Can the Migration Plan of Spain’s PSOE Reverse the Fortunes of Europe’s Social Democrats?

By Giacomo Riccio, an international relations and diplomacy graduate. Originally published at openDemocracy

European social democratic parties of the most populated EU countries have been trudging through stagnant water for the last ten years and will certainly keep struggling in the next decades too, unless a game change occurs. That game changer could go by the name of Pedro Sanchez, currently Spain’s prime minister, and his attempt to revolutionize Spain’s approach towards migration.

Since the end of the 1990s, the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla have been surrounded by fences to protect Spain’s territorial integrity and expressly to keep migrants out. During the last 7 years of the Rajoy government the attitude towards the issue was not exactly an example of light touch regulation and Spain became infamously known for its firm-handed migration policy, which has led to frequent riots and consistent skirmishes between the Spanish patrol police and the migrants trying to breach the fences

But now things are about to change. Recently, Spain’s new Prime Minister pledged, during an Onda Cero radio broadcast, that his government is willing to remove the razor wire fences from both Ceuta and Melilla, thus sensibly shifting the political approach of Madrid towards the migration phenomenon. This could be a turning point for Sanchez’s Party, the PSOE, and ultimately for the future of social democracy in the European Union.

However, the impact could go either way.

According to the political scientist Ernst Hillebrand, alongside with terrorism and the economic crisis, migration is one of the main political issues of the second millennium and the stumbling block against which the flimsy waves of European centre-left parties have crashed themselves during recent electoral campaigns.

The inability of traditional centre-left forces to address the migration issue and offer an alternative proposal to the far-right narrative on this trend topic has been the iceberg that has led to the sinking of left-wing and moderate left vessels all across the EU. Two vivid examples of this powerlessness are the trajectories of both the Italian Democratic Party and the French Socialist Party during the most recent elections (2018 in Italy, 2017 in France). The former obtained a dispiriting result (18.8% of the votes), losing almost 8% from previous elections and 185 seats at the Chambers of Deputies, while the latter had even a worse nightmare totalling 7.44% of the votes at the legislative elections and 6.36% at the presidential ones, moving from the 10 million votes obtained by Francois Hollande in 2012 to the 2 million votes of Benoît Hamon in 2017. Both parties were bearing the brunt of the outgoing government, but paid even a higher price due to their incapacity to structurally address the migration phenomenon in a more concrete fashion, thus losing votes in favour of the far-right and/or populist forces.

Compared to these two parties, the PSOE and Pedro Sanchez have a major advantage: they know where the iceberg is and what it is made of. Nonetheless they will still need to identify the proper route to circumnavigate it with little or no damage, if they wish to bring the ship safely back to harbour (possibly for another glorious journey). Metaphors aside, this means that Pedro el Guapo and his socialist crew will have to find an alternative proposal to solving the issue which must go beyond the leftist “everybody is welcome” and, at the same time, must reject the usual far-right storytelling. A proposal that calls at the same time for burden sharing, EU solidarity mechanisms and refugees quotas on a mandatory (not voluntary) basis, as well as long-term solutions, flows control, development aid and EU political efforts towards the stability of both the Mediterranean and the Sub-Saharan regions.

All in all, the future of the EU social democratic parties very likely depends on how the PSOE will address the migration issue and on the cascade effect it could possibly trigger. In the next European elections, scheduled for May 2019, the Spanish Socialist Party will only aspire to the 59 Spanish seats at the European Parliament. Nonetheless, should they be able to find by that time an innovative compromise proposal on migration, the other European centre-left forces might well replicate the inspiring PSOE model and benefit from an encouraging spill-over effect, thus reversing the negative trend they have experienced so far. Should the Spanish socialists fail at finding such a compromise, they will gradually disappear from the political map, as it is happening to other socialist and centre-left parties, thus wasting the very last chance of survival for social democracy in the EU.

Suerte Pedro, you are going to need it.

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  1. generic

    Is there any basis for the claim that it was migration that killed the French socialists? They had to follow from a supremely unpopular President that inflicted austerity on the country in a direct violation of his election pledges, went into the election under a leader that was too much of a leftist for the party establishment but faced an opponent in Melenchon with stronger leftist credentials, and finally also faced a split by the extreme center. It’s not the Front National that killed them.

  2. Lorenzo

    So I’m pretty sure the article is wrong on the count that it was Pedro Sanchez himself who’s said this: apparently it’s was the Minister of the Interior Fernando Grande-Marlaska ( in Spanish. can’t for the life of me figure out how to use the link feature, I’m sorry). He didn’t say they’d remove the fence either, but the razor wire, which has been causing a number of ‘high profile’ injuries , as in frequently reported and talked about in Spanish, with some gross images and close-ups to boot.

    There’s also the detail that Grande-Marlaska was promoted twice within the judicial branch under the previous government of the PP, which still outnumbers PSOE 2-1 in congresspersons. I read some extra reporting on the migration issue and indeed Pedro himself is making some moves in this area, having recently called for some kind of international Summit On Migration in Spain with expected attendees from the EU and other international bodies, during his second meeting with Macron in just a month.

    As for the scenario the article is proposing: stinks of wishful thinking. The dwindling voter base has been as much of a problem for PSOE as it has for other center-left parties who, might I add, as Yanis Varoufakis recently has said, seem relegated to ‘feeding the nationalist international’. The last council summit, after which Varoufakis made his remark, with Sanchez in attendance and a couple weeks into his tenure, came up with a compromise that just doesn’t fit with what he’s saying the center-left ought to be pushing for.

    1. Lorenzo

      to add to this, PSOE has lost a key vote in the lower house today, which to Wolfgang Munchau of the FT means that ‘the likelihood of early general elections would rise substantially’. And they were left all alone at that: the PP and C’s (to their right) and some regional parties voted against; UP coalition (to their left), the Catalans and Valencians abstained. Quite a nasty business too, plenty of finger-pointing, PSOE claiming they could do the pass thing by decree, the whole works.

  3. Anonimo2

    “The inability of traditional centre-left forces to address the migration issue and offer an alternative proposal to the far-right narrative on this trend topic has been the iceberg that has led to the sinking of left-wing and moderate left vessels all across the EU.”

    Well, that’s blatantly false. The fact that the so-called social democratic parties have sold their souls to international capital and have betrayed the working classes they were supposed to represent might have something to do with their decline. Just saying.

    On the other hand, we should not forget that traditionally “open borders” is not a working-class friendly politic. The business class loves it because it puts downward pressure on wages. Moreover, I do not see we I, as a powerless worker, should give up my living standard so as to compensate that the unelected elites of the USA have decided to destroy the whole of the ME.

  4. JTMcPhee

    Passing mention of the external causes of all this migration is made. Don’t see where
    Pedro has much of a means to change the impetuses that are driving millions to flee or seek increased wealth-garnering opportunities or both. Considering that the MIC/NATO/5eyes bunch are all in for destabilization, crisis and chaos creation, and looting until the planet’s biosphere collapses.

    So, the mopery will “learn” another rigged “lesson,” that nominal progressives have no answers for them…

    Cue the man with the beard on the white horse…

  5. Adam Eran

    This is another of those systemic problems that direct solutions (e.g. “the wall”) will only partly address. Global warming is going to continue to send plenty of refugees north, here and in Europe, never mind the constant centuries-long attacks on the global South by the colonial powers (between 1789 and 1994, the U.S. was responsible for 41 changes of government south of its borders).

    So…there is not going to be a speedy solution. One helpful MMT policy would be a job guarantee, which would ratchet down the power of the divide-and-conquer narrative from the political right (“They’re coming for your jobs! And possibly to devour your grandchildren, or at least rape them! I’ll build a wall to protect you!”). If you have a genuine social safety net, it’s hard to resent refugees as job-stealers, at least.

    1. 4corners

      Workers in certain industries, such as construction, are justifiably concerned about what liberal immigration policies mean for their jobs. And many others should be concerned about what it does to wages (from fast food all the way up to tech). Conflating these realities with the crazy talk is dismissive, and part of the reason we see voters swing rightward. A social safety net would be small consolation for the 90%ers with lowered standards of living.

    2. Jean

      Changes of government? So what, Italy has had I believe 38 changes of government in this century.

      Get rid of the fences and thus allow entry into Europe with a short in country ferry ride across the Straits of Gibraltar and Spain commits national suicide.

      1. Whiskey Bob

        Was Italy the victim of imperialism of the first world upon the third where the third’s governments are overthrown if they do not meet the first’s interests?

  6. /lasse

    Socialdemocratic parties have for 1/4 century alienated them self from their base, the working class, by embracing neoliberalistic globalist madness. Open the borders for more immigration will not help them. Western and Central Europe are already one of the most desly populated places on earth.

    Socialdemocracy in Sweden have been the strongest socialdemocracy in Europe. The prognosis for the September election are that they do their worst election since the semi-democratic election 1907. A total collapse.
    There is a real chance that the so called extreme right nationalists will be the largest party.

    Credence and confidence built for numerous decades have been shattered by late decades ignorants, how could you ever again trust someone that betrayed and sold you out?
    Everybody “know” and feel the betrayal but only a rare few know the enormous scale of it. And MSM won’t inform about it.

    1. fajensen

      The “fun” starts after the September elections. Right now “everything” and “everyone” are petrified with fear for being the causative agents to be blamed over the upcoming social democrat wipeout and their replacement (in votes) by “Sverigesdemokraterne” (SD).

      After the elections, Everything, like raising the interest rates from -0.5% p/a and the following property crash in Stockholm, can be safely blamed on the election performance of SD (or rather, commentators will be very polite and use code-words like “political instability” and the “unclear political situation”).

      Basically, all “independent” actors like the central bank and business will rather immediately make whatever adjustments they have been putting off for more than a year waiting for “the political situation to normalise”. This happens while the “coalition government (all the losers ganging up without SD)” will be dead-locked and squabbling over nothing that anyone at all cares about.

      This means a lot of hardship coming down in 2019 and the “only” people suggesting “solutions” will be SD! What a s-show that will be! Time to polish up on Linked-In!!

  7. disillusionized

    gods the left has got to stop with this nonsense – There is but one solution it’s base wants and that’s less immigration.
    Crying children, poor refugees, They don’t care come election day.
    To simplify social democratic parties are (were) built on two different kinds of voters, the Economic left wing voter, the working class, and the Ideological left wingers, intellectuals and such.
    The former was obviously more important – but the latter tended to be the ones in charge.
    That’s often why the right could have a field day using wedge issues, like gay rights, abortion, issues which are important to the ideologues, but issues that at best are unimportant to the Economy voter, or at worst, issues where they thought differently.
    Immigration is the worst of these issues, because each and every single migrant (this is from an EU context) is a competitor for jobs housing and economic redistribution – And of course the ideologues (it’s the International after all) are very positive to immigrants leading to the problem.

    And to be clear here, even if immigration on average is positive to the economy (even though it isn’t from virtually all data i have seen for Europe – And you know what kind of immigration we are talking about) the gains from this isn’t redistributed in parity to the costs borne almost exclusively by the working class.
    Are you fucking surprised when parties that say they want to stop the immigration do well?
    Take the Swedish democrats for example, they are basically social democrats minus the left wing ideologues.
    Here is where the left wing parties have to accept that their voters don’t want immigrants, and even if that forces the parties to do things they don’t like, they have to do it.
    Doesn’t matter if that makes you ‘racist’ – they have to fucking do it Because if they don’t the future belongs to Lega Nord and their brethren.

    1. 4corners

      “the gains from this isn’t redistributed in parity to the costs borne almost exclusively by the working class”.

      This is my main concern with immigration in the US. The benefits are concentrated to business owners, immigrants) while the costs are distributed among the rest.

      In my area the largest home builder is constantly crying for “compassionate” immigration reform. Thinly veiled indeed.

      Let’s debate immigration on economic grounds or moral grounds but these days there’s too much of the one being used to prop up the other.

      1. Which is worse - bankers or terrorists

        Yes, but if benefits aren’t distributed to business owners, who creates the jobs. I have $1M sitting in the bank and might want to invest it in developing multi family labor costs. But, if labor costs are too high, I just leave it in the bank. Those are construction jobs not created.

        This is the stupidity of populism…shortsighted voting hurts workers and everyone else alike.

        1. Felix_47

          As a construction worker on the lowest rung I was earning union wage in 1963 which was 4.10 per hour for general labor with benefits such as health insurance through the Union. My foreman was in the carpenter’s Union and earned 6 dollars per hour. He had a nice house and new car and his wife did not have to work. Typical 3 kids. That kind of money would be 40 or 50 dollars per hour now….maybe more. If you leave your million in the bank you might not create construction jobs. However those jobs you think you might create are not going to Americans, or rather US citizens, and they will go to the current crop of construction workers where 7 to 10 dollars per hour is the norm. It is a lot better than the 2 dollars per hour the US and foreign carmakers pay their workers in Puebla but when they come to the US the US taxpayer pays the educational costs and the health care costs for the family since few men remain celibate. Public school in the US costs 19 to 25000 per year per pupil depending on the state. You might not want to pay 50 per hour for construction workers and you might argue that someone in Mexico only would need to pay 2 dollars per hour or one of your competitors 9 dollars per hour but my view is that if you want to build your project in the US with US legal protections and charge US retail prices then you should be forced to use US labor. Otherwise, the construction industry is ripping the nation and the taxpayers off by labor arbitrage. The only other option would be to integrate Mexico into the US so the Laborers Union could organize their laborers, strike, and raise wages and benefits to first world levels. The stupidity is that the populists listen to the capitalists. Capitalism in the US is simply socializing the costs and privatizing the profits and as you point out it hurts workers and everyone else except for the capitalists. I don’t know where I saw this but there is a saying in German: In Russland hat der Kapitalismus den Sozialismus besiegt, in Amerika hat der Kapitalismus die Demokratie besiegt. In Russia Capitalism conquered socialism and in America Capitalism conquered democracy.

          1. Which is worse - bankers or terrorists

            “The stupidity is that the populists listen to the capitalists”.

            Right, but who is going to create the construction jobs you want? I have the capacity to find a multi family site, find equity and debt, close a deal, hire an architect, engineer, and GC, get it permitted, and build it. And I can fund some equity. Can you do that? Because the system needs both of us, not just the labor side of the equation.

            Urban housing costs are in something of a crisis in major US cities, and a part of the problem is historically high construction costs. Part of that problem is construction labor asking for too much of a share of the profits, which has the negative effect of “taxing” the rest of the economy as it seeks a higher share of its revenue. Upon what argument is this reasonable?

            One of the things I am looking at as a developer is how to automate the construction process, and take labor out of the equation entirely. This is a lengthy process fraught with regulatory complexity but I do appreciate the potential to put development back in the hands of the owners, architects, and engineers (I’m also an architect). If I can automate the construction process, why should I listen to these populist arguments?

  8. Whiskey Bob

    There’s a problem where the left finds itself trapped in the imperialist policies responsible for the migrants in the first place. The only answer the liberal centrist status quo have offered is open borders. Meanwhile the right have offered a crackdown on immigration. These don’t do anything about the that root cause of the migrants. The former just chips away at workers, and the latter leaves the migrants out to dry.

    One great step to take is to finally end the imperialism responsible for the mess and to work with the originating countries to develop and become stable and help bring prosperity to their citizens. However, this is in direct conflict with the imperialist structures in place that profit off of the whole mess in the first place. Hence why the centrists and rightists stay mum to doing anything about imperialism. The left needs to leave liberalism and move further towards a socialism that can address the capitalist roots of imperialism. Workers around the world need to unite and attempt to overthrow the capitalists keeping them in conflict.

    Of course what’s making this even more difficult is the entire us vs them mentality that migrants and host workers have against each other, leading to open street riots and brawls and disorder. The migrants are trying to desperately leave conflict zones and are upset at the imperialism that had robbed them and treat them like stray animals. The host workers are upset that the migrants are disrupting their lives and that they didn’t ask for it, a case where the elites make a mess for workers to bear the consequences of.

    There isn’t going to be an easy solution, but the left needs to educate the masses about the imperialism and exploitation responsible and unite against them. I think that would be a good first step.

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