When Europe Hits a Windmill: The Euro Crisis from Spain (Part II)

Posted by at 10:57PM

The victory rally of Spain's opposition party, Partido Popular (PP), on November 20 in Madrid. Spaniards gave the PP an absolute parliamentary majority in a referendum on the dire state of the country's economy. (Photo credit: Jonathan York.)

“Es la crisis.”

Amongst young Spaniards, these three words have become a refrain almost as common as “¿Qué tal estás?”. They often use them jokingly, such as an excuse not to do a homework assignment or complete a household chore. However, when deciding not to shop, go out to a restaurant or club, or travel, the phrase comes up again, and the reason is darker: they simply do not have the money.

As these young people graduate, almost half of them have no way to earn that money, thanks to the lack of jobs available. If they are particularly smart and/or well-connected, they often leave and work in other countries, participating in the largest emigration wave to hit Spain since the 1960s. The others have little choice but to scrape together what they can, live with their parents, and wait for the economy to improve. They will need to wait a while. Spain’s rigid, service-based economy cannot shift to a new growth model overnight, or even in a few years.

It is one thing to examine a financial crisis as troubling as Europe’s using the news, the pundits, the data, and the precedents. It is another to be in Spain and observe its consequences. Although Spain remains an enchanting place in which to study and travel, the past two years have profoundly shaken the country’s psyche and identity. The new Spain that has emerged is the one that I will attempt to convey in this post.

What does a country with a 22.6% unemployment rate look like?

Spain hardly looks like a country experiencing hard times. Parts of it are run-down, to be sure, but Spanish cities are generally well kept and full of green spaces. The main thoroughfares of Madrid are even cleaned off with hoses every night; I found out about this when I nearly got sprayed by one walking home from the bars. Madrid’s metro and bus system are easy to use and efficient, with none of the filth and rudeness you might encounter on the NYC subway.

So where's that Great Recession?

However, one thing that has changed in Spain is its identity as an upper middle class country. On my taxi ride back to the airport, the taxi driver told me how he had left his farm in a remote corner of Extremadura to earn enough money to put his son through an expensive private school. Yet his son does not have the enchufes (connections) to get a job, which means that the father has to support him in Madrid instead of being able to return home with the knowledge that his son can take care of himself. This story epitomizes the way in which expectations for the present generation never panned out.

Almost all Spaniards during the elections saw an ad on TV that showed shots of beggars on the streets and massive lines at the soup kitchens, with an announcer intoning that one in five Spanish households is below the poverty line. The ad made headlines in the newspapers, since it portrayed Spain in a way that few Spaniards were willing to admit openly. When my host mom saw the ad the night before the election, she told me, “Finally, they’re telling the truth.”

Costs and Benefits of the European Union

Look around Spain’s medieval cities and towns, and nestled amongst the cobblestone streets and ancient churches, you are likely to see scores of BMWs, Mercedes, and Audis. The marks of EU membership are everywhere in Spain, and perhaps no sign is greater than the preponderance of German luxury cars that, absent the existence of the EU, would be out of reach to the vast majority of Spaniards.

Socially, EU membership has likely been a boon to the Spanish people. Spaniards can travel freely and work throughout Europe. Their nation now espouses some of Europe’s most liberal democratic values and a progressive system of social benefits. I once had a long debate with my host family about whether or not a sixteen-year-old girl should be allowed to get an abortion without her parents’ consent, the kind of topic that Spaniards would never have permitted at the dinner table in prior generations. It is finally becoming socially acceptable for women to have serious careers and for men to do household chores, as my host father did every night.

The European Union appears to be fraying by the day, and even during the good times, Spain's membership in it was a mixed blessing.

However, economically, EU membership has been a decidedly mixed blessing. Spain has only recently become a net contributor to the EU budget, and prior to this, it received oodles of European cash for sectors like infrastructure, agriculture, and energy. Some of these have met with outstanding success, such as Madrid’s well-run metro system, one of the world’s largest. Other projects have been exorbitantly wasteful, such as Ciudad Real’s infamous Aeropuerto Central, a €1.1 billion project for an isolated city of 74,000 people that went bankrupt after less than three years in service.

Overall, EU money has not been invested well enough to cushion Spain against its current economic plunge. Consequently, Spain now has to pay more into the EU than it receives at the worst possible time. As a euro zone member, Spain can no longer use a cheaper currency to compete with an industrial powerhouse like Germany, meaning that it has shifted to a vulnerable service-based economy with a still oversized construction sector. Even if Spain manages to achieve key structural reforms to its labor market and a loosening of regulations, its competitiveness will be handicapped by its EU membership, and its growth more limited.

Familia First

Another major result of Europe’s debt crisis in Spain is a renewed role of the family. Family has always been important to Spaniards, with several generations of a single clan normally living in the same apartment building, neighborhood, or village. However, as the government pares back its social spending and new employment opportunities fail to emerge, family units have emerged as the principal sources of social and economic support.

Students protest against budget cuts to Spanish universities on one of Madrid's main thoroughfares, el Paseo de la Castellana.

This in part explains why Spain is not experiencing a revolution, or anything close to it. In the U.S., a young person’s inability to find a job or live away from home has traditionally been a source of shame. Conversely, a whopping 69% of people under 30 in Spain still live with their parents. From a personal standpoint, out of all of my young Spanish friends, only two rented their own apartments in Madrid.

Meanwhile, because so many young Spaniards cannot find jobs, their main activity is often to party until dawn every night of the weekend, starting on Thursday. As a student studying abroad, this was quite the phenomenon to encounter. European Spanish has many more words to describe Spain’s party scene than I have ever encountered in Latin America. Drinking in public spaces, though technically illegal, is much more widespread than in the U.S. Some cities even have designated outdoor spaces the sizes of football fields where youths can congregate, drink, and smoke. These young people are simply living their lives by the day, finding new ways to pass the time as career opportunities fail to emerge.

Politics and ‘Okupa’ Social Centers

On November 20, Spaniards gave Spain’s opposition party, Partido Popular, an absolute parliamentary majority. The international media interpreted this massive electoral victory as a sign that Spaniards were placing their faith in new leadership that would be more capable of handling Spain’s problems. However, despite the dramatic election results, Spanish politicians hardly have the confidence of the people.

In reality, increasing numbers of young, well-educated Spaniards have participated in leaderless mass protests under the umbrella 15M Movement against the entire Spanish neoliberal, socio-democratic system, protests comparable to Occupy Wall Street but much larger in scale. The movement has gotten the government’s attention, and it does not appear to be going away. I actually visited its temporary headquarters in an empty hotel, the Hotel Madrid, which was run by volunteers and decorated for Christmas. The walls were covered with slogans, pamphlets, and opportunities to organize for new demonstrations. No one stopped me when I walked in. It was a place that anyone could join, and when the police evicted the hotel’s inhabitants three days later, the protestors simply occupied a new building and kept on demonstrating.

El Patio Maravillas, one of Madrid's most famous and influential okupas.

Another social phenomenon with ties to 15M is the okupa movement, in which squatters occupy abandoned buildings and turn them into self-run urban social centers. These occupations are illegal, but many of them enjoy widespread support in their communities and can easily reestablish themselves in new sites if the government evicts them. I studied one such center for my sociology class, and I was particularly struck by its democratic, non-hierarchical form of administration, in which volunteers in a loosely defined General Assembly oversaw the center’s activities and services. The center, called Patio Maravillas, offered free workshops, Spanish classes, job training, public counseling, and, of course, a cafeteria with cheap and plentiful alcohol.

The emergence of centers like Patio Maravillas has little precedent in Spain. They will not on their own be able to reestablish Spain’s shrinking middle class, but in a time when the government is threatening to cut back on everything from education to healthcare, they are creating a new social safety net for disenchanted Spaniards. As a volunteer at Patio Maravillas named Marcela said to me, “We will win back our lives, recover our time, and construct collective alternatives…. We have another purpose in life.”

Although Spain is hurting from the EU debt crisis, people like Marcela have shown me what Spaniards are capable of. They may be down, but they are not out.

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3 Responses to “When Europe Hits a Windmill: The Euro Crisis from Spain (Part II)”

  1. Stefano says:

    Very nice article! I like it

  2. George says:

    Thank you, Stefano!

  3. Patricia says:

    I spent all this summer in Spain, country I fell in love with. I think it’s quite rare to read article that depicts current situation in Spain so well as you did. Yes, I see the situation in which most of the young Spanish people live as the most alarming. What may be a way to solve their housing troubles is rent-to-own. Apart from flexibility, there’s new feeling of independence as you start really live on your own, at your own place. It’s good to know about the wider social implications of what does it mean to live with parents when you are old enough. And it gives one a sense of responsibility, this was what I sometimes missed in this country.

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