New Faces in Southern Europe: Should the EU Be Worried?

Press conference of Syriza's leader (Flickr/Gabriele Zimmer & Alexis Tsipras)

This is a year of elections and political shifts in Southern Europe. Non-traditional parties such as the recently elected Syriza in Greece and the increasingly prominent Podemos in Spain are challenging the political establishment. Their popularity can be explained by a long-lasting economic crisis in the Eurozone as well as domestic political and institutional problems. Here legacies of corruption are as much responsible as Brussels-appeasing budget cuts for changing tides of public opinion. Given the quick pace of this transformation, many are now wondering whether the European Union should be concerned—are we seeing expressions of nationalistic and euroskeptic feelings in Southern Europe? On the contrary, could these forces be a push for a different, even more integrated, EU?

The first of the region’s major elections were held in Greece in January. Syriza, a coalition of leftist parties that had only 4 percent of the national vote in 2009 and had become the main opposition force by 2012, won the snap elections and only fell two seats short of an absolute majority. To form a government, it chose a small right-wing nationalist party called ANEL (Independent Greeks) as a junior coalition partner. Unsurprisingly, Syriza and ANEL disagree on many issues, such as attitudes towards migration, Turkey, and homosexuality, but they are on the same page regarding the need to put an end to austerity policies and debt renegotiation.

Opponents of the new coalition portray it as a euroskeptic front, but Syriza has so far insisted that it wants Greece to remain part of the EU and that exiting the Eurozone is out of the question. To that end, Syriza rejected forming a coalition with the Communist Party of Greece, which is against membership in the EU. Nonetheless, the first few months of the new government will be rather tense because some of Greece’s creditors are governments and institutions that remain staunch defenders of austerity measures. Greece might also be tempted to put pressure on the EU on issues that are not related to the economic agenda. For instance, one of the first controversial actions of the new government was to halt a new round of sanctions against Russia. And yet, Syriza has a unique opportunity to prove that it is willing to reform and strengthen the EU, not to dismantle it. European institutions, in turn, also have the chance to prove they are open to adopting different political solutions to the continent’s structural problems.

The next testing ground for the future of the EU in Southern Europe will be Spain, which has four important election cycles scheduled this year: Andalusia in March, local and regional polls across the whole country in May, Catalonia in September, and general elections by the end of the year. The results of these elections are expected to be a blow to the bipartisan logic that has prevailed in Spanish politics for more than two decades. According to most polls, two parties are on the rise: the newly emerged Podemos and Ciudadanos, a catch-all party created in Catalonia that will now compete in state-wide elections. Podemos will not be the only “new face” in Spanish politics, but it is the one capitalizing on the anti-establishment indignados movement that took to the streets in 2011 and claims to represent a new form of grassroots politics, giving voice to “those from below against those on top.”

Although they are often put in the same basket, there are significant differences between Podemos and Syriza: Podemos is a brand new party, it refuses to be categorized within the left-right cleavage, and its stance on the EU is less central in its political discourse and more ambiguous. At its political debut at the May 2014 European elections, it called for strengthening cooperation among Southern European countries and also proposed an EU-wide constituent process, new formulas to give more voice to ordinary European citizens, reinforcing the EU’s social policies, and imposing legally binding European mechanisms to increase transparency. That should mean more European integration, not less. And yet, the matter is complicated by Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias’s strong patriotic streak and insistence on “defending and protecting national sovereignty” from foreign diktats.

The Catalan independence movement is also simultaneously challenging the Spanish political establishment ahead of polls scheduled for September 27. What this means for the EU is again up for debate. Catalan nationalism has traditionally been very pro-European and its leaders often claim to prefer that Brussels make decisions rather than Madrid. The Spanish government nonetheless insists that declaring independence would leave Catalonia out of the EU. Political and social leaders in the pro-independence camp reply that Brussels always finds pragmatic solutions to such problems, although some of them acknowledge that a “transition period” may be needed. According to most opinion polls, support for independence decreases if it implies exiting the EU and, consequently, the issue of EU membership will be construed as threatening the independence movement. The risk is that the emotional attachment of supporters of Catalan independence to European integration could wane.

Another gauge of Southern Europe’s political temperature will come from Portuguese elections in October. The country has also been severely hit by the Eurozone crisis and the drastic austerity measures its government imposed in response. Adding to this are scandals such as the November 2014 detainment of former prime minister José Sócrates, who was accused of corruption, tax evasion, and money laundering. Portugal has drawn comparisons with Greece through the existence of the Syriza-like party Bloco de Esquerda (Left Bloc). And, similar to Spain’s indignados, it witnessed major demonstrations in 2011 led by the Geração à Rasca (the precarious generation).

There are, however, a range of differences in the Portuguese situation and those of these other countries. Unlike with Syriza, popular support for the Left Bloc declined in 2014, and it obtained less than 5 percent of the vote in the most recent European elections, compared with 10 percent in the previous poll. Attempts to translate the Geração à Rasca unrest into a new political force have also failed to materialize, though some activists continue to try and launch a Podemos-type platform. It is still seven months until the elections, and it remains to be seen whether and how popular discontent in Portugal will express itself and whether Europe will rank high in the political debates.

So far it seems that the emerging alternative political forces in Greece, Spain, and Portugal are more eurocritical than euroskeptical. But the political atmosphere in Southern Europe remains one of particular turbulence and requires continued monitoring. Leaders and supporters of the new parties and movements could still distance themselves from the European integration project and fall into pursuing a more nationalistic narrative, particularly if the EU and its institutions are not ready to take their demands into consideration. A worst-case scenario might be a deepening fissure—not only between political ideologies but also between Northern and Southern Europe.

Eduard Soler i Lecha is Research Coordinator at the Barcelona Centre for International Affairs.