07 May 2024, 10:00
Bernardo Álvarez-Villar

EU rules limit populists’ damage to climate action in Spain

Photo shows child at a political rally of the Spanish populist right-wing party Vox, holding a flag. Photo: Vox España.
Photo: Vox España.

The impact of a populist party opposed to climate action is starting to make itself clearly felt in Spain. From climate budget cuts to suspending low-emission zones and reversing plans for green taxes: As a partner in several city and regional governments, the country’s leading far-right party, Vox, can apply the brakes to all manner of policies aiming for emission cuts, even though it is not part of a national government. But – for now – Vox’s ability to harm the fight against climate change is limited by national and EU legislation, analysts and activists say.

In short

Populists in Spain

  • Vox is a national-populist split from the liberal-conservative Popular Party (PP) that has become the third largest political force in parliament, and has entered local and regional governments in coalition with the PP.

Populists' impact on climate efforts

  • Regional and local governments in which Vox participates have cut budgets for climate change mitigation, eliminated low emission zones in urban areas, or removed bike lanes. However, analysts and activists say national and EU rules mean that Vox's ability to seriously hinder climate action is limited.

Key climate issues in the 2024 EU election in Spain

  • For the progressive parties, the climate issue is crucial in the European elections. The Socialist candidate is Teresa Ribera, current minister for the ecological transition. In contrast, Vox MEPs are focused on repealing the European Green Deal. According to the latest public survey on the concerns of Spaniards, climate change is in ninth place and only 7.4 percent of the population consider it one of their main concerns.

Vox, Spain's leading populist, far-right party, doesn’t mince its words. It has called climate change "a scam", and described policies to combat its worst effects "a new religion with new commandments" designed to "tell us how we have to live”. The party says that environmentalist elites and Brussels bureaucrats would threaten the sovereignty and freedom of the Spanish people. These elites would use "a climate emergency as an excuse to destroy what little is left of our national industry”, said the party's leader Santiago Abascal. 

Vox's most recent electoral programme – for the general elections in July 2023 – includes proposals to repeal the climate change act, continue exploiting fossil fuels, reverse the ban on the sale of petrol and diesel cars by 2035, pull Spain out of the Paris Agreement, and suspend the European Green Deal.

Vox has so far not been in a position to turn words into action at the national level. It has failed to become part of the country's central government, and remained isolated in its opposition to the climate change act in national parliament.

Things are different in city councils and some of Spain's 17 regions. Vox has entered several local and regional governments in the past two years, allowing it to implement some of its ideas. These range from cutting budgets earmarked for climate action, to suspending low-emission zones, and reversing plans for green taxes. While this causes some to sound the alarm bell, others say Vox's power to become a real threat to Spain's climate targets is limited. 

“Vox has a very simplistic reading of climate policies," says Toni Timoner Salvá, vice-president of the environmental, pro-market think tank Oikos. “Its position on this is to oppose everything, but I don't think it is a danger to achieving climate objectives. Vox knows that this issue does not give them many votes, and I think that sooner or later they will realise that it is not profitable for them to oppose it."

Right-wing populist parties have scored significant electoral successes in Europe in recent years, and populist parties opposing strong climate action are expected to fare well in two-thirds of EU member states at the European Parliament elections in June this year. The case of Spain holds interesting lessons for other countries because it shows how a party critical of ambitious climate action can impact efforts even without a hold on power at the national level.

Only Vox voted against declaration of climate emergency in Spain

Vox celebrated its tenth anniversary at the end of 2023. Initially, the party brought together the most right-wing sectors of the Partido Popular (PP) – Spain's traditional centre-right party – in favour of taking drastic measures to quell the pro-independence conflict in Catalonia. From this founding ideological core, linked to centralism and the defence of national unity, Vox gradually incorporated new elements into its programme – and shifted its discourse to oppose climate action. 

Vox's energy and ecological proposals largely ignore the severity of the climate crisis proven by science and laid down in international agreements. In 2019, Vox was the only parliamentary party to vote against the declaration of a climate emergency in Spain and, more recently, it again voted alone against the approval of the Law on Climate Change and Energy Transition, which enshrines the target of reaching climate neutrality by 2050.

Its voters are also less concerned with climate action than those of other parties. According to a recent survey, 50.9 percent of Vox voters say they personally take some action to fight climate change, while the percentage in the electorate of the other parties is between 77 and 89 percent.

“There is some cognitive dissonance between Vox voters and its party on this issue”, analyst Timoner told Clean Energy Wire, “because, as the polls we have done show, most Vox voters are concerned about climate change, with the nuance that they may not believe it is anthropogenic." The researcher says that the Spanish right-wing electorate (PP and Vox) opposes using the fight against climate change as a pretext for anti-market policies, for example. "If presented in a framework free of left-wing bias, the Vox voter is happy to protect the environment."

Climate budget cuts and abolition of green taxes in Spain's regions

Spain is divided into 17 sub-national regions, so-called 'comunidades autónomas'. Vox currently governs in coalition with the PP as a junior partner in five of these with a combined population of 12 million: Castilla y León, Comunidad Valenciana, Aragón, Murcia and Extremadura. In four of the five governments in which Vox participates, it has ministries directly or indirectly related to green or energy policies: in Castilla y León the industry and agriculture ministries; in Aragón and Valencia the agriculture ministries; and in Extremadura the ministries of forestry management and rural affairs.

Apart from the government of Castilla y León, which Vox joined in 2022, the rest of the governments were not formed until the last regional and autonomous elections in May 2023. That has left the party little time and opportunity to fundamentally change climate policies, but Vox managed to reduce regional budgets earmarked for climate action and promoting the ecological transition. In the Valencian Community, whose capital is Spain's third largest city in terms of economic importance and population, these funds have gone from 237 million euros to 148 million euros under the new PP-Vox government.

Valencia's politics have been marked by "political inaction and the reversal of measures against climate change."

Paula Espinosa, member of the Valencian parliament for Compromís

Paula Espinosa is a member of the Valencian parliament for the green party Compromís, which between 2015 and 2023 governed the community in coalition with the Socialist Party. Since Vox joined the regional government, Valencia's politics have been marked by "political inaction and the reversal of measures against climate change," Espinosa told Clean Energy Wire. The government stopped projects for new pedestrian areas and allowed urban development projects on the coast, which had previously been halted. "This is a step backwards in these times of drought and water stress," says Espinosa.

One of the issues Espinosa is most concerned about is forest fires, which are becoming more frequent in Spain due to climate change. The year 2022 was the second-worst on record in relation to land area burned in wildfires across the EU, with fires stretching from Portugal and Spain to Italy and Greece. Adapting to the increased risk of wildfires – including better prevention, warning and management of blazes – is crucial for a southern European country such as Spain.

Fire prevention and extinguishing is the responsibility of the regional ministry of Justice, chaired by Vox politician Elisa Núñez, for whom "talking about climate change is a lie". Espinosa says the ministry "has reduced the budget for fire prevention and extinction by 9 percent", which means several million euros less for municipalities and the hiring of firefighters.

On energy transition, the government has clearly stated "its intention to modify the Valencian climate change law," says Espinosa. The PP-Vox government already decided other measures, such as the abolition of green taxes on large commercial areas, industry and cars, which were set to come into force in 2025.

Vox takes aim at low-emission zones, but national legislation presents hurdle

To date, Vox's most visible offensive against climate change mitigation policies has been at the local level and in relation to low-emission zones. A low emission zone is "an area […] in which restrictions on access, circulation and parking of vehicles are applied to improve air quality and mitigate greenhouse gas emissions".

The zones are mandatory in Spain for municipalities with more than 50,000 inhabitants, according to the national climate change act. However, after only two months in office, at least six cities governed by PP-Vox (Valladolid, Gijón, Castellón, Lorca, Majadahonda, Elche) decided to eliminate, delay or minimise these restricted traffic areas.

The low-emission zones could be brought back as central government and private individuals can take legal action against the suspensions, which could lead to courts forcing municipalities to reverse them.

"They won't be able to do much" due to national and EU laws

The existence of established climate legislation, both at national and European level, is a cause for cautious optimism for environmentalists. Paco Ramos, of the environmental NGO umbrella organisation Ecologistas en Acción, told Clean Energy Wire that "as long as the European framework does not change substantially, they won't be able to do much".

His colleague Luis González Reyes, researcher and activist of Ecologistas en Acción shares his view, highlighting a failed attempt by a PP-led government to  abolish the low emission zone in Spain's capital Madrid: "Their intention was to eliminate any restriction on cars, but they have had no choice but to soften those restrictions because there was a systematic failure to comply with the regulations." The activist says the same thing would happen at the state level. "They will try to break the rules as long as possible and, when sanctions come, they will look for mechanisms to comply, even if only partially." An example of this could be found in Alicante, where PP and Vox have retained the low emission zone, but removed fines for offenders.

No matter how much Vox says it will not comply with certain things, it will have to do so because otherwise there will be consequences for the pockets of Spaniards.

Toni Timoner Salvá, Oikos

In the government coalition agreements signed in autonomous regions such as Extremadura, Valencia or Castilla and León, PP and Vox said they would introduce more measures which could ultimately harm climate and biodiversity, such as the expansion of irrigation, a reduction of environmental controls on agricultural and livestock holdings, cutting limitations in protected areas, or the reversal of European policies that curb the use of pesticides or aggressive fishing practices. But González says that the governments will not be able to carry out a large part of their programme. "What we will see is going to be something less bad than what they announce in their speeches."

Oikos analyst Timoner highlights another aspect: money. "Europe's action limits you because it establishes frameworks, but fundamentally because there is aid and funds conditional on complying with policies," he says. "No matter how much Vox says it will not comply with certain things, it will have to do so because otherwise there will be consequences for the pockets of Spaniards."

Centre-right PP: Following or limiting Vox on climate?

The PP does not share a discourse as aggressive as Vox's on climate change, and its programme includes some green measures. However, political circumstances lead PP to assume different positions when it depends on the support of Vox to govern, says opposition politician Espinosa. In her view, the PP "is supposed to be more interested in the environment but, unfortunately, it ends up following whatever Vox says".

In Castilla y León, the PP environment minister Juan Carlos Suárez-Quiñones avoided linking forest fires to climate change in order to not make his Vox partner uncomfortable, reported El Espanol. Avoiding to highlight a link between climate change and more and more severe wildfires was "not common in the PP of Castilla y León until a few months ago," when Vox entered into government, the newspaper said.

The parties' discourses are also slowly merging at the national level: In a parliamentary session in February, both the PP and Vox leaders referred to the government's green policies as "environmental dogmatism".

Analyst Timoner still sees the PP as a guarantee that climate action will be taken. "Everything the PP has done is in line with Europe's objectives. The PP is very clear about what needs to be done, and will deal with Vox to prevent it from hindering climate policies," he told Clean Energy Wire. "This is what is happening in the autonomous communities where they govern in coalition: symbolic things have been changed, but not the guiding plans."

Even if Vox succeeded in entering central government, activist Ramos says that "the capacity for intervention and participation" against climate change "would be limited". Spain's president Pedro Sánchez – a socialist and highly unlikely to ever form a government coalition with Vox – has just confirmed his intention to continue at the head of the government at least until the end of the legislature in 2027. However, political instability in Spain has been at a peak in recent times, and it is not possible to rule out an early election in the coming months.

All texts created by the Clean Energy Wire are available under a “Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International Licence (CC BY 4.0)” . They can be copied, shared and made publicly accessible by users so long as they give appropriate credit, provide a link to the license, and indicate if changes were made.
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