Spain: The Party’s Over
In Toledo, as across the country, middle and lower classes feel themselves under siege and without prospects
It was 7:30 on an ordinary weekday in Toledo, in the heart of Castile. In front of the local public employment agency, which would open at 8:00, dozens of people young to middle-aged waited in a long line. Their resigned expressions, drooping shoulders and aura of hopelessness drew a picture of Spain’s new reality, of what has become a way of life for almost five million people.
Spain is going through hard times. The country has gone from a widely reported “economic miracle,” to flirting in the shadows of a European Union bailout. In 2007, the former government claimed the country was the eighth economic power in the world, with a per capita GDP even higher than Italy’s. Former Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero claimed Spain might even surpass France and approach Germany in per capita GDP, and join the “Champions League” of the global economy with a right to membership in the G8.
They could not have been more wrong.
Early victim and more to come
The 2008 global financial crisis that began in the United States hit Europe quickly and violently. Spain was among the earliest to show symptoms, one of the so-called PIIGS countries, along with Portugal, Ireland, Italy, and Greece. From an historic low in 2007, unemployment rose to nearly 25% in 2012, and 51% among Spain’s youth.
Still, Spain has not yet hit bottom. The country’s GPD has been on a steady decline since 2007, and finding any job – let alone a well-paid one – has become an odyssey, with no end in sight. “Do you have any idea how impossible the situation in Madrid is right now?” a relative challenged me on a visit in 2009. Many found themselves unemployed from one day to the next, dealing with a hangover from a party of excesses to which they had not been invited.
For 20 years, Spain’s growth had been based on the construction sector, artificially fed by cheap loans, generating a real estate bubble and towering levels of debt, and filling savings banks with unsound assets. In May 2012, Bankia, Spain’s fourth largest bank, acknowledged a debt of €20 billion as many irregularities emerged.
Overall, the IMF has estimated that Spain’s banking system will need €40 billion. The Spanish government is likely to assume the debt with public funds, triggering a EU bailout of up to €100 billion, which has been labelled by the government as a simple loan. All in all, it was viewed as a cheap, fast, and good way for a few to become very rich, very fast, blessed by the two major political parties.
And now, Madrid and Barcelona are vying to become the host of EuroVegas, Sheldon Adelson’s multi-billion macro project based on casinos, skyscrapers, gambling and alcohol – a “solution” based on the same principles that caused the problem in the first place.
Toledo was never very rich, nor was it very poor. It is an ancient, thousand-year-old town with a strong tourism industry. There are always visitors spending in the local restaurants or shops. Still, walking around in the old city today, there seem to be beggars everywhere, many more than in the past – dozens of people begging for food, blaming the crisis for their misfortune.
“I lost my job, I beg so my family can eat tonight,” read the message, repeated on one cardboard after another, a heart-breaking procession of people of all ages and backgrounds, crestfallen, swallowing their pride. In Madrid a few days later, the picture was the same.
Spaniards love football and a cold beer with tasty tapas in summer. Despite the crisis, the lost jobs, and the recession, summer tapas-bars are full of customers. Middle and lower class citizens drink local beers sitting in the merciless Spanish sun while enjoying tapas, criticising the actions taken by the current and previous governments. Criticising is one of Spain’s national sports, second only to football.
These times are extreme, though, coloured by fear and helplessness. Up to 90% of Spaniards think that the country’s current economic situation is either “bad” or “really bad,” and a similar percentage foresee no improvement in the coming years. Many feel that both parliament and government in Spain have become monolithic and rigid, and Berlin and Brussels are now calling the shots. Spain’s ship of state is sailing in dangerous waters, and the only hope of the captain is that the German lighthouse is working tonight.
But the austerity-driven policies of the current conservative government are jeopardising its future, threatening to throw the Spanish economy back to pre-development levels, and Spaniards into poverty. And yet, after requesting a bailout of up to €100 billion, the Spanish premier left to attend the European Football Championships.
“It is impossible to get any secure job, the most I’ve gotten in recent years have been calls to wait tables on Friday or Saturday nights,” a close friend of mine confessed. He earned a technical degree in energy and electrical engineering. He wanted to continue studying in Germany, but instead, he struggles to survive and pay the rent, working sporadically as a waiter in tapas bars and night clubs. “Do you know that Juan has become a security guard on the night shift?” my mother asked me. He used to be a real estate agent. Millions of former breadwinners have nothing to bring to the table, and to avoid eating in soup kitchens, anything would do.
Scaling back expectations
And for the first time in decades, Spain is losing population. Thousands of immigrants are returning to their home countries, as Spaniards are no longer picky about the jobs they take. In the meantime, thousands of the best-educated Spaniards are leaving the country, seeking opportunities abroad, which they cannot find at home. The dreams of millions are being crushed, and economic and social darkness looms over the country.
Spaniards had become high-flyers, living in a seemingly prosperous welfare state with a sense of belonging to the wealthy world. Now, the average citizen is poorer than ever.
The odd thing is, they do not seem to care that much. Why should they? Spain still has sun, beer, tapas and parties every Friday and Saturday night, where my old school friend may work, if he is lucky.
And there’s football, of course. After all, this summer the European Championship is back, isn’t it?
No need to think further ahead than that.