More messy, than Messi

Jan Royall

Jan Royall reflects on recent developments in Spain’s politics, economy and society

Yesterday my colleagues in the Commons were making the principled, pro-European argument that the European Union, like all of the member states, should tighten its belt and focus its spending on creating jobs and growth. That need for the EU to do more to help our citizens and businesses meet the challenges of the economic crisis was one of the issues that I discussed last weekend in Madrid. One of my favourite cities, I was in there with British and Spanish academics, scientists, bankers, business people and politicians having in-depth discussions about the current economic and political crisis in Europe and much more.

It was strange to have the luxury of time and space to debate whilst just a few streets away thousands of people marched to protest against the latest spending cuts and tax hikes, but were held back from surrounding Spain’s parliament by a strong police presence. A few hours earlier, more than 3,000 off-duty police officers were themselves on the streets, watched by their on-duty colleagues, to protest about the government’s austerity measures, including a cancellation of their Christmas bonuses.  

Walking through the centre of the city, the austerity and the anger were not apparent. The shops, bars and restaurants appear to be busy, but talk to the people, watch the news or read the newspapers and it is immediately clear that things are hurting badly. People are furious with Prime Minister Rajoy because, notwithstanding increased taxes and spending cuts, the crisis continues to deepen. Businesses and banks are frustrated because, despite the painful reforms, further action is needed fast in terms of European rescue funding; but the Prime Minister continues his effort to persuade investors and international authorities that he can manage Spain’s finances without a bailout.

The organisers of last weekend’s demonstration were angry about continued financial support for banks, at a time when thousands of families are being evicted from their homes because they can’t keep up with mortgage payments. Unemployment has recently reached 25%, public sector wages and pensions have been cut, the private sector is shrinking and haemorrhaging jobs.  I spoke to a journalist from El Pais about the situation, and his own paper is about to cut staff by 30%. Day by day, waiting lists for operations get longer and school classes get bigger. There is a real lack of hope, and no confidence in the future. Unions have called a general strike for 14th November.

For young people the situation is even worse, with unemployment soaring to more than 50%. A large number of graduates go on to do a Masters degree as a matter of course, to both enhance their qualifications and keep themselves occupied.  Where there are jobs, the wages are low and the rents high. Some young people have left their relatively new lives in the cities and returned to the smaller towns and villages where they have food and a roof over their heads, but few if any opportunities.  They spend their days searching the internet for jobs and are increasingly looking beyond Spain. It is no longer Spanish waiters but the best qualified youngsters who are leaving for other parts of Europe or China or Latin America in search of jobs.  

The “indignados” are understandably getting more and more indignant and a lack of trust in politicians means they don’t believe the most established political parties can get the country out of the crisis. They are fed up with unrealistic promises, rhetoric which doesn’t meet reality and growing inequalities between people and between regions as the financial crisis deepens. 

In the Basque country and Catalonia this has led to a surge of nationalist sentiment.  The decision to hold Catalan elections on 25th November followed a demonstration of 1.5m Catalans in Barcelona on their national day to demand independence, and the failed talks between the President of Catalonia and Mr Rajoy to give greater fiscal autonomy to Catalonia. If the nationalists won a majority they would most likely call for a consultation on independence –a referendum by another name because the Spanish constitution does not allow for that. 

Catalan eyes are looking to Scotland for inspiration and Spanish business and politicians closely monitor the campaigns in Scotland and will be fixated on the 2014 referendum. Catalonia and Scotland are very, very different, but many of the arguments made by those espousing independence are the same, and both tell their citizens – against the facts – that with independence they could retain their membership of the European Union.  

Given the passion with which many Catalans follow FC Barcelona, football could play a real role in future debates about independence for Catalonia. In the meantime, the situation is set to remain more messy, than Messi.

Baroness Jan Royall of Blaisdon is Labour’s Leader in the House of Lords

Published 1st November 2012

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