Spain is a country with an elevated awareness of environmental issues and its youth has mobilised en masse to save the planet. However, Green political parties enjoy little electoral support. Esteban Hernández discussed the contradictions in Spain with Green politician and activist Florent Marcellesi and University of Zaragoza sociologist Cristina Monge. With a political space for ecology opening up for contestation, whether or not a green hegemony can be built will depend on political ecology’s ability to push for real transformation and to offer a convincing narrative that transcends class lines.
Esteban Hernández: According to studies by the Centre for Sociological Research of Spanish people’s main concerns, the environment is not a chief worry. It has risen up the list, moving from 0.7 to 3.2 per cent in a year,1 but it’s still far from being a real priority. Why is that?
Florent Marcellesi: We’re at the start of a new historical cycle. We mustn’t only look at the evolution of survey figures from one month to the next but also the long term, starting with Spain’s transition to democracy in the 1970s, which left ecology in a secondary position compared to France or Germany since the dictatorial regime did not permit Green (or any other independent) parties. The difficulties continued with the rise of the anti-austerity 15-M and Indignados street movements in 2011 in the wake of the economic crisis, which also don’t see the environment as a priority.
But now we are living through a period of profound evolution, the birth of a green hegemony. The 15-M Movement began in 2011 but had been a long time coming, and the same is true of ecology, which, through new movements like Juventud por el clima (Youth for climate), is laying the cultural foundations for a green hegemony. Europe also has great influence and the groundswell taking place in the EU has reached Spain. What is yet to happen is for this cultural hegemony to transform into political hegemony.
Cristina Monge: 15-M doesn’t influence the “what” so much as the “how”. It massively and categorically marks the beginning of a new model of mobilisation that first rejects and then transcends classical forms of organisation such as trade unions or political parties. 15-M goes beyond traditional structures and generates a wave with a discourse that is perhaps disorganised but still very powerful. Youth for climate takes on these characteristics, as do the 8M (International Women’s Day) mass mobilisations. It’s spontaneous, there’s no political positioning, but it is possible for the movement to evolve into a meta-narrative.
Florent Marcellesi: This is why I say that we are in a moment of hegemonic construction, that there’s a groundswell that perhaps doesn’t have a clear theoretical corpus, but it will come. This moment, as a real inflection point, is completely unpredictable. Even if ecology in Spain has been relegated to the macro level, and especially since the Catalan bid for independence since 2012 has taken on so much weight in the Spanish community, it has been very present in recent years in municipalism. Cities like Barcelona or Madrid have been pioneers on ecological issues at the European level. The question with this “climate 15-M” is how to unite the micro and the macro levels. That is the challenge for the coming years.
The problem that we face isn’t denialism, but climate hypocrisy – the use of climate change so that nothing changes.
The green vote in Spain is split between the centre-left PSOE, left-wing populist Podemos, green-left Más País, and animal rights party PACMA. To what extent do left-wing and centre-left parties complicate the existence of a Green party in Spain?
Cristina Monge: I’m not sure that there will ever be a strong Green party in Spain, similar to the ones in Germany or France, under current conditions, but there is definitely a political space. The problem is already recognised, including amongst conservatives, and the battle is going to be around what to do about it. Everyone knows that there will be a green transition but there are different discourses about how to tackle it, some more neoliberal, others more social democratic or communist. It’s here that there will be an ideological fight, and a political space that is distinctly green will be important for pushing the debate in one direction or another.
Florent Marcellesi: We Greens are an instrument, so the ideological absorption of our ideas by all parties is welcome if that’s how we achieve change. But there is still a long way to go – we’ve seen that in COP25. The problem that we face isn’t denialism, but climate hypocrisy – the use of climate change so that nothing changes. We need clear voices that remind us that change must be profound, not cosmetic. Second, we must accept that an economic system based on growth cannot work, and need to think about justice from the perspective of post-growth, beyond the dominant economic models.
In Spain, the government has created a vice presidency of ecological transition, but at the same time it tells us that we should keep on growing. That’s why we need a Green party, even if it’s not like those in other European countries given the history and situation in Spain. A sufficiently strong Green party would push others to follow through and not fall into climate hypocrisy, as well as raising structural questions that get to the root of the problem.
The conversation on the green transition always seems to come back to who will foot the bill. In Spain, even solutions like the Green New Deal haven’t managed to frame environmentalism as a solution.
Cristina Monge : We’re very much in an initial stage. Proposals like the Green New Deal are only really understood by those who dedicate themselves to this area. To gain wider acceptance, it’s important to ground these ideas with examples. We see this for instance in the mining communities of Teruel, León, and Asturias that have been dependent on coal and need to generate a different economic model. It’s in these places that we are going to see what the Green New Deal really is and what a just transition means. The move from coal to renewables will need investment, there will be workers who need retraining. When this happens and it becomes clear that at the end of the road jobs are created, the fear will disappear. The green pact isn’t about renewables, which are already here, but something different.
Political ecology in Spain has to bring together two different electorates if it wants to be hegemonic.
Florent Marcellesi : In the collective imaginary, ecology is perceived as the enemy of employment. We’ve got to turn this around so that ecology is seen as the friend of employment and the future. It’s a response to unemployment and to the pension problem, and it will bring security and stability. It has to be seen as something appealing.
Cristina Monge : Let me add that when we say ecology should be appealing, that it ought to be sexy and cool, we have to be very careful because it could become something associated with quality, health, bicycles, and clothes made from recycled plastics aimed at the medium-to-high end of the market. That can be attractive, but it doesn’t have transformational capability and generates social inequality.
Florent Marcellesi: I agree. Political ecology in Spain has to bring together two different electorates if it wants to be hegemonic: the Greens’ classic voter base, the educated urban classes with a medium-to-high income level (who have clearly been reached with the message of political ecology), and the popular classes who have different needs. With the latter, it should be inclusive and insist that the fight will be fair or it won’t happen. If the Greens in Germany can create a hegemony and overcome the Social Democrats, it will be because they have become a party that is popular beyond the middle classes.
This nuance is important, not because environmentalism can be considered fashionable among urban middle-to-upper classes, but because the Spanish right is underlining this aspect as a way to gain followers.
Cristina Monge : This is a difficult time for green politics. In the post-election surveys following the May 2019 elections in Madrid, we saw that the Madrid Central low-emission zone had been a decisive factor in former mayor Manuela Carmena losing votes in neighbourhoods on the outskirts where she had enjoyed strong support before.2 Madrid Central became a discourse similar to that of the gilets jaunes; while the rich could drive around the centre with their electric cars, those on the outskirts lacked adequate public transport and were forced to use older cars. These debates underline how, if the ecological transition is not done in an equitable way, its appeal will be limited to the middle and upper classes of Madrid, Barcelona, Valencia, and Seville. Ultimately, this is what has happened to Más País, which has suffered as a result of this contradiction.3
Florent Marcellesi: The denialism of the far-right Vox party isn’t the main problem. Other right-wing movements, like in France, have incorporated environmentalism into their platform. But in Spain, as we see in Madrid, the Right has lost the battle because it will have to apply Madrid Central anyway.4 The Right has lost the battle for public opinion when it comes to environmentalism.
Cristina Monge With the Right, yes, but with the far-right I disagree with you there. So long as the transition isn’t just, the far right will have a hunting ground. Whenever taxes on petrol and diesel have been brought up, they have immediately responded asking why those with the least should have to pay. With this obrerismo (workerism) they can gain ground as it enables them to reach a sector of the population by opposing policies that address the climate emergency.
Territorial dynamics are important. In Europe, Green parties are more successful in the north than in the south, and something similar has happened in Spain. What’s more, in Spain there is also a territorial identity element because nationalisms, with the Catalan process, have kept environmentalism low on the political agenda.
Cristina Monge: The pattern within Spain is similar to that in Europe overall. The Basque Country in the north is leading the way with a transition plan that has received millions in investment with both public and private funds. This is related to their economic development but also to their political, social, and business culture. In the south, there is a sense of being less dependent on the environment than in the north. In regions like the Basque Country, the post-industrial transition is still fresh in people’s minds. Since it went well, they see the green transition as an opportunity and not a threat. In Castile and Andalusia, things played out differently, which is why in these regions it’s so important to emphasise the idea of a just transition.
Spain has been a pioneer in its capacity for mobilisation and institutional presence on issues like feminism, in which Spain and Sweden are leaders.
Florent Marcellesi: The Catalan process has had a negative impact on both the social and ecological agenda. Political ecology should be brave and put the ideas of interdependence and co-dependence at the fore. But beyond this issue, there are two factors that will be important in developing a strong Green party. The government has confirmed that there will be an ecological transition and has a vice presidency for this area as well as a vice presidency for the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals. If citizens’ demands are met in this regard, it will be difficult for a strong party to develop. If, on the other hand, the people are disappointed, the space will open up again. This already happened to PSOE when it failed to deliver on its promises, leading to EQUO’s establishment in 2011. The second factor is what is happening on a social level. If youth movements continue to develop and political identity is created beyond what the government does, then we will cement this cultural hegemony.
What can Europe learn from the Spanish experience? Is there something that could prove useful? Perhaps the 15-M?
Cristina Monge: While they’re not the same, 15-M was part of the same cycle as the Arab Spring, Occupy Wall Street, and Nuit debout in France. They gave rise to this new wave of social mobilisation that brought with it Greta Thunberg and created a movement that is in its prime today. This isn’t something limited to Spain, and it has been very influential.
Spain provides various positive examples that demonstrate the importance of a just transition. Not just in the Basque Country, but in other regions too. What’s more, we have to cite experiences like those in Madrid with the subsidised retrofitting of rental housing for energy efficiency.
Florent Marcellesi: Spain has been a pioneer in its capacity for mobilisation and institutional presence on issues like feminism, in which Spain and Sweden are leaders. The only country in the world that held a mass feminist strike for International Women’s Day 2019 was Spain. If we link this with ecology – and this can be done because the ecofeminist current is gaining traction – then it will have an impact in Europe, which in this respect is looking to Spain. The second important issue is municipalism, given how regions and cities are very relevant in the fight against climate change. Many cities have as much, if not more, weight than states and they will have an extremely important role to play in the future.
1. The figure of 3.2 per cent dates from December 2019. See full results.
2. The 2019 Madrid local and city council elections saw Manuela Carmena of the left-wing Más Madrid replaced as mayor by centre-right Partido Popular’s José Luis Martínez-Almeida with the backing of a centre-right coalition. Carmena’s flagship Madrid Central project, which the Right actively campaigned against, sought to reduce air pollution by making the centre off-limits to non-residential cars.
3. The green-left Más País platform was formed by Íñigo Errejón around Más Madrid to contest the November 2019 general election. In some provinces, the party fielded candidates in coalition with the Green party EQUO. It won three seats, two of which with Más País–EQUO. The election saw the governing PSOE party win the most seats while the far-right Vox more than doubled in size to become the country’s third most powerful party.
4. Courts have blocked the right-wing bloc’s efforts to roll back the Madrid Central low-emissions area on grounds of the negative effects even a temporary suspension would have on health and the environment.
This interview is part of our latest edition, “A World Alive: Green Politics in Europe and Beyond”.