Brexit and the view from Spain

Brexit had a decisive impact on how Spaniards voted, swinging energy from Podemos back to the traditional parties.

British tourists toast for the win of Brexit outside a cafe in Benidorm, Alicante, eastern Spain [EPA]
British tourists toast the win of Brexit outside a cafe in Benidorm, Alicante, eastern Spain [EPA]

Some 761,000 Britons live in Spain, mostly pensioners living a sunny retirement on the Costa del Sol. Largely leading quiet lives, many would have been at the shops if Sunday had been a normal day, snapping up the new Malaga version of the board game, Monopoly. 

But the Brexit vote has caused storm clouds to gather, keeping many inside worrying over endless cups of tea.

Will the excellent – and for this group, essential – healthcare they receive from Spain’s public health system end in two years? Will they be forced to return to a cold, rainy England and a broken NHS?

Spain election: Conservatives win, but without majority

Spaniards dependent upon Britons are worried, too. Property agents know there aren’t enough Germans or Finns to buy all the surplus housing.

And there is a vast service industry in southern Spain dependent upon Brits. Spanish waiters, plumbers, cashiers and gardeners will not find jobs on the Costa – or anywhere else – if more than half a million Britons leave.

Spain’s alarming brain drain

Working now in the UK are 200,000 young Spanish professionals, victims of Spain’s alarming brain drain. They are set to lose free access to the NHS and other crucial social security benefits.

ALSO READ: Europe is the creation of the Third World

As UK Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond stated even before the vote, Britain may have to introduce a quota system if Brexit occurs, leaving Spaniards and their British jobs “up in the air”.

Spaniards dependent upon Brits are worried, too. Property agents know there aren't enough Germans or Finns to buy all the surplus housing.


In a comment to a British friend today on Facebook, I explained my absence from the Brexit debate, citing my closest link to the UK being once having spent a splendid year doing A levels at Goldsmith College. But Brexit is now affecting my temporary home in Madrid, too.

For all the public statements urging “calm and serenity” issued on Friday by Mariano Rajoy, Spain’s acting prime minister, Spain’s leading stock index, the IBEX 35, lost more than 1,000 points – far more than either French or German stock markets.

Expansion, Spain’s largest business newspaper, said the losses totalled about $70 billion, describing today as the “worst session ever”.

Worst hit were Spanish banks. Most Spaniards won’t be crying, as the banking crash and consequent taxpayer bailout were, as in the US, universally loathed.

And Spain’s boom in the late 1990s was too brief for Spaniards to feel secure – or rich – enough to invest in the stock market.

Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias [Reuters]
Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias [Reuters]

But Spain held new elections to form a government on Sunday, its second election in six months. And in the short time between Friday and Sunday, politicians worked the Brexit card hard.

Feigning public sadness

Within hours of the Brexit vote results, every party leader was making political capital from it. Conservatives, while feigning public sadness, were privately expressing alegria (Spanish for joy), believing that jittery voters would opt for security and stability.

But while one side of Spain’s right was making cooing noises, another was inflaming.

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“Our formula is British-Spanish co-sovereignty for a determined period of time, after which … We will head towards restitution of Gibraltar to Spanish sovereignty,” Jose Manuel Garcia-Margallo, foreign minister, told Spanish radio. His comments caused a surge in Spanish nationalism, with “Gibraltar Espanol” trending on Twitter.


Meanwhile, Spain’s left, split between an older Socialist party, PSOE, and newcomer Podemos, was even more divided in its response. Busy on the campaign trail, the PSOE leader, Pedro Sanchez, told a gathering that Brexit is what happens when decisions which belong to politicians are transferred to citizens.

His words went viral, causing many to cynically write: “You are right. In the time of Franco, such things did not happen.”

Sanchez is not alone in blaming voters. Experts and ordinary citizens have been falling all over themselves to blame the xenophobia and stupidity of UK’s 52 percent. Yet, Fran Arujo, a Madrid-based film director/screenwriter, said this to me: “They made this social disaster. Then they put the blame on the people who voted … Without asking why it happened.”

Republican US presidential candidate Donald Trump [Reuters]
Republican US presidential candidate Donald Trump [Reuters]

In the US, dismissing opponents of mainstream Democrats as ignorant racists, instead of realising that many had legitimate economic grievances, was a huge mistake. Donald Trump became its opportunistic beneficiary.

Similarly, UK leaders didn’t address what has happened to public services due to austerity, or the labour market because of globalisation (and I would add robotisation, which no politician – British, American or Spanish – is speaking about.)

Stability and social justice

Podemos was expected to score well on Sunday – not least because it built its existence on listening to those concerns: “We will work to weave alliances with workers from across Europe, to build a Europe which serves the needs of the majority.”

ALSO READ: Brexit: The night the UK became a little island

Last spring, Clinton responded to Trump’s marketing team distributing hats saying “Make America Great Again” by handing out hats saying “America is already great”.

After five years of living in Spain, if someone asked me for a soundbite describing Spaniards I would say: Anarchists who love security.


Mocked and ridiculed, Trump’s team let the hats pile up in the warehouse.

In a West where the left for decades has bent over backwards to please business interests, Podemos rebels: “Brexit shows that stability is impossible under current policies. Stability can only be achieved through social justice.”

And that rebellion was punished in Sunday’s election. Brexit had a decisive effect on how Spain’s citizens voted, swinging energy from new party Podemos back to the traditional parties, Conservatives and Socialists.

After five years of living in Spain, if someone asked me for a soundbite describing Spaniards I would say: Anarchists who love security. And on Sunday, the Spanish need for security won.

A popular meme circulating last weekend had a photo of the British flag, the Union Jack, with the words “Colonises half the world, complains about immigrants” superimposed on it. Spain was once a great coloniser, too – but most Spaniards don’t share the British phobia about immigrants.

While Rajoy has balked at Spain’s commitment to take 160,000 refugees, many cities – Madrid, Barcelona, and others – have been planning, and fighting, for refugees to come and make new homes here.

Spain's acting prime minister and People's Party leader Mariano Rajoy [Reuters]
Spain’s acting prime minister and People’s Party leader Mariano Rajoy [Reuters]

Spain arguably has benefited more from EU funding than any other European country: High-speed trains connect its regional capitals, and sleek airports enabled Spain to become a world leader in tourism.

Overwhelming, Spaniards are pro-EU. But that could change with Sunday’s election results.

Rajoy and the Conservatives have campaigned on a promise of lowering taxes and an end to (EU-imposed) austerity measures. Yet, last month a confident email sent from Rajoy to European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker was leaked to the media.

In it, Rajoy acknowledged that Spain had again failed to meet its deficit goals. Despite this, Rajoy begged for more time: “In the second half of 2016, once there is a new government, we will be ready to take further measures to meet deficit goals.”

If the Conservatives are willing to sacrifice Rajoy for a more progressive face, the Socialists might agree to a coalition...


In short, it was an appeal from friend to friend: Let me win this election, and then – despite what I have told the Spanish people – I’m your man.

A more progressive face

Rajoy and the Conservatives gained supporters on Sunday. While this strengthens their hand, it didn’t give them enough seats in Parliament to form a government. However, if the Conservatives are willing to sacrifice Rajoy for a more progressive face, the Socialists might agree to a coalition – a scenario that was anathema only days ago. 

It’s too early “to call” this political horse race. But Pedro Sanchez and the Socialists will be loath to form a government with Podemos after their much-lower-than-expected numbers at the polls. Many are already calling Sunday’s election the death of Spain’s New Left.

At the minimum, the Socialists will “agree” not to vote against a Conservative (or PP/Ciudadanos coalition) government. This, functionally, puts Conservatives and Socialists in bed together, albeit with the curtains closed. And if these two parties, both of whom are extremely willing to agree to whatever the EU mandates, make an agreement, however silent …

In a few months’ time – when EU-imposed deficit targets have to be reached and new austerity measures are imposed upon Spaniards already profoundly struggling – like Britons, Spaniards will realise their mistake. And, very much like in the UK now, all hell will break loose.

Gina Benevento is a former UN diplomat based in Jerusalem, now living and working in Madrid as a strategic communications consultant.

The views expressed in this article are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.