The north tower of Malaga cathedral stands nearly 300 feet high. The south tower doesn’t. According to the plaque at its foot, the funds originally destined for its completion were instead diverted to help the rebels fight against the British in the American war of independence. Whenever I look at that south tower – well, what there is of it – I’m reminded of the anti-Brexit tirades of El País.
El País is one of Spain’s leading national dailies. Founded in 1976 as democracy was returning to Spain, it prides itself on being a serious, centre-left newspaper which, like Spain itself, has always been staunchly pro-EU. Usually warmly appreciative of British culture, it’s nevertheless frequently critical of British governments. In May the British ambassador in Madrid complained that the newspaper’s editorial was mistaken in suggesting that Boris Johnson’s government had designed its anti-Covid measures with the deliberate intention of making the British people suffer.
In the editorial to which the ambassador referred, El País had claimed that conveniently for Johnson the suffering caused by his ‘astonishing’ and ‘callous’ policies could cover up the huge mistake that Brexit is proving to be.
It’s something of an understatement to say that El País doesn’t like Brexit. Articles in the newspaper have described the referendum as irresponsible, frivolous and dangerous and the whole thing as a fiasco which has turned ‘Great Britain into Little England'. Recently El País described Boris Johnson’s foreign policies as inconsistent and arrogant, alleging that because of the ‘major error’ of Brexit the UK can no longer count on its former European allies to stand up to China over Hong Kong. This latest editorial concluded: 'It’s said to be better to be the head of a mouse than the tail of a lion, but the EU is not the mouse that Johnson thought he could scorn and the UK on its own is not the lion that it was.'
Nor has The Spectator’s role in contributing to this supposed Brexit disaster escaped the attention of El País. The newspaper described The Spectator cover showing a Union Jack butterfly escaping from a ‘cage’ and then translated ‘Out, and into the world’ as ‘Libres, para zambullirnos en el mundo’ (literally ‘Free – to plunge into the world’). The editorial then concluded with another hallmark zoological flourish: ‘Johnson is now discovering that the water is cold, a lot colder when you’re swimming on your own with no sense of direction and that there are more sharks than dolphins.’
Given that it considers the European Union such an excellent thing and Brexit such a colossal error, El País might have been expected to feel sorry for the UK. But mostly it just seems angry. Might the newspaper’s sometimes aggressive tone mask a deeper insecurity about the future of Spain within the EU?
As Robert Tombs has pointed out, the Covid-19 crisis has brought the issue of national sovereignty to the fore. El País itself recognises that Spain’s economic and political future will be decided ‘not in the Spanish parliament’ but in Brussels. 'Europe… has to be the answer to the great crisis caused by the pandemic,' says Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez as he urges the EU to agree a recovery package which it is thought could bring Spain grants of €80 billion (£73 billion).
With Spain predicted to be especially hard hit by the economic consequences of the pandemic, the government’s hopes are pinned on that EU recovery package. So it’s not surprising that El País has been critical of the Dutch PM Mark Rutte and the other members of the ‘frugal four’ for their apparent willingness to block, limit or delay the package.
As I write, negotiations continue and Spain anxiously awaits their outcome; it’s understandable if the uncertainty is making El País and others nervous. In the country’s wholehearted commitment to an integrated EU, powers which the Spanish government might otherwise have used to fight the economic consequences of the pandemic have been transferred to the EU. We are about to discover how wise that was. In Spain, then, this is seen as the moment of truth: will the EU stand by one of its most loyal members in her hour of need?
Despite what the plaque at the foot of the tower of Malaga cathedral says, it appears that the funds for its completion may not, in fact, have been diverted to anti-British warmongering after all; parish records suggest that instead the money was used for a local road-building project. It’s for that kind of prudent investment in infrastructure – this time in clean energy and digitalisation – that Spain now needs the EU recovery package so urgently. Spain waits anxiously.