about the new democratic constitution of 1978, agreed by the two warring sides of 1936.
With Spain shortly due to assume the presidency of the European Union for the next six months, Sanchez has correctly deemed it of categorical importance that the Spanish people decide and democratically endorse the type of country it wants to be, from the two widely divergent models on offer, between mutually exclusive visions of Spanish history, the present and the future. The ‘progressive’ articulation of Spain as a collectivized, republican, egalitarian, interventionist state and fragmented nation of nations, as opposed to the conservative alternative of traditionalist values, with freedom of choice, strong government and separation of powers at its core, in one sole nation.
What some have called the actions of a master tactician, but also of a political ‘desperado’ running out of options, the president has succeeded in changing the narrative, avoiding the doom and gloom of a protracted post-mortem into the defeat, and averting the likelihood of an internal leadership challenge being mounted to get rid of him, to bring the PSOE back into the mainstream of the Felipe Gonzalez and Guerra era, as a national party of the centre-left.
Instead, he disconnects the time-line fast forwarding to a completely new scenario eager to rally his supporters for the supreme political confrontation.
Sanchez will be hoping that a low turn-out at the height of summer works in his favour, and that the fall-out of up to 22 far left splinter groups from the nationwide disintegration of key ally Podemos, can be galvanized under the ‘Sumar’ brand – essentially Podemos mark II – to present a united front of ‘progressive’ forces under the PSOE umbrella. Securing this is his immediate challenge and even then, there is no guarantee that it will be enough to impede what appears as Feijoo and Abascal’s inexorable advance to la Moncloa.
Sanchez, Gibraltar’s croupier in the Treaty
There will be time for a detailed analysis of how this leaves the Spanish political scene ahead of Sanchez’s double or quits wager, but an examination of its effect on ongoing negotiations for an EU-UK treaty for frontier fluidity and a trade agreement, is now more pressing than ever.
If already any movement this side of summer was looking unlikely, it now appears that the treaty has been kicked into the autumn if we are lucky, rather than into the long grass if we are not. There was potentially an opening for Picardo to have followed suit with his own snap election (that would have obliterated Azopardi) in pursuit of a fresh mandate to negotiate a safe treaty without overhanging strictures.
It is unclear whether the NYE Agreement has been superseded by a new set of principles, but whatever remains on the table, should always be measured against the effects of a no-deal outcome, and how this would devastate our economy, living standards and way of life. Confronted by the moment of truth, the vast majority of Gibraltarians would be willing to give Picardo their backing to go the extra mile in pursuit of a deal.
Playing the waiting game cedes the initiative to the outcome of the Spanish elections with three potential resolutions: a PP-Vox coalition government which would complicate matters; a PP majority government where the possibility of an Alfonso Dastis-type figure being appointed as Foreign Secretary seems more realistic than a Margallo profile, thus a treaty would still be achievable; a PSOE/Sumar/Podemos majority, which would mean picking up the negotiations where they were left.
Interestingly, Ramon Tamames, the Vox candidate at the censure motion against Sanchez earlier this year, in comments to 13TV declared that in a hypothetical PP-Vox administration, where Santiago Abascal would be a vice-president, the PP would ring fence certain areas of government such as foreign affairs and climate change policies. It is also worth noting that it was under a PP Government that the current treaty process was initiated, during the tenure of Foreign Secretary Dastis. That is a ray of hope.
Another consideration is that in this day and age no government of whatever ideological persuasion, can play with or threaten the livelihood of normal citizens, and even Vox would have to consider that a hostile approach to Gibraltar could end up with 10,000 Spanish families or more in the Campo area losing their jobs. During the Franco era the government was not answerable to the electorate every four years; nowadays all governments are answerable through social media to the public every minute of the day. Additionally it was Macarena Olona the Vox candidate to the Junta de Andalucia in 2020 who intemperately threatened to close the frontier. She is no longer in Vox and no such stupid pronouncements have been made since.
Existential parallels for Gibraltar and Spain
There are certain parallels in Sanchez’s posture calling on the people of Spain to decide between two diametrically different political and social models, and the dilemma of existential proportions we are facing in respect of a treaty versus a hard Brexit. If we have a deal, Gibraltar’s economy will develop to its maximum potential, becoming a magnet for international investment, creating economic activity, wealth and employment on both sides of the border. If we do not, Gibraltar will be plunged into the abyss, with consequences that have already been officially well documented.
At such a delicate juncture, public opinion should be confident that we can still sway the balance, that we hold the Royal Flush and remain in a strong enough position to win the game for the entire region. Whatever perceived impediments, unknown interests, MoD and media pressures, British Government dithering, a hostile Vox or anybody else, there should be a clear focus to rebuff attempts to cut us off from our own future development.
Where does the final hurdle lie?
If the problem is Frontex, let us ensure that the RGP are integrated into the organisation to play an active part in Schengen arrangements; if the concern is ‘Spanish boots’, let us be pragmatic and cede grounds, like countries routinely do so for the establishment of diplomatic missions and embassies, for that presence to be physically contained in a delineated area that is legally and constitutionally defined. Maybe these are not even serious obstacles and we are facing an abstraction, a miedo escenico on the part of the main players tasked with the huge burden of historical responsibility of replacing a 300-year-old diplomatic tract with something superior but untried and untested.
Modern Europe has been built on a system of political compromises, diplomatic cooperation and reciprocity by all member states in pursuit of a greater good. Dogmatic constructs were left behind long ago, purist concepts of nationhood no longer interfere with the well-being of citizens. It is about time that the people of Gibraltar made clear that in 2023 there is overwhelming consensus to the effect that no-one is willing to undergo economic suffering and hardship for themselves or their families. There is nothing more priceless.