Spain remains a sharply divided country despite government efforts for improvement

King Juan Carlos I with his wife meeting President Ronald Reagan and First Lady Nancy Reagan at The White House in 1981

As I write, the unprecedented appearance of the Spanish Infanta, Princess Cristina, in court in Palma, has taken place and the Spanish royal family finds itself once again in the spotlight of the international media. And, once again, it’s not for the right reasons. But Spain’s current problems are far worse than a royal public relations crisis. Not just high public debt and unemployment levels – but increasing poverty, a complete lack of faith in the political class, and the prospect of Catalonian separation hang over Spain.

The King may have given up his luxury yacht, but the Spanish monarchy has been in deep water for some time now and, at 53 per cent, its popularity rating is at an all-time low. Elephant-hunting trips to Africa aside, the money laundering and fraud allegations against the princess have been damaging – and to crown it all, the King himself has now been implicated in the scandal. There have even been calls for the King to abdicate, something previously unheard of in Spain.

King Juan Carlos I with his wife meeting President Ronald Reagan and First Lady Nancy Reagan at The White House in 1981
King Juan Carlos I with his wife meeting President Ronald Reagan and First Lady Nancy Reagan at The White House in 1981

The royal family has attempted to quell the storm by releasing data about its public funding. This showed that the monarchy costs 16.6 cents a year per person – seemingly little, except the total does not include official trips, security, nor the maintenance of royal estates and land. The family has, however, agreed to be bound by a new transparency law currently being debated, meaning these costs will be included in the total. So the long-enduring myth of the Spanish royal family being the “cheapest in Europe” could be blown out of the water.

Most Spaniards, however, have more immediate and pressing concerns than the state of the royal family. When recently the conservative government of the Partido Popular (PP), under Mariano Rajoy, announced that Spain´s economy had achieved three quarters of consecutive growth, and Moody´s upgraded Spain´s credit rating from “negative” to “stable”, the financial bond markets reacted positively. But the public debt is higher than ever, and still rising. The argument that the PSOE (Spanish Workers Socialist Party, the current opposition) were responsible for Spain’s debt crisis in the years leading up to their electoral defeat in 2010 now seems feeble at best. But, the PP argues, the loan from the European Central Bank was necessary to bail out Spanish banks, almost all of whom were on the verge of collapse. But for the “big five” (BBVA, Santander, Caixabank, Sabadell and Popular), it’s as though the crisis had never been. Together in 2013, they quadrupled their profits from the year before. Santander enjoyed profits of 4.3bn euros.

But it is unemployment that remains the most critical problem facing Spain. I work as an English Language Assistant in one of Spain´s Official Language Schools, where I teach around 450 students, from all backgrounds, aged 16-80. Many of the students are learning English in the hopes that it will help them find a job. Others are terrified at the prospect of imminently leaving university to enter a jobs market in which having a degree means very little.

Unemployment remains at 26.7 percent (and 57.7 per cent for young people) at the time of writing and is not forecast to fall below 25 per cent until 2018. Mr Rajoy´s government recently tried to claim that unemployment levels had fallen, but this was revealed only to be technically true because 260,000 of those registered as unemployed had moved abroad. As a result of this, the prime minister has been dubbed “Mariano el Mago” (Mariano the Wizard, or Magic Mariano).

Even for those lucky enough to have a job (and people do describe themselves as “lucky”), since the labour reform law of 2012, essentially aimed at giving more flexibility to firms, big businesses (classified as having more than 50 employees) have lowered salaries by an average of 10 per cent. When finance minister Cristobal Montoro addressed the Spanish parliament in October saying “salaries are not going down in Spain”, his statement was met with open laughter and derision in the chamber.

Most Spanish people have given up any hope that politicians will find a way out of this crisis. Many people feel completely on their own; that not only the government, but all politicians have no concern at all for their well-being. One student, studying to be a primary school teacher, told me that “for most politicians, image is everything. They don’t care about actually doing what people need”. For example, in the northern town of Burgos, the council had planned to transform one of the main streets into a large boulevard. The council abandoned these plans after demonstrations and protests against what was deemed a gross misappropriation of very scarce public funding. Why, people asked, are the council even considering spending money on this when there are people starving in the streets?

It’s all too easy to pin Spain’s problems on a contemptuous (and moreover, racist) stereotype of the lazy southern European. This is a country still very much living under the shadow of Franco´s dictatorship, a shadow that stretches deep into most areas of Spanish life. The government recently proposed a law that would restrict women’s abortion rights to the same extent as under Franco. Early termination would no longer be a right except in circumstances where the mother’s life is threatened. Given the drastic cuts made to social welfare, including child benefit, it could be said that Mr Rajoy’s government seems only to care about its people until the moment they are born.

Spain, politically, remains a deeply divided country. This is most apparent in the current debate over Catalonian separatism. While the pro-independence regional government in Catalonia have promised an independence referendum by November of this year, the Spanish central government has said they will not allow it to take place. Exactly how they intend to stop the vote is not clear, but it has led some commentators to ask if the streets of Barcelona will see tanks rolling through them as they did in 1939 when Franco’s troops finally captured the city during the civil war.

I am constantly asked about Scotland’s independence referendum with regard to Catalonia’s, but to a certain extent it is impossible to compare the two. Catalonian separation would be a direct violation of the Spanish constitution, and where I live, in Valladolid, many treat the prospect with contempt if not outright ridicule.

One student told me: “Catalonia is like a baby throwing its rattle out of the pram. They want more attention, and more money. It’s not really about being independent.” This argument seems pretty shaky when you consider Catalonia’s position as the powerhouse of the Spanish economy – 15 per cent of Spain’s population and 20 per cent of its economy.

Nonetheless, Mr Rajoy has attempted to use the Catalonian dilemma as a unifying force for Spain, declaring that under his government “Spain will never break apart”. What he, and other politicians, seem unable to comprehend is that Spain may be breaking apart already.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons


  1. I am not surprised. Spain is divided into autonomous regions. Which is very bad for the central government in Madrid. When I say this, I mean the whole country is divided! This can’t be good…


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