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Trudeau in Europe? Leftist governments find footing in Spain and Portugal

As much of the European south strikes a dour tone on economic and migration woes, Spain and Portugal test a new vision for open, socialist government in Europe.

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Migrants were transferred from the MS Aquarius to Italian Coast Guard boats June 12 in the Mediterranean Sea. Italy dispatched two ships to help take 629 migrants stuck off its shores on the days-long voyage to Spain, after Italy’s new populist government refused them entry.

Kenny Karpov/SOS Mediterranee/AP

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Spain has seen its fair share of headlines recently, but they have almost always fed the narrative of “fragile southern Europe.”

Even with economic recovery, the financial crisis left a generation under-employed and toppled Spain’s two-party system; the separatist movement rages in Catalonia; corruption brought down the former right-wing government this month.

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But the improbable rise of Pedro Sánchez, whose Social Democrats (PSOE) suffered historic losses in the last election cycles, has in the past week sent a clear message about a new leftist and progressive path for Spain. His first move was to form a government that is majority women, and more than any other in Europe. Days later, when Italy refused to allow a ship of migrants, the MS Aquarius, to dock at its ports, Mr. Sánchez welcomed its passengers to Valencia. An opinion piece called him the Justin Trudeau of Europe, after Canada’s liberal leader.

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His moves come as Portugal next door has seen another government, led by the center-left with hard-left parties in coalition, defy expectations that it would flail. Together the two could help bolster a mainstream left in Europe that has been challenged by protest parties and struggled to communicate a vision of a country that can grow while protecting citizens, human rights, and a rules-based international system.

“When he decides to accept refugees from the Aquarius ship, when he forms a female cabinet, he is sending a message in terms of the symbolic fight, trying to underline the commitment of the government to a more open society,” says Pablo Simon, a professor of political science at Madrid’s Carlos III University. “The Iberian Peninsula could be a good lab to see if these approaches can work or not.”

Welcoming the Aquarius

Europe’s fractures have been on full display this week over a boat holding 629 people who left the coast of Libya and that Italians refused entry. Malta did too. France blasted Italy for “cynicism and irresponsibility;” Italy summoned its French ambassador in response, calling France’s position hypocritical.

Sánchez was able to rise above the fray, offering the boat passage to the Spanish coast and signaling support for human rights and international law. His gesture also highlighted a relatively open attitude in Spain toward migration, standing in stark contrast to Italy, which is much more burdened by it. Italy's new government, a coalition between two populist parties, won on a promise to clamp down on immigration.

Spain's new government ministers pose for the media on June 8 after their first Cabinet meeting at the Moncloa palace in Madrid with Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez (c.).
Francisco Seco/AP

Unlike many countries in Europe, Spain has no viable anti-migration or far-right party, for several reasons including its own emigration and its experience under right-wing dictatorship.

And this move to “open” Spain is highly unlikely to generate backlash in the same way that German Chancellor Angela Merkel's decision in 2015 did, given the orders of magnitude in difference – 600-odd migrants versus hundreds of thousands who entered Germany. But that could change depending on what happens next, says Xavier Casals, a Spanish historian of the far right. “Now we are talking about one boat. What if many come? What part will Spain play?” he says. Spain could make a U-turn and block subsequent arrivals. Or, he says, “this case could put immigration on the agenda where it previously hasn’t been.”

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So far it's been broadly accepted, and the PSOE has seen a bounce in opinion polls.

Writing in the Vanguardia, columnist Enric Juliana made a parallel with the fight in the Mediterranean and the contentious Group of Seven summit, comparing Sánchez to Mr. Trudeau, and Italian far-right Interior Minister Matteo Salvini to President Trump.

“After having clashed at the summit of the G7 in Quebec on the subject of the organization of world trade, Trump and Trudeau styles meet again in the Mediterranean. Two brands, two patents, two ways of conceiving politics,” he writes. “The new Spanish [leader] has chosen the Trudeau concept: a diffuse liberal-progressiveness, based on feminism, empathy, and good intentions.”

Against graft and for gender equality

It is still early days, and the situation is volatile. The PSOE holds just 84 of 350 parliamentary seats, and the no confidence vote that brought Sánchez to power was a bold gamble that he won.

But the government next door in Portugal suggests that such daring propositions can have staying power – Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio Costa formed his ruling coalition after his Socialist party came in second in 2015 elections. And they have managed to remain popular by combining fiscal discipline with growth policies.

Antonio Costa Pinto, a political expert at University of Lisbon's Institute of Social Sciences, says Portuguese socialists have an easier time than their Spanish counterparts. They hadn’t fared so poorly in the election cycle in the first place, and Portugal’s mainstream parties have been less challenged by protest parties. They also don’t contend with the heady regionalism of Spain – perhaps riskiest for Sánchez is how to end the standoff over independence in Catalonia.

Mr. Pinto says checking graft and overseeing growth are crucial if the two social democratic parties of the Iberian Peninsula are to attract back more voters who have fled to the harder left and to successfully “rebuild a social democratic pact.”

In Spain, Sánchez also forced out his culture and sports minister after less than a week on the job over an old tax violation. It’s a sign that he is serious that his government will tolerate no corruption. But perhaps nothing has generated as many headlines at home as his appointment of 11 women to his cabinet of 17. They have been called the “fe-ministers.”

The #MeToo movement here has morphed into a broad demand for gender equality, seen most prominently on March 8 to mark International Women’s Day. Millions of Spanish workers, backed by unions and top female politicians, went to the streets to strike. Paloma Román Marugán, a political scientist at Complutense University in Madrid, says the new cabinet reflects the leader’s understanding of a feminist mood in Spain. “Spain has been a pioneer on many fronts that have to do with gender,” she says, “Women here are determined to go as far as possible.”

She sees a brighter scenario for social democracy than at any time in the last decade. “The European left had not been able to reinvent itself in these times, especially with the economic crisis,” says Ms. Román Marugán. “Now Portugal has stood as a shining example that proves that leftist politics is possible. If Spain joins with them, it can be a hope for the left in Europe.”