You know the Modern Spain you love is in danger. Thankfully, you can still eat abundant amounts of tasty Spanish ham whilst drinking a decent Rioja, and the Spanish national football team is still beating all-comers at international level—a truly world class achievement—but in your heart of hearts, you know a cataclysmic future outcome is a plausible option for a Spanish society that is struggling to adapt to a new world economically, politically and constitutionally.
What happens to a society when tens or hundreds of thousands of its own citizens abandon the country to go and live and work abroad, with the approval of parents, government ministers and even the king? When record numbers of citizens—25%, nearly 6 million Spaniards—are unemployed, with no economic recovery or new jobs visible anywhere on the horizon? When the 12th largest economy in the world is ranked 136 for ease of starting a new business, behind Burundi, Afghanistan or Yemen?
What happens when Spain’s existing national institutions aren’t capable of offering all of its citizens and residents a prosperous existence, or when political leaders steadfastly refuse to listen to their voters’ repeated cries for change and prefer instead to repeatedly lie to the nation, ignoring their own electoral programmes?
The Spanish King has said that thinking about Spain makes him want to cry.
How are the king’s subjects supposed to respond to that pathetic statement? What exactly are you supposed to do? What hope is there for your future, and for that of your children? How should you respond as a citizen, a resident, a taxpayer, a parent, a friend, a businessman or an investor?
You see, I bet that if you’re reading this blog you are one of the millions of people around the world who really care about Spain for some reason, just like I do.
Maybe you’re a patriotic Spanish citizen, worried about your own economic future and the direction your country has taken. Maybe you’re the parent of children in Spain, aghast at the dismal prospects the country’s outlook seems to suggest for their future education and opportunities in life. Maybe you’re a foreign resident who has invested your life savings and years of your life here. Maybe you’re a foreign investor who is thinking about investing, or has already invested, millions of dollars, pounds or renminbis in a business interest somewhere in the country. Maybe you’re learning or teaching Spanish at school, university or night classes. Or perhaps you’re working at a Spanish-speaking or foreign newspaper or TV station somewhere on the planet, trying to work out what on earth is going on in Spain and what consequences that might have for the global economy.
You really would like the country to work well again, to get better, but it’s sick right now and it needs help.
What we call Modern Spain is based on the 1978 Constitution that Spaniards agreed upon following the death of Franco. It was a wonderful, successful, historic agreement that responded effectively, at that time, to some of Spain’s recurring historical challenges. No more coups, takeovers, revolts, anarchy, civil war or dictatorship. Spain was going to be a modern constitutional monarchy, a modern European democracy with a market economy. Spain’s seventies-era big cheeses were able to knock heads together for the greater good of all Spaniards and set aside their differences.. By 2007, with their modern Carta Magna tucked under their arms and King Juan Carlos I watching constitutionally over his subjects, Spain had become the 8th largest economy in the world and developed first-class abilities in—at least—tourism healthcare, banking, football (how many trophies are there now?) and gastronomy (…that tasty ham!).
It worked for about three decades, until the Great Spanish Construction Hangover.
For a few years, it seemed like everyone here wanted to buy and sell houses. Immigrant workers did the heavy lifting and served beers, and the new properties were sold off at very handsome profits to Northern Europeans called Sven and Susan. Estate-agents sprouted like mushrooms in empty corner-premises in every town and city in the country. “Shhhh, pssst, come over here, I’ll sell you a few houses on the costa. Great value. Prices are just going up and up, mate. You really can’t lose. Don’t wait until tomorrow. Don’t miss the boat!” And that, basically, was Spain’s national business model—the Iberian get-rich-quick scheme—for about eight years, until 2007.
It wasn’t a good long-term investment, was it?
In 2012, five years after it all came crashing down, Spain is awash with empty, unfinished and unsold flats, houses, villas, office blocks and plots of land. Almost 6 million unemployed people now wander around Spain wondering how to feed their children and pay the rent each month. That’s an impressive 25% of the active population. Tens of thousands of Spanish citizens, and hundreds of thousands of immigrants, some of the smartest young people in the kingdom, have already emigrated to find work and a life abroad, in other countries. Hundreds of billions of euros of investment capital has fled the country over the past 12 months, according to the ECB’s Target 2 bank transfer estimates. The Spanish legal system is clogged to choking point with regional legislation and overdue cases: initial trial dates well out into 2014 or 2015 are already common. A host of respected charity organisations—the Red Cross, UNICEF and Cáritas—are now warning that millions of Spaniards are slipping below the poverty line and in need of regular charity assistance just to survive, and that record numbers of children in Spain are now malnourished and living in relative or chronic poverty. The EU estimates that social inequality, the distance between the richest and the poorest people in Spain, has rocketed to the highest level anywhere on the continent in 2012. The Spanish government is currently trying to decide whether or not to ask Europe for a €100 billion bailout to plug a hole in the national finances. But what’s the plan after that? (Answer: there isn’t one)
And Catalan nationalists have just played one of history’s great Spanish joker cards: Catalan independence, which would imply the geographic, political and economic secession of a whole chunk of Spain. They are seriously suggesting lopping off a fifth of Spain’s economy. So weakened is the Spanish national project at the moment that an increasing number of Catalans wish to leave the country altogether and are willing to try and do something serious about it this time. The Basques might not be far behind them. We would be talking plausibly in that case about a literal redrawing of the map of Spain. The stakes are that high right now, loyal reader.
As harsh as this is going to sound, the enormous set of complex systems and institutions we call Modern Spain has somehow transformed itself—as if by magic at the start of this 21st Century—into an increasingly unattractive, indeed repellent, national project. Literally. Its own citizens are emigrating again in droves or are unemployed, while investment capital and ideas flee the country because other national projects in other countries appear more attractive. Its own regions are setting in motion new independence projects. People are making long-term, life-changing decisions away from Spain. No-one knows if or when those citizens and that investment capital will come back. Maybe they’ll be back next year, maybe in five–years time or maybe never.
The wonderful institutional solutions invented by conscientious Spaniards at the end of the 1970s following the death of Franco have not been able to cope in their current form with the vagaries of globalisation and a hyper-connected, overpopulated, digital world facing a host of serious existential challenges itself, from climate change to feeding 8 billion human beings and the explosive growth of mega–cities.
Spain’s current generation of politicians, many of whom entered politics in the 1970 or 1980s, have so far shown little willingness to adapt those institutions with anything like the celerity needed to stop current trends from getting much worse, and—for now—the multiple disorganised protest movements, citizen organisations and general strikes have achieved very little in practical terms and do not represent a serious governing alternative.
Spain still has everything to play for, though. Our uncertain future is not necessarily grim. Spaniards could in theory still come together once more and design a new national project, better adapted to the 21st Century. But I fear we need to be quick now. And sooner or later, Spain will need to articulate some kind of response as a nation to all of these changes, whether it plans and prepares for them or not. Historical changes imply historical opportunities, and it is Spain’s privilege to try and make the most of them if it wishes to do so.
So Spain needs you and your ideas right now, loyal reader. And my blog is all about thinking better about the future of Spain, so keep reading.