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The Aquarius rescue ship arrives to port in Valencia, Spain on June 17, 2018.HEINO KALIS/Reuters

When Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini stopped a ship with more than 600 African migrants from docking in his country last June, he set off a chain reaction that has resulted in a hardening of anti-immigration sentiment across Europe.

The move by Mr. Salvini, leader of the far-right Northern League that now governs Italy in a coalition with the anti-establishment Five Star Movement, drew a stiff rebuke from French President Emmanuel Macron, to which Euroskeptic politicians responded in kind.

Mr. Macron denounced the Italian government’s “cynicism” and “irresponsibility” for turning away the Aquarius migrant ship, and condemned the “leprosy” of rising ethnic nationalism.

Mr. Salvini shot back: “We might be populist lepers, but I only take lessons from those who open their ports. Take in thousands of migrants and we’ll talk.”

Indeed, while Mr. Macron offered to broker a solution to the standoff that had left the Aquarius stranded at sea for several days, what he explicitly did not offer to do was to let the boat and its desperate occupants find safe harbour in France.

Luckily, Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez, who had taken office only days earlier, came to the rescue. Eager to a set a progressive tone for his fragile government and win back voters his Socialist Party had lost to the far-left Podemos party, Mr. Sanchez allowed the Aquarius to dock in Valencia on June 18.

That move, which was widely praised at the time, now has Mr. Sanchez fighting for his political life. The coalition government he formed with Podemos fell last week after Catalonian separatist parties in Congress refused to vote for Mr. Sanchez’s budget, despite his move to shower public spending on their region.

The real reason for the secessionist move to bring down Mr. Sanchez’s government, however, was his refusal to allow their region to hold a legal referendum on separation from Spain. The country’s constitution does not allow for that and, despite his bromides about wanting a dialogue with the region, Mr. Sanchez knows that Spaniards outside Catalonia want their prime minister to take a hard line against separatism.

That left Mr. Sanchez with little choice but to let his own government fall, thrusting Spain into its third election in barely three years. The previous two votes, in late 2015 and 2016, resulted in hung parliaments. Then People’s Party leader Mariano Rajoy managed to hang on for a couple of years, but was finally ousted eight months ago.

Since then, a new player has emerged on the Spanish political scene that promises to shake up the election Mr. Sanchez has called for April 28: The rise of Vox, a far-right party that calls for a halt to illegal immigration and an even harder line toward separatists, has made predicting the outcome of the spring vote almost impossible.

What is clear is that Vox owes its sudden surge in popularity to Mr. Sanchez’s decision to welcome the Aquarius. The majority of migrants crossing the Mediterranean Sea from North Africa have set their sights on Spain ever since. While the number of migrants arriving in Europe fell over all in 2018, it doubled to 57,000 in Spain, making the country the first destination for African migrants, surpassing Italy and Greece.

Many of them now pass through Melilla and Ceuta, two Spanish cities on the North African coast bordering Morocco. Once there, migrants can claim asylum in Spain, leading Vox to call for an “insurmountable wall” around the two cities.

That demand helped Vox make its first electoral breakthrough, winning 11 per cent of the vote in the Spanish coastal region of Andalusia in December. Andalusia had been governed by Socialists for more than 40 years. Since last month, however, the People’s Party and the centre-right Citizens party have formed a coalition with Vox in the region, an outcome that could foreshadow the results of the April 28 national vote.

During the campaign in Andalusia, Vox leader Santiago Abascal released a video on Twitter showing him and his supporters on horseback, under the slogan: “La Reconquista comenzara en tierras andaluzas.” (The Reconquest will begin on Andalusian territory.) La Reconquista usually refers to the Middle Age crusade to drive Muslims out of the Iberian Peninsula. Mr. Abascal’s appropriation of the term is hardly coincidental.

Mr. Sanchez may have been on the right side of history in welcoming the Aquarius. But the move has changed the course of Spanish politics in ways that he may well regret.

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