A Turn Around in Public Opinion

Article published on March 18, 2004
community published
Article published on March 18, 2004

This article has not been vetted by an editor at Paris HQ

The attacks in Madrid on March 11th paved the way for Spain’s surprise election result. The victory for José Luis Rodriguez's socialists will transform Europe’s political landscape. Issues like the European Constitution can now be seen in a new light.

In a classic own goal, José Maria Aznar’s People’s Party paved the way for its own defeat and the surprising change of government in Spain. The clear favourites in last week’s election forecasts, the conservatives gambled away much support after the devastating attacks in Madrid through their handling of information. The strategy of holding ETA responsible for the act of terror – despite the lack of factual evidence –in order to emphasise the righteousness of their own political objectives (the fight against Basque separatists being a top priority) completely backfired. The Spanish voters clearly judged the situation differently and Aznar’s government was severely punished for what public opinion deemed manipulative behaviour: an extremely high voter turnout of 77% and only 37.64% of the vote going to Aznar’s party meant a loss of 35 parliamentary seats.

An about-turn

So, in these exceptional circumstances, it now falls to the Socialists - with their top candidate José Zapatero - to take the reins. But what will the swing to the Left mean for Europe? With a comfortable majority (only 12 seats off an absolute majority), the PSOE is pursuing a programme that is in many respects a real contrast to that of the previous government. Europe will have to prepare itself for a radically different approach to foreign policy: first and foremost, we can count on an end to unconditional support for the USA, as the spectacular election promise of withdrawing all Spanish troops from Iraq clearly demonstrates. During the election campaign, Zapatero was already calling for a government capable of calling Bush’s unilateral actions into question. At the same time, turning away from a pro-America position means moving closer towards the Paris-Berlin axis, and we can assume that this will not be the only issue over which the trio will enjoy better relations in the future.

One of the areas in which José Maria Aznar’s government has not exactly made itself popular with Spain’s European partners, and in which we can now hope for rapid progress, is the issue of the European Constitution. It was, after all, Spain and Poland’s absolute refusal to budge on the issue of the Council of Ministers’ voting system which led to the failure to sign a constitution in Brussels in December 2003. Aznar’s government had secured a votes weighting deal in Nice in 2000 that gave Spain only slightly less representation than large countries such as Germany (namely 27 to 29 votes), even though Spain is home to barely half the number of EU citizens. The ‘double majority’ principle laid out in the European Constitution proposes that, as well being supported by 50% of all EU member states, for a Council of Ministers motion to pass, the countries backing it must represent 60% of EU citizens. This would inevitably lead to a loss of influence for Spain, which Aznar (like his Polish counterpart Miller) was not prepared to accept.

An absurd stance

Thanks to last Sunday’s election, the situation has now unexpectedly changed. In one fell swoop, making the European Constitution a reality has become a major goal of the Spanish state. “Our priority is getting the Constitution passed,” says Enrique Baron Crespo, leader of the Spanish Socialists in Strasbourg, who sees the brick wall stance maintained up to now as simply quite absurd. The future Prime Minister Zapatero also expressly states that he will work to ‘unify Europe and provide it with a constitution for all’. The suggestion by the Irish President of the Council of resetting the boundaries of the ‘double majority’ system at 55%, thereby meeting Spain’s demand for an increase in the quota of member votes needed for a majority, could serve as a foundation. Though the Spanish will hardly be delighted about the exact figures of the required population proportion, Zapatero appears willing to compromise: “We are in favour of the double majority system – the percentages can be discussed later.”

Since Poland and Germany have also shown willingness to make further concessions, a European constitution may even be within reach before the year’s end. Admittedly, this would mean missing the original ideal deadline of ‘some time before the parliamentary elections in June’, but no supporter of the Constitution is likely to be seriously annoyed, now that the prospect of political war of attrition with the Spanish conservatives dragging on for years has disappeared all by itself.