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‘Peak Mariano’

So he’s done it. Three hundred and thirteen days after an inconclusive general election, 125 days after its re-run and 58 days after a failed first attempt, Mariano Rajoy has formed a government, with the help of the Socialist Party.

With the wobbliest minority administration Spain has seen in its modern era, he now faces a difficult task. As the three other main parties in Congress prepare to act as opposition forces of varying degrees of aggression, he won’t be able to push legislation through parliament in the way he did so easily between 2011 and 2015. He may not even last the course of another full legislature.

And yet, in relative terms, Rajoy and his Popular Party (PP) are in a stronger position than they were back in December 2015, before that election, because so many of his adversaries have suffered. The most obvious of these is former Socialist boss Pedro Sánchez, whose resistance to backing Rajoy was a major cause of the coup which saw him lose his job.

But beyond the messy Sanchexit of three weeks ago, there are others whose humbling now gives the Galician cause to gloat. The dissenters in his own PP; the rabble-rousers of the New Left; the arrivistes of the New Right; the political obituary writers; the trolls; the naysayers and the piss-takers – all have been defeated, defied or somehow diminished in recent months.

What has Rajoy done to deserve such a resounding victory? Well, nothing really. Ever since he turned down King Felipe’s invitation to form a government in January, citing a lack of parliamentary support, the acting prime minister has been pretty passive, even by his standards.

La Vanguardia newspaper talks about how “a veritable mythology has been built up around the prime minister’s ability to keep still when faced with the most serious problems, in the hope that time will solve them.” I have explored this “mythology” in some depth elsewhere, but without a doubt, the politician known and lampooned for his refusal to take the initiative has taken this trait – or strategy – to a whole new level over the last 10 months.

Rajoy would argue that he reached out to the Socialists, but it was never more than a tokenistic gesture, with no proposals on the table. He did sign a deal with Ciudadanos, but then gave the impression immediately afterwards that it didn’t really mean much to him. And he never seemed to countenance the possibility of stepping aside to make a governing pact more palatable to his rivals.

It’s been a period of Rajoy in extremis. ‘Peak Mariano’, if you will. And while you could argue that it has done the country plenty of harm, you couldn’t claim that it has hurt its exponent.

In this respect, Sánchez, at least for a time, was the opposite, seeking to reach for the unreachable, forming first a pact with Ciudadanos, before ambitiously trying to extend that deal to Podemos. The erstwhile Socialist leader’s biggest fault was this: he wasn’t living in Spain. Instead, he inhabited a non-specific, imaginary European nation where rampant corruption is punished at the ballot box and where talking to populists and nationalists is not a sackable offence.

Rajoy lives in no such place. In fact, you could say that his greatest asset is not his extraordinary ability to sit tight, but rather the fact that he knows only too well which country he is living in.

Five years in Euskadi

What a difference five years can make. For Spain, 2011 seems like another era, when economic slump, rather than political or territorial crisis, worried its politicians and when Podemos was a mere glint in the eye of the indignados.

But some things haven’t changed as much as expected since then.

On October 20, 2011, ETA announced the “definitive” end of a four-decade campaign of violence which had taken over 800 lives. Since then, the terrorist group has not killed or carried out any attacks, confirming that peace has indeed arrived in the Basque Country.

As a result, hundreds of politicians, judges, academics, journalists and other public figures have been able to begin something akin to a new life, without worrying about death threats, extortion notes or the sheer inconvenience of being followed everywhere by bodyguards.

But peace is one thing and reconciliation quite another. Last weekend, an incident in a bar in the town of Alsasua was a chilling reminder of the bad old days. According to many media accounts, two civil guards who were drinking with their girlfriends refused to leave the bar when told to do so by a group of young men who arrived on the premises. The ensuing scuffle left the two civil guards in hospital.

Alsasua is not in the Basque Country, but neighbouring Navarre. However, Navarre has long been considered part of the Basque homeland by nationalists and it was the scene of many of the pre-ceasefire murders. The fact this attack took place there is significant and suggests this was more than just a boozy fracas. One civil guard in the town, who was quoted by El País, said that “things have calmed down a lot over the last couple of years.” But he also made a telling comment: “I wouldn’t go to that bar at that time of night.”

Gorka Landaburu, a journalist who survived an ETA letter bomb attack in 2001, put it to me this way: “There isn’t reconciliation yet. What we’ve seen since the end of ETA’s violence is a kind of co-existence.”

Landaburu features in an essay I have published about Basque nationalism: ‘Skin Against Stone: Spain’s Basque Labyrinth’, to coincide with the fifth anniversary of the ETA ceasefire. In it, I explore both how the region of Euskadi fell into such a vicious spiral of violence and its subsequent difficulties in consolidating the new situation over the last half-decade, as the Spanish government has refused to embark on anything resembling a peace process.

But there are plenty of areas I have not been able to explore – the Spanish state’s dubious use of the judicial system, for example, or the limbo many ETA prisoners find themselves in as their independence cause dissolves. One Basque friend, whose family left Euskadi because of the violence, told me she would have liked to see more testimonies from the exiles’ point of view.

But “the Basque issue” is as complex and multi-faceted as the Basque region itself and it would require many thousands more words to explain it in full on the written page. In the meantime, let’s hope that over the next five years “co-existence” becomes something more like “reconciliation”.

What they think of us

 

A friend of mine calls it the “New-York-Times-Thinks-We’re-Sh*t Syndrome”.

As long as I can remember, certainly as long as I have been living in Spain, the country has been obsessed with what others think about it.

When I first moved here I was struck by the interest Spaniards and their media showed in what other countries’ newspapers were saying about them. This was starkly evident in the wake of the terrorist attacks in Madrid of March 2004, when the rest of the world seemed to get what many Spaniards didn’t: an Islamic group, not Eta, was responsible.

This trend continued in a rather bizarre vein when one Socialist congressman used a Financial Times editorial as a weapon with which to berate José María Aznar during the parliamentary inquiry into the latter’s handling of the attacks.

But it was a phenomenon that spread beyond politics. The economy, sport and culture were all areas where the foreign media’s view of Spain was forensically examined – for insight, praise or ridicule. To an extent, I found this admirable. After all, it seemed to show a certain humility and international-mindedness. How cosmopolitan, I thought.

But in recent years, with the economic crisis, the Catalan independence push and, more recently, the on-going national political stand-off, Spain’s apparently healthy interest in what the world thinks of it has been amped up to the dimensions of a borderline pathology.

In 2012, The New York Times ran a feature about how many of the country’s poor were pushed to extreme measures, like foraging through rubbish bins, due to the economic crisis. A photo essay accompanied the report, highlighting the drama. Two days later, El País newspaper ran a 500-word article about that article, quoting it at length and reproducing the US paper’s front page on which it had appeared.

El País weren’t the only ones. That same story was pored over by Spanish papers and radio tertulianos for days, with a mixture of fascination and shame: This is what they think of us!

And the same thing happens again and again. Whenever the more high-profile media, particularly the FT, the NYT or The Economist, (and to a lesser extent Le Monde and other continental titles) run an article or editorial highlighting Spain’s difficulties or achievements, it is chewed over for days. More recently, the satirical TV show El Intermedio invited a panel of foreign journalists to talk about their opinion of the country’s news issues. They gave perfectly interesting answers to some rather wooden questions and I wasn’t convinced this made for good television – but I appear to be wrong, given how often it happens.

The suggestion in these cases seems to be that outsiders understand Spain better than Spain’s own media. The suggestion is also that these foreign media’s opinion is more important than that of the national media.

In a way that is true, if only in the sense that a damning editorial about the Spanish economy in a major “Anglo-Saxon” newspaper might push the country’s risk premium a bit higher, therefore adding to its national debt.

(Fortunately, there are those who have managed to prick this bubble. One headline on the humorous website El Mundo Today read: “The New York Times publishes photos of Spaniards without iPhones to show how unstable the country is”.)

But is our analysis really more insightful or significant than that of local journalists, analysts and those people with brash opinions who always seem to be on TV and radio roundtables? I doubt it. After all, I and many other foreign journalists spend much of our time consulting them (the serious ones, anyway) about what they think of the country. What we offer is less detail and more context than the Spanish media, in order to avoid overwhelming our readers/listeners/viewers.

This reverence for what outsiders think betrays much about the Spanish psyche: the euro-zone’s fourth-largest economy still craves international approval and harbours large reserves of self-doubt.

“What’s going on in Spain to make Spaniards hate our own country so much?” ABC newspaper asked last year. Inevitably, it then went on to heap most of the blame on the left and on Catalan and Basque nationalism. No doubt it was asking the same question yesterday, as some celebrated Spain’s 12 de octubre national day while others denounced it as a Francoist remnant of a colonial past.

I won’t try and explain all the causes of the self-doubt here. But last week I saw a more resentful side to this sensitivity while in Dublin, taking part in a symposium on contemporary Spain at the Instituto Cervantes. After I had given a talk about the last half-decade of political upheaval, an elderly Spanish woman in the front row berated me. Highlighting the fact that my fellow speaker and I were British, she pointed out that we had our own crisis caused by Brexit, so why were we talking about her country’s crisis?

How dare a foreigner criticise her country? It was the kind of stance taken by Spain’s politicians when they want to cast their adversaries in a bad light: y tú más – you’re even worse than me.

It’s hard to imagine the The New York Times or Le Monde citing an El País article about the United States or France. That, many would argue, is due to the arrogance of those countries and their media and perhaps it wouldn’t do any harm if the members of the G8, say, took more interest in what was being said by the media beyond their own borders.

But there are many ways to measure a nation’s size, influence and significance – GDP, trade figures, population and even the spending power of their football teams are among them. There’s no such thing as an international “self-confidence index”, of course, but when Spain stops worrying so much about what others are saying about it, when it shakes off the “New-York-Times-Thinks-We’re-Sh*t Syndrome”, it will have made a major leap in that fictitious, but very important, ranking.