28th July 2016
Seen from the perspective of a country that has been without a government for over six months and with little prospect of the impasse being resolved in the immediate term, the relatively speedy and apparently pragmatic election of Theresa May as Conservative party leader and UK Prime Minister has confounded many Spanish commentators. How can it be that in a space of less than a month, a country that seemed to be staring into abyss all of a sudden has a new female Prime Minister with, at least on the surface of it, a level of authority within her party without any more recent precedent than that of Margaret Thatcher? On the opposite end of the scale, Spain: two general elections in six months, no end to the stalemate in site, and all four political parties showing a total incapacity to hold their respective leaders to account for their failings.
Was the UK not supposed to be facing political and economic Armageddon following the Brexit vote? Apart from the more affordable pound, which in any case benefits UK exports, the markets seem to have more or less recovered from the initial jitters and the much feared economic collapse of a more ‘isolationist’ UK has not so far come about. Meanwhile, it is not hard to find other European examples –Spain’s own political instability, Italy’s banks, the rise of the far right in France and Germany- that would allow an analyst to be forgiven for thinking that relatively speaking, Britain is not in such a bad state after all.
Clearly the picture is not so straightforward. The on the face of it democratic procedure for Britain deciding its status within or outside the EU is not without its critics. So it goes that referendums don’t speak for Parliamentary sovereignty any more than the European Commission. In fact, this specific case seems to demonstrate quite to what extent popular plebiscites tend to shed light on divisions more than they unite a society at a crossroads. It is still early days to judge the real economic fall-out and it even appears that many companies are not yet fully factoring in the economic consequences of a hard Brexit. Maybe they are naively optimistic regarding the possibility a traditional fudge that allows Britain to retain access to the single market while more effectively protecting its borders. Time will tell, and both the UK and the EU have entered unchartered waters without any real indication of what it will mean long term. Nevertheless, in business as in diplomacy perception is nine tenths of the law and, it can already be said that British democracy has in a short space of time given the rest of us a lesson on the best and worst practices in crisis management.
Politics is never black and white and events can be viewed from a whole variety of angles. Nevertheless, the Conservative Party’s management of its own internal crisis to all intents and purposes seems to have been a success. A party historically ridden with ideological divisions over Europe has, without losing power in the process, managed to elect a leader who is viewed both domestically and internationally to be a safe pair of hands and who in fact supported Britain remaining in the EU in the referendum campaign. Subsequently, May has promptly demonstrated strong leadership and has brought the leavers on board by attempting to mould her image much in the way of that of the Iron Lady, while at the same time speaking for the poor and dispossessed, many of whom saw voting for Brexit as the only escape valve for their frustration.
On the other extreme, while the crisis seems to be being managed deftly by those who have been left to pick up the pieces, a bigger question mark is being raised in the Spanish media as to how the country managed to get into such a complex situation in the first place. Once again, excusing possible differences in perception, the fact that a referendum was initially called to apparently solve an internal party conflict, thus dividing a country down the middle on an issue –Europe- that to many voters had not really been at the top of their list of priorities would appear to have been supremely negligent. As a result, in line with the popular cliché, a referendum was held in which one question was asked and voters responded by answering a variety of different ones. The EU was held up as a proxy for all the country’s ills, the election campaign led to sore division and even the murder of a politician, there was no government contingency plan for the eventuality of a Leave vote and a question mark has even been placed over the legality or constitutionality of a Brexit.
In Spain, the whole idea of referendums is a highly contentious subject, especially in the context of movements towards a possible declaration of independence in Catalonia. The Spanish constitution states that no region can separate from Spain unless a referendum is held on a national level in which all Spanish citizens can vote. The outgoing government has voiced strong opposition to deciding such significant issues on the basis of a referendum, and for many the chaos surrounding the Brexit referendum in the UK would only seem to have demonstrated that it is best for these matters to be decided by Parliament. Following the referendum in which the Scots voted against independence from the UK, many in Spain suggested that Cameron had set an example to be followed in allowing Scotland to determine its own future. Until the political stalemate in Spain is broken and a new government is formed, it will continue to be unclear to what extent this perception has been swept away by the Brexit tsunami, or whether the popular vote in the UK will have a domino effect spreading as far as once strongly europhile Spain. Much will depend on Britain’s success in dealing with the fall-out in the coming months and years.
Spain has strong links to the UK. Many Spanish people have friends and family there or have lived and worked there at some point themselves. British culture and music is popular over here and the two countries share the same fascination with football. Perhaps more importantly, a considerable number of Spanish companies, including banks, have considerable economic links to the UK. The referendum result has therefore caused considerable surprise and concern in Madrid where the stockmarket suffered one of the largest falls on the day of the announcement. Whatever happens, events in Britain will not be off the front pages for some time to come.
Adrian Elliot, Grayling Spain
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