A tight race ahead in Spain’s historic election

A tight race ahead in Spain’s historic election

A glance at opinion polls in Spanish newspapers for the past few months would convince you that nobody really has any clue what will happen the day after Spaniards go to the polls to elect their new prime minister in just under three week’s time on 20th December.

It is without doubt the start of a new political era in Spain – a four-horse race ending the to-ing and fro-ing between the two traditional socialist and conservative parties, PSOE and PP. But anything more than a sketchy outline and you’re playing the fickle game of political predictions.

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Political deadlock in the polls between Spain’s ruling conservatives, the Socialist opposition and centre-right newcomer Ciudadanos

The new centre-right Ciudadanos and leftist Podemos parties have everything to gain in December’s vote as they fight for their first seats in parliament’s lower house after great successes in European and local elections. Are they really the new mainstream left and right of politics – or just a protest vote content with pointing the finger at previous governments?

Earlier tonight, the leaders of three of the parties battled it out in an online debate hosted by Spain’s leading newspaper El País.

That’s right – three leaders, not four. Spain’s prime minister Mariano Rajoy has made no secret of the fact he dislikes debates, especially against the two new political kids on the block.

He says to Spaniards that he doesn’t need to debate with his younger and far less experienced rivals. It’s a tactic to set himself out of the crowd that may just work out.

So, the debate empty chaired Rajoy. Instead, he appeared on Spanish news with a one-on-one political grilling. But the debate continued despite this elephant in the room.

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Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, the absent leader in tonight’s debate

What Spaniards will be doing in the next few weeks is testing the credibility of their political leader hopefuls, as they do the rounds on television shows and appear at noisy campaign rallies.

How far will these untried and untested new parties stand up to scrutiny and be able to govern a nation of over 40 million, managing its economic recovery and the existential debate of Spain given the calls for independence in Catalonia?

Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy has played a clever game in campaigning on Spain’s unity and his government’s work in steadying the ship of the economy.

He’s hoping that will stand up to his political rivals who talk of proposals and solutions without ever having been in power.

At the same time, the spectre of corruption scandals and a poor record in solving Spain’s massive unemployment problem – at 22 per cent – will be unavoidable.

What was apparent from tonight’s debate was the unanimity in building a “new politics”. What was also clear is that there are many different proposals.

French ballot box

It went right down to Spain’s response to ISIS. Both PSOE and Ciudadanos insisted Spain couldn’t be left out of the Western alliance to bomb Islamic State. Podemos’ policy, meanwhile, stuck out like a sore thumb. Iglesias asked – what did bombs solve in Iraq or Libya? He insisted the group’s arms and finances had to be hit instead.

What is certain is that Spain is likely to be in political deadlock come the end of the year. No one party at the moment has a majority and a coalition agreement of some kind will probably need to be found.

But any pact has already been ruled out by Ciudadanos, whose leader Albert Rivera says he won’t prop up any party, instead holding them account in an opposition role.

Rivera is campaigning on a break with what the “traditional” parties have done to Spain.

They want to create a “new era”, a “new project” for the country. It’s a move which has caused their share of the vote to rocket, as the hopes of Podemos have dipped, peaking far too soon.

The climate of uncertainty about the future of Spain on a map- read the independence movement in Catalonia – raises the debate around Spain’s constitution, drawn up in 1978 and which has been left untouched since the transition to democracy following the death of Franco.

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Spain’s 1978 Constitution, written three years after the death of Franco

Parties agreed about reforming it, but differences lie in where to draw the line on independence. The leaders talked of reform, dialogue, political regeneration, a new Spain. It makes for so many soundbites.

A poll published on Sunday showed a three-way tie between the ruling PP party, the Socialist opposition and newcomer Ciudadanos, the squiggly lines converging to a single point – 22 per cent – redrawing the political map.

It’s just another clue that many in Spain still don’t know who to turn to, but what we do know is that they have turned away from the traditional parties – in their droves.

Will 20th December 2015 be remembered for the end of “old” politics and the start of a new page for Spain, or more of the same – for good or for bad?

A country with many economic, social and political challenges, it is a moment of history in the making.

More: A look at the demographics behind Spanish opinion polls – El Español (in Spanish)

 

 

Catalonia – and Spain’s – uncharted territory

Catalonia – and Spain’s – uncharted territory

Relations between Catalonia and the rest of Spain have changed forever, whatever the result of today’s unprecedented elections.

The make-up of the Catalan parliament will have been decided by a huge voter turnout – a triumph of democracy.

Tonight’s exit poll gives an absolute majority to separatist coalition Junts Pel Sí, with the help of far-left, anti-EU, anti-NATO party CUP, who are this election’s kingmakers. It is an election with the most obvious of outcomes, though caution remains, as even the two parties together may not gain 50% of the votes.

A nation waiting in nail-biting anticipation of how Madrid will react the morning after the night before. With over 60% of Catalans having voted, separatists will vaunt their firm mandate. How ambitious will they be with their demands? The tone of debate will be fiery to say the least.

Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy will play the constitutional card in an election which he has scorned for having become a de facto yes or no vote.

His conservative party will have roughly the same number of seats as Sí Que Es Pot, a coalition of leftist parties which in their political youth would have hoped to have made far more of an impact. Both will be disappointed.

The extent of victory for separatists will damage the prime minister’s credibility after refusing any movement on Spain’s current constitutional arrangements. Will Rajoy change his tune – faced with this electoral explosion?

While financial markets and bond yields will likely wobble as they have done already, Catalan independence is still a while away. While the plan is to start the task of building national structures within Catalonia as part of an 18-month roadmap to complete secession, there are lots of hopes but no guarantees. Junts Pel Sí will plough on ahead with or without the permission of Madrid.

The future of Catalonia outside of Spain is just as uncertain as it is inside.

It has been an energetic campaign which has threatened, energised, and empassioned with hours of debate and a quarter of voters still undecided a week before the vote.

The significance of tonight’s result will only be decided in December when Spain votes nationally for their next government. Polls suggest no one party will win a majority. Spain is now just as likely to have a right-wing government which will rebuke separatists as it is having a left-wing government which will negotiate a new deal for Catalonia.

To hold secessionist politicians to account will be Ciutadans, which firmly rejects Catalan independence. It has been a huge rise in fortunes for a party with humble beginnings. Ciutadans has captured the imagination of anti-independence Catalans in a way that traditional socialist parties have failed. They will remind Junts Pel Sí that there is a sizeable anti-independence movement in Catalonia which have to be listened to.

This last week of frantic campaigning was riddled with an embarrassing number of blunders courtesy of those who have tried to undermine the viability of an independent Catalonia.

It started with a radio interview with Mariano Rajoy, who couldn’t be sure if Catalans would lose Spanish citizenship in the event of secession. Footage from the exchange showed a startled, exposed prime minister who stumbled through a response to an article in the Spanish Constitution which states that nobody of Spanish origin can be deprived of their nationality.

Spain’s magna carta drawn up in 1978 has been the subject of much criticism. It is the roadblock for separatists, preventing the realisation of their ambitions.

An attempt by Spanish banks to persuade pro-independence campaigns to change their mind by appealing to their wallets was seen by skeptics as nothing more than lucky timing. A group of leading banks warned of the risks of an independent Catalonia – some of the same banks that a few years ago refused to enter the debate.

Calming words for Catalans came from the head of the Bank of Spain, who clarified threats of capital controls in an independent Catalonia as being “highly unlikely”.

Artur Mas addressed a crowd on Wednesday, saying: “This time, the weapons of destruction employed by Madrid will not triumph in Catalonia.”

He continued: “They will not destroy our dignity. They will not destroy our project. They will not destroy our dream. They will not destroy our excitement. They will not destroy Catalonia’s freedom.”

With so much unknown, tomorrow will be just as important – if not more – than today.

The towering figures of Europe and Madrid have yet to speak.

An historic vote on independence in Catalan regional elections

An historic vote on independence in Catalan regional elections

Many hundreds of thousands of Catalans will crowd the streets of Barcelona today, marking the region’s annual national day, La Diada. A moment of pride for Catalans, showcasing their difference and cultural richness.

A sea of mosaic colours running for more than five kilometres in the Catalan capital will tell the world that, for many in this region, Catalonia should become a new, better country – that independence is the only option and a once-of-a-lifetime opportunity.

Crucially, today marks the start of campaigning for regional parliament elections on the 27th September, which has become a de facto referendum on independence. 135 seats are up for grabs, with the latest polling confirming the trend of a very narrow victory for pro-independence parties.

The Free Way to the Catalan Republic, a mosaic symbolising the start of building a new country
The Free Way to the Catalan Republic, a mosaic symbolising the start of building a new country

Parties from left and right, in support of independence are campaigning under a single umbrella called Junts Pel Sí, Together for Yes, formed in July. It groups together the ruling conservative CDC party, the left-wing ERC and several civil society organisations, responsible for the large-scale, pro-independence demonstrations that have made international news in recent years. Projections show that the coalition would win between 60 and 62 seats, but an absolute majority could only be achieved with the help of pro-independence and anti-capitalist party, CUP.

14415896163036The outcome of one poll shows the narrow political divisions in Catalonia in a hard-fought election campaign

The campaign is as much economic as political. Despite party differences, pro-independence campaigners say they are fed up with an unfair budget settlement from Madrid, which has meant harsh cuts to health and education that the Catalan government says it has been forced to make. Although levels of unemployment in the region are better than the rest of Spain, it remains a key worry for Catalans. In an independent Catalonia, President Artur Mas said he wouldn’t have to make a single euro in cuts.

Pro-independence campaign group Junts Pel Sí's election slogan, el vot de la teva vida - the vote of your life.
Pro-independence campaign group Junts Pel Sí’s election slogan, el vot de la teva vida – the vote of your life.

Judging the mood in Catalonia without referencing the elections directly, Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy said on Tuesday that political uncertainty is the biggest problem for the Spanish economy. Indeed, in the past few days, risk in the Spanish economy has risen with the favourable fortunes of pro-independence politics in the polls.

Economic credibility in such a politically charged campaign is a key bargain chip amid a lot of bluster and scaremongering. Mas argued for the economic viability of an independent Catalonia, even if it were outside the EU – a significant sticking point.

At the same time, the Catalan President said Spain would survive without Catalonia, deeming it a “win-win” result. Spain would remain Catalonia’s largest trading partner in the event of indepedence.

Dialogue between Barcelona and Madrid broke down before it even started, as Rajoy cannot countenance any debate surrounding the break-up of Spain. His key pledge ahead of national elections in December is one of stability, amid a marked upturn in growth for the Spanish economy.

A majority of Catalans agree that, even if they aren’t in support of independence, a vote should nonetheless take place. It is a matter of democracy, pro-independence supporters say, which is being undermined by Madrid. Spanish Foreign Minister Jose Manuel García-Margallo told the BBC: “This so-called independent Catalonia will have no chance at recognition.”

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Junts pel Sí, Together for Yes, bringing a unified pro-indepdence campaign to regional elections.

Estimates from Junts pel Sí suggest that Catalonia would be the 12th largest European economy, and the creation of a new state would cost just over 39 billion euros. A key part of their electoral program is the structural plan for an independent Catalonia, including new bodies such as a tax authority, and a central bank, which have yet to be costed. It’s also unknown for the moment whether the state would have its own armed forces. On defence, Mas has no doubt that Catalonia must remain part of NATO.

In addition, debt settlement with Madrid would mean a new state initially burdened with large debts, offset by a new fiscal arrangement which would bring in 11 billion euros.

Speaking last week on a trip to Madrid, British Prime Minister David Cameron very much hoped Spain would remain united, and warned in no uncertain terms that Catalonia would have to apply for EU membership if it seceded from Spain.

The spectre of a Catalan EU exit was also raised by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who said last week: “We share the view that there are EU treaties by which we are all bound and these EU treaties guarantee the national integrity and sovereignty of every country.”

An unprecedented move such as this in European Union history means any outcome is all the more unpredictable.

Standing in the way of pro-independence parties are the new political forces on the block. Ciutadans, which opposes Catalan nationalism, is expected to be the second biggest party after the pro-independence coalition, with around 21 seats.

Its leader, Albert Rivera, has called the 27th September “the most important day in the history of Catalonia”. Ciutadans is making huge efforts to mobilise Catalans to reject this election as being a proxy independence vote. Rivera is worried about one likely scenario which could mean victory for pro-independence Junts Pel Sí, with just 40% of the share of the vote. Mas says it is the number of seats, not the numbers game, which matters more, given 28.7% of those in a poll released yesterday still haven’t decided.

Podemos, the far-left, anti-austerity party which has already shaken up the dominance of traditional left and right parties in Spain, is campaigning with other leftist forces in a coalition called “Catalonia Yes We Can”. They are desperately mobilising those who wouldn’t usually vote, as well as criticising Mas and his party over allegations of corruption. It was a strategy which paid off in local elections in May, allowing Ada Colau to be installed as mayor of Barcelona. The coalition would be the third largest party with 15 seats, according to poll estimates.

Mas hopes a solid win for pro-independence parties will pave the way for an 18-month roadmap to secession. Polls on secession are as close as it gets – 44% support independence, 46% reject it, with the usual caveat that, after all, this is just one poll.

The region held an informal consultation last November, asking voters whether they wanted Catalonia to be a state and whether they wanted that state to be independent. 80% of voters voted ‘yes’ to both. Another sign of the potent disaffection with Spain, it was held in fierce opposition to politicians in Madrid, who called it a sham.

Just a few months away from general elections, likely to be held on the 20th December, all parties are on the political warpath to present their case on an issue that threatens the shape of Spain.

The socialist party PSC, the regional offshoot of the opposition party, PSOE, has said that the current system of autonomy within Spain is outdated, and reforms would be needed to keep Catalonia in Spain, specifically the tearing up of the country’s Constitution, which presently forbids questioning the unity of Spain, to create a new deal through dialogue and negotiation.

Socialist leader Pedro Sánchez has said that in as much as Mariano Rajoy has confronted Catalans with the rest of Spain, Artur Mas is equally as divisive in pitting Catalans against other Catalans. The problem for both Spain and Catalonia, for him, is one of leadership. He wishes to see both men out of office in his idea for a new, federal Spain.

Today, Catalans will have their own say on the political future of the region on the streets, democratically, colourfully and enthusiastically. On the 27th September, Catalonia and Spain alike face an uncertain future.

Whatever the result – in a vote which will attract an incredibly high turnout – it is without doubt that the status quo will be no longer. Anti-independence parties say Catalonia would head for disaster in the event of a ‘yes’ win, with no possibility of dialogue. In that eventuality, pro-independence parties will use their mandate to lay the first stones in building a Catalan state, and at the same time, preside over the break-up of Spain.

It is a point of no return.

MORE. January 2015: All or nothing: An early Catalan vote which brings secession expectations


A year of uncertainty and political dynamism: Spain going forward into 2015

A year of uncertainty and political dynamism: Spain going forward into 2015

I set myself the challenge of writing a concise analysis of Spain’s year in 2014, with a look at how the country’s next year will shape up. It will be a year of elections and plenty of political excitement, set against a Europe which is still far from mended.

Any comments, please do tweet me @andrewiconnell. I’d love to hear your thoughts.


They come and go so often that Spaniards of today are no longer surprised by their political class. One word that is synonymous with Spanish politics today is corruption, and it appears in the TV news and newspapers every single day. This distrust in politicians and their true motives may surprise but goes no way to placate the Spanish population.

As 2014 closed, there were more than 2000 corruption cases in Spain, ranging from national to regional levels of government, and equally in the royal family. Spain’s monarchy had little trouble in dealing with the transition of power from Juan Carlos, the towering figure of Spain’s ideological transition, to his son Felipe VI. The case surrounding Princess Cristina, the King’s sister, whose husband is accused of obtaining millions of public funds, which then implicated her on tax fraud charges, may force her to renounce her accession to the throne, and disgrace the family name. In 2015, expect more corruption being picked apart by Spain’s media, but don’t be surprised. Unfortunately, Spain seems to have become accustomed to such debauchery.

Political indignation was a movement that started in Spain back in 2011. Today, it is coming back to haunt politicians most recently following the passing into law of the so-called “Ley Mordaza” – the gagging law. Its content for many Western democracies is eyewateringly draconian. Fines are levied for taking photos of police officers, as well as demonstrating outside government buildings, and it has driven many thousands onto the streets to voice their opposition. It is being seen as an attempt by the conservative government to silence its critics for their handling of the financial crisis. The fight for rights in Spain’s civil society will continue well into 2015.

One story that caught the attention of the Spanish media has been that of pequeño Nicolás, or little Nicolas. It has played out like a movie thriller – there well may be an idea there. A boy of 20 years old, accused now of forgery, fraud and identity theft, allowed himself to rub shoulders with influential members of Spain’s governing party, to the point that Nicolás managed to somehow shake hands with Spain’s monarch, Felipe VI, during his coronation. The pale-faced law student – who hardly ever attended classes – has appeared in countless photographs crowding PP party politicians, including questionably closed-door meetings in party headquarters. Nicolás hired bodyguards, yachts and flash cars in order to pretend to live a high, double life, and allegedly posed as a member of Spain’s secret security forces. Did Nicolás’s infiltration into high political and economic circles lead to any influence? How was it that such a shadowy and young figure was allowed to get so close to politicians? A debate about trust in politicians has already started, as waves of public indignation continue to abound with ever greater magnitude.

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Pequeño Nicolás: the thriller (Credit: Telecinco)

It has also been quite the year for the Catalans. After a non-binding vote in November, talk in the region surrounding calling early elections and shared ballots is continuing. What could once have been seen as a perfect political marriage between Catalan president Artur Mas and coalition partner Oriol Junqueras is starting to produce more difference and disagreement. Demands for early elections are numerous, and look to be coming down the way in May. With absolutely no offer of an olive branch from Spain’s prime minister, Catalan independentists will be continuing to look around Europe for allies and specifically to Brussels to grant them a democratic means of recognising desires of independentistas to break away from the rest of Spain.

In terms of the popularity of independence in Catalonia, data from The Guardian has shown it’s a rising cause, though polls over the years have arguably pegged yes and no fairly level. A later poll in 2014 pushed no ahead of yes for the first time, but it is still very close to call. For its detractors, what marked November’s consultation were those who didn’t turn to the ballot. They may have been too scared to vote since the vote was deemed illegal; they might have thought it wasn’t worth voting because it was non-binding. These arguments work for both the yes and the no camps. Those who did turn out, more than two million of them, voted resoundingly yes-yes to the questions of whether Catalonia should be a state, and if so, should it be independent. I predict results of the early elections in the region will send out a very powerful message of increased support for independence, at the very least from sheer frustration.

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Yes or no? Catalans voting in non-binding consultation in November (Credit: Wikipedia)

Catalonia reached levels of international consciousness in this symbolic referendum through the media – an event that spoke as loud as the crowds did when gathered on the streets of Barcelona during Catalonia’s national day on September 11. This year a V for victory and vote marked the celebration. International consciousness of their cause is equally key for independence to gain further ground.

Much of what can or could happen in Catalonia will be debated in anticipation of the national election towards the end of 2015 with each party gesturing and speechifying, but only when all the cards are on the table and Spain knows exactly who will be governing them will Catalans know either way how close or far they are from gaining a definitive referendum. What will also decide Catalonia’s politics is the outcome of an ongoing legal case which has implicated Catalan president Artur Mas and several allies for illegally carrying out November’s consultation. Artur Mas in his New Year speech bemoaned the fact that the vote should have opened a route for political dialogue, not a legal dispute. The fact that Mariano Rajoy said nothing in anticipation of the vote and allowed it to happen was telling enough of the Spanish prime minister’s way of handling what he says is a side issue which has been growing because of, and not despite, the economic crisis, in his words. The results held no credibility for him.

One more thing that is central to Catalonia’s independence and a sweetener for the rest of Spain: constitutional reform. This is the current stumbling block stopping Catalans from voting, as currently all of Spain would have to be consulted on independence. The leader of the Socialist party says that by reforming the Magna Carta his party will create a more federal Spain, allowing other regions more local powers, but not so far as to allow Catalonia to vote on its own future. Podemos has straddled the two sides: they recognise Catalan and Basque desire for a right to vote, but oppose Catalan independence. The party’s leader said he wants to continue to build Spain all together.

In an election year, it is no cliché to say that it is all to play for. While Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy claims that the crisis is over and Spain is well on its way to recovery thanks to his strong governance, Spain’s now tripartite political scene has produced opinion polls that in recent months mean it is very close to call a winner in next year’s general election, expected in November. They have been tussling over economic figures and questioning the recovery, as well as bandying around the perennial need for “change” in Spain.

What the media has been calling the Podemos “phenomenon” could be to some extent a victim of its own success. With increased popularity – which the party undoubtedly has garnered – there has come greater scrutiny, in a year in which the movement became a party, gained a leader in Pablo Iglesias, and outlined some of its key measures, several of which it had to revise. Its rise has been astronomical to say the least. Populism has been spreading across a Europe which has experienced huge change politically from the start of the crisis, with more questioning of austerity and how countries can move away from the spectre of long-term European deflation. Can Podemos, having won five seats in the European elections in May, stand up to the bigger, more established parties and assert itself with a wide range of credible, not pie-in-the-sky, policies? Even the most seasoned of political commentators can never with complete certainty predict elections, and Spain is no exception. A lot can happen in the next year, and for all three main parties, mere points in opinion polls will be keenly fought over.

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Spain’s new leader/university professor? Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias (Credit: Elmundo.es)

What Podemos may find hard to achieve on the European stage is credibility. By virtue of being such a new party which formed from a movement with members who are more at ease in lecture halls than parliament buildings, Brussels will undoubtedly eye this party with great uncertainty, as it is already doing with Syriza, the left-wing juggernaut in Greece. With Spain still on such an uneven economic footing, which many would say is as a result of painful, unfair and ignorant cuts and political decisions, Podemos is likely to rattle market confidence in Spain’s ability to become a fully convalescent patient in Europe. In its battle for hearts and minds, Podemos would win tomorrow. It’s not difficult to see that the need for Podemos, in a crisis which not only has political and economic facet but a huge social one, was long overdue. Its grass-root formation may just win it for them and be a shot in the arm for the European project and Spain’s traditional parties who couldn’t have expected a huge shake-up in Spain’s political scene.

This year saw the Socialist party gain a new leader in Pedro Sánchez, who is using Spain’s 1978 Constitution as a means of encouraging reform and a new start for Spain’s democracy. He is pushing Spain’s political classes on transparency, in a year which has seen most parties, according to research, become far less opaque with the voting public. Podemos meanwhile says that while the transition to democracy in Spain is now history, its legacy has produced a political climate built on mistrust and corruption.

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Spain’s unemployment won’t be moving for a while yet (Credit:Thecommentator.com)

Another cliché: it’s all about the economy. This may be somewhat of an exaggeration, but economic prosperity will be a key battleground in the election. Is everybody benefiting from Spain’s recovery? Definitely not. Does the recovery even exist? According to the data at least, mostly. While growth is heading upwards – and the Economy Minister Luis de Guindos very happy to vaunt Spain’s growth figures for next year of 2% – unemployment will remain both stubbornly and depressingly around the 23% level that it has been around for a while. Youth unemployment the same. On a recent trip to Madrid, I listened to rousing and heartfelt addresses to trains and metros by those touched by unemployment, eviction, huge money troubles, ultimately requesting spare change. One woman even laid packs of tissues on seats with a note explaining her sorry predicament. Passengers bow their heads and avoid eye contact, seemingly far too used to these undignifying, desperate, yet polite, calls for help.

Perhaps the biggest issue for Spain, and for Europe, will be the waves of immigrants from unstable and war-torn parts of the world. Scenes from Spain’s enclave of Melilla in Morocco of immigrants storming border fences are a reminder of how close the European continent is to North Africa and the Middle East, where the savagery in Syria and elsewhere is allowed to fester. Countries in Europe are now the place of refuge for several hundred thousand people. The debate around how Europe handles the humanitarian disaster leaking from conflict is going to be increasingly important, as the war in Syria moves into its fourth year. It will require the work of many nations.

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A tough year ahead for Europe as war-torn countries produce thousands of migrants (Credit:eldiario.es)

Though much of Spain’s news this year has been of domestic significance, the rise of Podemos, the battle for independence in Catalonia, trust in politicians, and economic recovery are themes that are springing up all around Europe going into 2015. Not only is their outcome hard to predict, such problems will also take more than just one year to mend.