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How will the Brexit result go down in Spain?

Most in the country wanted Britain to "Remain" in the EU

By Jessica Abrahams  

pro independence supporters wave "estelada" or pro independence flags during a rally of "Junts pel Si" or "Together for YES" in Barcelona, Spain. The leader of Spain's Catalonia region, Carles Puigdemont, announced Wednesday, June 8, 2016 ©Emilio Morenatti/AP/Press Association Images

Read more: How Brexit should be done

On the evening of 23rd June, as the last of the British voters were heading to the polling stations, Spaniards were instead gathering in the warm night air to celebrate the festival of San Juan by lighting bonfires and dancing in the streets. In Barcelona, the city I’m lucky enough to call home, thousands descended on the beach to set off fireworks, take a late-night swim and drink and dance at the small outdoor bars lining the sand. But amid the revelry, a small group of curious minds gathered around me as news of the referendum started to roll in through the early hours of the morning. We watched our smartphone screens in quiet disbelief as it became increasingly clear that “Leave” had won.

Spanish attitudes to the referendum have been complex. TV commentators and newspaper editorials were vocally agitated about the impact a Brexit would have on the Spain’s economy, still struggling to recover from a long malaise which has seen unemployment remain at exceptionally high levels: it stood at 21 per cent in the first quarter of 2016. Trade relations with the UK are worth many billions of euros annually to Spain; hundreds of Spanish companies operate on British soil (and vice versa); and Britain accounts for its single biggest source of tourists. In a poll conducted shortly before the referendum took place, a strong majority of Spaniards said they did not believe a Brexit would have a marked economic effect on Spain. But Brits are already saying that they are less likely to book a holiday in Europe, now that the pound has tumbled against the euro; and Spain’s IBEX stock market suffered more than the FTSE on the day the result was announced, dropping 12 per cent—the biggest daily fall in its history.

Regardless of the expected economic impact, most Spanish respondents, alongside other Europeans, said they wanted Britain to “Remain” in the Union. There is support for the EU, especially here in Catalonia, which the separatist regional government aspires to turn into an independent EU member state. On the other side of that, the worry in Madrid has been that a Brexit will reignite Britain’s own regional tensions (a scenario already playing out), with possible knock-on effects for Spain; the Catalan separatist movement has taken much inspiration from Scotland over the last few years.

Others are less supportive of the EU: several I spoke to voiced a common view that Spain and its Mediterranean neighbours were thrown under the bus by Brussels during the eurozone crisis, and expressed sympathy for British ambivalence towards it. Yet even the young left-wing party Podemos, which has built its substantial support base on campaigning against the EU’s austerity economics and “political bankruptcy”, talks of “reclaiming” Europe rather than leaving it. There is strong political demand for reform of Europe here, but all the main party leaders nonetheless expressed their support for “Remain.”

Spain, as most of Europe, wanted Britain to stay—and it was not just the politicians. I was asked about the referendum constantly in the weeks leading up to it. Which way was I voting? Why did people want to “Leave”? Did I think it would happen? During the final 24 hours the newspapers were full of Brexit. El País, one of the country’s biggest papers, kept a running tally of the votecount on its homepage as the results came in. The articles the following day were endless; the frontpages covered in Union Jacks and images of Chelsea pensioners striding into polling stations to cast their votes. Political leaders referred to David Cameron’s decision to call the referendum as “irresponsible” on a historic level—in part, albeit, because they are fighting demands for a Catalan referendum themselves. They have used the result as evidence of the dangers of using referendums to make complex decisions. They called it “a sad day” and a triumph for “the phony solutions of populism.” The acting Prime Minister appealed for calm in the financial markets and among those Spaniards living in Britain. Friends shared messages on Facebook expressing their dismay, and talking about the need for the rest of Europe to now pull together. They have continued to ask me what the expected benefits of this are to Britain, struggling to understand. The overwhelming feeling has been one of shock.

Barcelona is a cosmopolitan city, home to citizens from all across Europe. I have lived with people from Romania, Germany, Finland, Holland and Ireland, all here to work in different industries. Locals complain about tourism—that the streets and beaches become clogged with visitors, and the noise from the bars and clubs keeps them up at night—but few seem to worry that those of us who come to settle here will take their jobs or fail to integrate. It is a city that prides itself on being the country’s cultural and economic hub, and both those personalities benefit from the openness and diversity that the EU enables.

Of course, it is also home to its fair share of Brits. Speaking to them before the referendum I was struck by how many had failed to register to vote. It was difficult, they said—postal votes may not have arrived in time and they didn’t have anyone back home who could act as a proxy. Several were apparently unaware that a proxy vote was even possible. Many, it seemed, had not given serious consideration to the possibility that the Leave campaign could win or what the consequences of that would be for them. As it started to look more likely, they began to worry. Some have partners in Spain, or children who have been born here. They have raised families here, built careers here; it is home. What would happen to the lives they had worked so hard for if Britain left the EU?

Sitting on the beach celebrating the fiesta on Thursday night, a Spanish friend joked: “We all know Britain’s going to stay in the EU, they just want to complain about it as much as possible first—it’s the British way.” A few hours later, the music and fireworks winding down around us, we sat in silence as reality began to dawn.

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