The Spanish liberal party has become center-stage in the last few days. Despite the warnings, Ciudadanos has gone ahead with local alliances with the far-right party Vox, raising strong criticism from the French government. Both Ciudadanos and Emmanuel Macron’s platform En Marche are part of the same political family in the European Parliament and, since the French president has identified populist and extreme-right movements as Europe’s main threat, these local alliances have generated unease within the European group.
Last Sunday took place the formation of most of the city councils in Spain after the municipal elections on May 26 and, for the first time in decades, the far-right gets to play an important role in the Spanish political scene. Vox, the ultra-conservative and anti-migration party, will not rule a regional government but has become a key player to reach it. The most representative example is the case of Madrid, where the conservative Popular Party (PP) will rule again after four years in the opposition thanks to the alliance with Ciudadanos and the support of Vox.
“When you are in a pro-European group, you do not work with the extreme right,” posted on Twitter the French minister of Foreign Affairs, Amelie de Montchalin, repeating her statement during an interview in France Inter last week. “We will ask MEPs from Ciudadanos to clarify their situation regarding their party,” she added.
In its origins, Ciudadanos appeared as a moderate party, which sought the political regeneration of the institutions and aspired to be a key force to form centrist coalitions in Spain. But in the last years, the political rhetoric of Ciudadanos has evolved from liberal to more conservative ideas, to the point that its leader, Albert Rivera, has repeatedly advocated creating a sanitary cordon to the Socialist Party and prefers to pact with the Popular Party instead – even if that implies an alliance with Vox, -which in the case of Madrid is the opposite of promoting political regeneration since the PP had ruled the capital for 24 years involved in numerous scandals of corruption.
While it is true that Ciudadanos has increased its support in the last local and general elections, its strategy has not been successful enough to become the leading party of the opposition in Spain -which is the Popular Party.- However, this shift to the right can take its toll on Ciudadanos as now it may have to be accountable to its European partners.
During the interview, Montchalin expressed the French government’s intentions to make all the members of the new European liberal group sign a “charter of common values” that excludes alliances with far-right parties. For the French President, there can be no ambiguities in this aspect. “It is not an option,” highlighted Montchalin referring to any kind of pact with the extreme-right.
Macron wants the European liberal group to seek a centrist alliance
Renew Europe, the new name of the liberal group in the European Parliament, brings together the old members of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE) and the 21 MEPs of Macron’s En Marche platform. Since its creation, the French President has insisted on the need of the group to get along with the other “progressive” and “pro-European” forces in order to stop the rise of populism.
This is not surprising considering the current French political scenario, where Marine Le Pen’s National Rally has recently won the European elections and almost reached the French Executive in 2017. As a result, Macron has already shown great interest in its relationship with the Spanish Socialist Prime Minister, Pedro Sánchez, whom Rivera has defined as an “indecent” and “unscrupulous” person.
After the EU elections, Macron and Sánchez have become the new leaders of the European liberals and Social Democrats (S&D) respectively and they are both aware of the benefits of working together, especially now that all Member States are trying to influence the next EU leadership.
This new alliance is good news to the Spanish government but moves Rivera even further away from the French president, who in just a few months has gone from being Rivera’s main “model to follow” to the friend of his political enemy, Pedro Sánchez.
Ciudadanos and Manuel Valls divorce in Barcelona
The relationship between the former French Prime Minister Manuel Valls and Rivera -who chose him to be Ciudadanos leading candidate in Barcelona – had shown signs of wear for weeks. In the end, on Tuesday 18, after Valls supported the investiture of the leftist and former housing rights activist Ada Colau in Barcelona, the Spanish party announced the divorce with his old ‘French star’.
Only six months has lasted this marriage. In the first place, the fact that the former Prime Minister was openly against any pact with the far-right – criticizing Ciudadanos ambiguity with Vox- set up some distance between Valls and Rivera. But the decision to cut ties with the candidate has arrived after Valls supported Colau in order to prevent separatists from ruling Barcelona.
Even if Ciudadanos strongly rejects the separatist aspirations in Catalonia, the party seems to prioritize its strategy to block the left from taking control and has blamed Valls for not demanding any condition to Colau in exchange for his support.
What is next?
Ciudadanos has avoided making any comments regarding Montchalin’s statement while Renew Europe prefers to keep silence as well. The expulsion of the Spanish party from the European liberal family seems unlikely, especially considering that Ciudadanos is the third major force in the group together with Romania’s liberal party -and will become the second one after Brexit.- However, the position of the French government may serve to put pressure on Rivera to return to more moderate positions in national politics, especially now that electoral campaigns have come to an end.