‘Populism always ends in catastrophe’: How Spain has reacted to Italy’s vote

The likely victory of Giorgia Meloni’s far-right Brothers of Italy party in Sunday’s elections has not gone unnoticed in Spain, where voices from across the political spectrum have either lauded or criticised the results.  

'Populism always ends in catastrophe': How Spain has reacted to Italy's vote
Leader of Italian far-right party "Fratelli d'Italia" (Brothers of Italy), Giorgia Meloni acknowledges the audience after she delivered an address at her party's campaign headquarters overnight on September 26, 2022 in Rome, after the country voted in a legislative election. Spain's own far-right party, Vox, has celebrated Meloni's results as their own victory. (Photo by Andreas SOLARO / AFP)

Giorgia Meloni’s Brothers of Italy party, which has neo-fascist roots, looks set to form Italy’s most far-right government since dictator Benito Mussolini.

Meloni came top in Italian elections on Sunday, the first exit polls suggested, putting her eurosceptic populists on course to take power at the heart of Europe.

The party has never held office but as of Monday morning, with the count still in progress, it looked set to claim over 44 percent of the vote, making it the clear victor.

It hasn’t taken long for reactions to the Italian elections to pour in from Spain, a country with close cultural and linguistic similarities to Italy.

Spain’s Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez, who was diagnosed with Covid-19 on Sunday, has not commented publicly yet on Meloni’s likely victory, leaving it instead to Spanish Foreign Minister José Manuel Albares to give his opinions on Italy’s general election results. 

“These are uncertain times and at times like this, populist movements always grow, but it always ends in the same way – in catastrophe – because they offer simple short-term answers to problems which are very complex,” Albares told reporters at a briefing.

Asked if the far-right’s victory in Italy could be “extrapolated” to Spain, the Foreign Minister ruled this out as a possibility. He acknowledged that the results were completely legitimate but added that Meloni’s governance model was closer to Putin’s than to the EU’s. 

“This (Meloni’s) is an authoritarian model that is contrary to the pillars of European construction, which is the basis of our prosperity.”

On the other hand, Ione Belarra, head of far-left party Unidas Podemos, which forms part of Spain’s governing coalition, said that: “The victory of the Italian far right showcases the normalisation of hate speech and the lack of courageous policies that protect the social majority. Spain is not free from experiencing something like this. Now is the time to open up urgent and ambitious debates.”

The reaction has been completely the opposite from Spain’s very own far-right party: Vox.

“Tonight, millions of Europeans have their hopes pinned on Italy,” tweeted Vox leader Santiago Abascal along with pictures of Meloni and him.

“Giorgia Meloni has shown the way forward for a Europe of proud, free and sovereign nations, capable of cooperating for the security and prosperity of all. Avanti Fratelli d’Italia.”

Madrid’s regional president Isabel Díaz Ayuso, a member of Spain’s right-wing Popular Party (PP), criticised the Spanish Socialists’ reaction to the Italian vote by saying “It’s only democracy when those who win are the ones they support”, adding that they should wait to see “in detail” what Meloni’s government has to offer. 

Madrid’s divisive leader said the Italian election vote shows how the strategy of “joining Socialists with the far left is a disaster that will lead to their demise”. 

On the other hand, Alberto Núñez Feijóo, PP party leader and presidential candidate for Spain’s 2023 general elections, took a more cautious approach, arguing that it was “not the result we were most in favour of”, whilst stating that Italian voters “had clearly manifested their position” and that the new Italian government should “bring stability” not only to Italy but to the whole of the EU. 

READ ALSO: Who is Giorgia Meloni, Italy’s likely next prime minister?

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Business anxiety grows as Spain-Algeria trade deadlock lingers

Six months after Algeria cut ties with Spain following a spat over disputed Western Sahara, trade between the two countries remains paralysed, much to the dismay of the worst-hit companies.

Business anxiety grows as Spain-Algeria trade deadlock lingers

With sales blocked, investment frozen and projects at a standstill since June, businesses are struggling.

“We can’t export or import anything, all our operations are on standby,” said Julio Lebrero, head of Aecomhel, a Spanish company specialising in the manufacture of machinery for public works.

The firm, which owns 40 percent of the Algerian group Europactor, conducts almost all of its business operations in Algeria, which has left it in a difficult position.

“We haven’t brought in a single euro over the past six months, which is completely unsustainable,” admitted Lebrero, who said he was “very worried”.

Dozens of other small-and-medium sized Spanish firms (SMEs) are in the same boat, their business activity slowed because they cannot sell their products in Algeria.

Similar struggles have beset SMEs in Algeria whose businesses are dependent on raw materials and spare parts that are “made in Spain”.

The problem began in mid-March, when Spain suddenly reversed its decades-long stance of neutrality on the Western Sahara conflict, saying it would back Morocco’s autonomy plan for the disputed region as it sought to end a lingering diplomatic spat.

READ ALSO: Why Spain’s Western Sahara U-turn is a risky move with no guarantees

Spain’s move, widely seen as a victory for Morocco, infuriated its regional rival Algeria, which has long backed the Polisario Front, Western Sahara’s independence movement.

In response, Algiers suspended on June 8 a cooperation treaty with Madrid which had been signed in 2002, later moving to restrict commercial transactions and to freeze bank operations.

The freeze on business ties, announced by Algeria’s Association of Banks and Financial Establishments (known by its French acronym, ABEF), has had “a major impact on business transactions” between the two countries, said Alfonso Tapia, head of Omnicrea Consulting, which specialises in the Algerian market.

‘Everything has stopped’

To get around the problem, some firms have managed to supply their products through third countries, but that has proved impossible for small companies given the added cost.

Spain has paid a high price, with trade ministry figures showing exports to Algeria reached just €138 million ($145 million) between June and September, compared with €625 million for the same period a year earlier — a loss of some nearly €500 million in just four months.

And the slump has hit everything from agribusiness to chemicals, as well as textiles and the construction industry.

“Everything has stopped,” Djamel Eddine Bouabdallah, head of the CCIAE Algerian-Spanish trade and industry association, said, adding that some companies had even been forced to close.

The only exception is gas. Spain depends on Algeria for natural gas and deliveries by Algeria’s state-owned energy giant Sonatrach have continued untouched, albeit at a higher price.

As to how long the situation would continue, nobody knows. In June, the Spanish government appeared confident its relationship with Algeria was solid. But since then, it has said little.

State of uncertainty

For the companies hit by the freeze, Madrid’s silence does not bode well.

“We’ve asked the authorities to come up with solutions, but they’ve not come back to us,” said a spokeswoman for ANFFECC, which groups Spanish producers of ceramic glazes, pigments and glass-like materials.

In this sector, which is very dependent on the Algerian market, the freezing of business ties has already cost it some €70 million.

READ ALSO: Algeria suspends co-operation with Spain over Western Sahara dispute

And many fear it could lead to a permanent loss of market share to its French and Italian competitors.

“The Spanish government is acting like there’s no problem, they have left us completely on our own,” said Lebrero.

His view is shared by another Spanish business owner who, speaking on condition of anonymity, denounced the “passivity” of the government and accused Algiers of blowing “hot and cold”.

In a statement at the end of July, Algeria’s Association of Banks and Financial Establishments announced the end of the restrictions with Spain.

But nothing changed, leaving companies in a state of uncertainty. “There are currently negotiations ongoing between the two governments, because they cannot leave the situation like this,” said Bouabdallah, his words echoed by Alfonso Tapia.

“The current situation is no good for anyone. We need to get back to normality,” he told AFP, calling for a “quick resolution” of the deadlock.