Tag Archives: Spain

Spain’s Economic Panacea (or not)

Haga clic aquí para leer esta entrada en castellano

Unsurprisingly, the talks between the government, business and trade unions ended early last Thursday morning without an agreement about labour market reform. Instead, Zapatero is going to issue it by decree.

For months now, murmurs of cutting the cost of firing people has been on the agenda of many newspapers and the murmurs swelled to a huge clamour during those negotiations. Making it cheaper to fire people is the great panacea for Spain’s economic problems now that the deficit is being tackled by government cost-cutting. Or so it would seem. Such a measure defies all sensible logic. Nearly everyone agrees that Spain’s main economic problem is the astronomical unemployment rate, which is at double the EU average, and that it is going to take a long time to create jobs for those 4 million people. How is making it cheaper to fire people going to help? If you look at how the unemployment has risen during the crisis, it becomes clear that the cost of firing people has not been a problem for many Spanish businesses.

The problem for many young people is that they struggle to get more than a temporary contract, unless they sit the examinations for a post in the public administration. They drift from job to job without much hope for their long term future and this undoubtedly fuels the other spectre which haunts the Spanish economy: productivity. If you’re given a temporary contract for a few months and not much hope of being rewarded for your work (this goes for the graduate contracts too –it’s easier for the businesses to continuously search for fresh meat than offer someone a long term contract), are you really going to be the most productive worker? Unfortunately Spanish businesses seem to think that precarious, temporary job contracts are better than offering someone a long term deal. It lines their pockets in the short term, but is detrimental to their long term growth.

So instead of talking about cheapening the process of firing people, let’s talk about making it easier to contract people, and penalising businesses for their overuse of temporary contracts (which the business representatives rejected during negotiations.) We can only wait and see whether this will be written into the decree on labour reform.

For more about young people and the economy, click here.

Food, Glorious Food

Haga clic aquí para leer esta entrada en castellano

I’ve wanted to talk about food on here for some time, however unfortunately Garzón and Camps have kept me busy for a few months. However, now that Garzón’s in The Hague and the PP keep trying to slow down the Gürtel case, I have time for an entry about Spanish cuisine, but from an altogether different, less eulogistic and more analytical angle than the usual. For me, the best and worst aspects of the internationally renowned Spanish cuisine are both one and the same thing: it all comes down to attitude.

It’s not unusual to read a board displaying the menu of the day outside a restaurant and read ‘meat’, ‘fish’ or ‘ham and peas.’ The Spanish have a refreshingly unpretentious attitude (in the main) to writing menus and serving food. If it says ‘ham and peas’ it will definitely just be ham and peas, if it says ‘meat’, it will certainly be meat and almost definitely some form of potatoes served with a sliver of red pepper. They don’t feel the need to add extra garnishes or pretend that it’s something it’s not (although invariably there are exceptions, such as brazo de gitano which means a type of swiss roll, not a real gypsy’s arm.)

Similarly, Spanish food is accessible. Everyone goes out to eat and there are menus of the day to fit everyone’s budget. Eating out is not an elitist activity, but rather an everyday occurrence, although it’s been undoubtedly curtailed by the current recession.

Likewise, many of the dishes emphasise their local and regional roots, using typical ingredients and cooking in a traditional fashion, from the cheapest jaunts right up to the gourmet temples of food. There is a great deal of pride in the local cuisine, the regional dishes and what mother cooks. It’s a strong, traditional attitude, rooted in pride and recognition of quality and unpretentiousness.

Nevertheless, this attitude does have its negative aspects. I’ve experienced a certain superiority complex towards the cuisine of other countries around the world, which could be due in part to the lack of foreign influences on Spanish food over the last two hundred years or so. The purity of the cuisine is therefore part of its weakness. People are unwilling to experiment with foreign ingredients or different techniques because Spanish food is inherently better. At only the mention of Chinese, Japanese or Indian food, many of my students (and not just the teenagers and youngsters) turn up their noses in disgust. This ignorant attitude can be frustrating at times because there is definitely space to maintain the strong, traditional roots of Spanish food whilst embracing the different cuisines around the world and what they have to offer.

Many Spanish continue to cling to the idea of the Mediterranean diet, in denial of the fact that what people eat and the way in which they do it is changing rapidly towards North American and northern European models. Meat consumption is very high (when according to the Mediterranean diet it should be low) and fruit consumption is falling (enough such that the state has been worried enough to introduce a new policy in schools to try and increase fruit consumption.) Many of my students, however, use the term Mediterranean diet as a synonym for Spanish food, thereby mytholigising its meaning. In other words, it’s a diet that not many follow, although they insist that they do in addition to brandishing it as a symbol of national pride.

How is Spain changing towards more North American and northern European models? One of the problems is that people don’t realise how fast food trends are changing. Every year there are more and more ready meals available in the supermarkets. The tradition of passing down the knowledge of how to cook and prepare food is being lost. There are many people in their 20’s and 30’s who don’t know how to cook, and if we compare these two trends with the situation of Britain, it’s easy to see where Spain could end up.

Similarly, the main extra-curricular activity of my students, and many others around Spain, is to go out every Saturday evening with their friends. In my experience, virtually all of them go to McDonalds or Burger King to eat, which is very sad when the variety of options available in Oviedo are taken into account. Whether it’s because that’s the image of youth culture that they are sold by advertising and American series’ on the television or because they want to rebel against traditional patterns of Spanish dining, I have no idea.

In sum, Spain has a dialectical attitude when it comes to food. The richness, variety and quality of the cuisine are unquestionable, in addition to the accessibility and unpretentiousness. What is worrying is the way in which food culture is changing and the denial that this change is actually taking place. What will be the result of this dialectic, no one knows, but I hope there will be a realisation of the dangers and that Spain will continue to retain its strong culinary traditions whilst acknowledging the quality and value of other cuisines in the decades to come.

Cuts and Cars

Haga clic aquí para leer esta entrada en castellano

The topic of cuts and savings at state level continues to rumble on. Zapatero managed to pass his ‘Big Scissor Plan’ by 169 votes to 168. But the future doesn’t look that bright for him with respect to the prospect of passing next year’s state budget.

El País published this interesting diagram about the size of the public administration along with an article in passionate defence of the civil service and public sector. Between them, they make the Spanish civil service not seem as giant and unwieldy as we have been led to believe. What neither of them do is explain how they did the sums, which is something I’d be interested to read about, given that teachers and doctors in the UK don’t count as civil servants, unlike Spain. The subtle point within the article is that Spain is normal and in no way different to other European states. It sits quite happily in the middle of the civil service league table.

In other related news, it’s pleasing to hear that Aguirre and Gallardón have at last got the scissors out. They’ve both cut down on their fleets of official cars: from 125 to 77 and 167 to 57 respectively. This should be one of the issues when the eyes of the nation are fixed on the public purse. Why on earth do Gallardón and Aguirre need so many cars? How can provincial mayors be paid more than the Prime Minister? I don’t doubt, as the article emphasises, that there are many ‘thousandamonthers’ who work in the town and city halls, but they are small fry. The big fish are still out there and unfortunately, due to the structure of the Spanish state, they continue to work like provincial barons, lording around the areas that they govern, deluding themselves into thinking they are lord and king of everything they see. What are 167 cars (including two armoured ones) if not a modern day armada, a small and loyal army to call upon whenever the baron feels fit?

As a brief comparison, last summer I worked behind the scenes at Birmingham city hall: how many official cars were the in the car park? Four.

Simplicity or Complexity: The Supporters and Critics of Garzón

Haga clic aquí para leer esta entrada en castellano

It’s been a while since I talked about Garzón and given that he continues to occupy large swathes of  newspaper print, I think it’s a good time to have a look at what’s happening at the moment.

Last Friday Garzón was suspended from office after the legal process was accelerated to lightning speed, or that’s how it seemed at least to everyone in Spain who has experienced the usual pace of bureaucracy and legal procedures in this country.

Garzón’s application for a transfer to The Hague to work as an assessor to the International Criminal Court was granted on Tuesday of this week. Unsurprisingly he has been accused of trying to escape from the investigation brought against him by the Falange and Manos Limpias (in addition to the other two enquiries, about Banco Santander and Gürtel scandal.) Given Garzón’s interest for pursuing high-profile international crimes, moving to The Hague is undoubtedly a good career move, especially when the atmosphere in Spain does not appear to be very conducive to such investigations. The transfer is, above all, a promotion.

I admit that I’m no expert in judicial matters, but it appears that no one is clear what is going to happen next in terms of the investigation. The whole investigation has been characterised by the very fact that it has been very uncharacteristic in terms of judicial procedure:

  • Garzón is being investigated for the crime of prevarication, after declaring himself competent to investigate crimes against humanity under Franco. Yet very soon afterwards he did a complete u-turn and closed the investigation.
  • Certain processes have been speeded up or slowed down according to, or so it appears, Varela’s whims.
  • Since 1997 Manos Limpias has brought 17 official complaints against Garzón but they were all dismissed until 2009.
  • The CGPC declared that five separate certificates would be needed to authorise Garzón’s transfer to The Hague. This was thrown out by Gómez Begresista for not being based on any legal grounds.

The debate about the crime of prevarication (I’m not going to enter into the legal debate around the Gürtel scandal or Banco Santander) has crystallised and can be categorised more or less neatly into two different camps, which unsurprisingly occupy the left and right of the political spectrum.

Those on the right believe that is not a political case, that Garzón is not being hunted down and that, above all, this is a clear, straightforward point of law. Did Garzón overstep the line? That’s all they ask. Yes or no? It’s an attempt to isolate the politics and the support for Garzón and to try and simplify the investigation as much as possible, neatly ignoring contradictions and conflicts of interest.

Those who support Garzón, on the other hand, see the investigation as a complex process replete with irregularities and uncharacteristic practices. For them, it’s a murky world full of conflicts of interest, egos and reputations, in which interpretation is key. Let’s not forget that Garzón, when deciding whether he could declare himself capable of investigating the Francoist crimes, was supported by other members of the Spanish Criminal Court (Audiencia Nacional.) Supporters and critics of Garzón cite the Amnesty Law, the Constitution and international law in order to defend their respective points of view. Rather than an overly simple yes or no, this case is about the interpretation of law: what it means and how it can be applied.

Whatever happens over the coming days, weeks and months, I’m sure that we’ll see more of this dialectic pattern of arguments in favour and against Garzón. Is it a simple case of right or wrong, yes or no, or a complicated mixture of different interests and readings of law? It’s clear that the Garzón case is a matter of interpretation in more than one sense, so I’ll leave it to you to decide.

*As a footnote to this entry, and as an extension of the simplicity-complexity dialectic, it’s worth considering the Gürtel scandal. The Popular Party are trying to paint it as a simple case in which a few people took advantage of the party to make pots of money. The critics, on the other hand, see it as far more complicated, with deep roots within the party and effects on the decisions and behaviour of the Popular Party.

Scissors and Suits

Haga clic aquí para leer esta entrada en castellano

The Popular Party should have been delighted yesterday. Zapatero announced a drastic and severe plan to cut the national deficit in a bold and unexpected move, given that he has always rejected such action.

The measures are a combination of spending and salary cuts, mixed with the freezing of pensions that have been dubbed the ‘tijeretazo’ or ‘Giant Scissor Plan.’ The main victims are going to be the civil servants and public sector workers who are going to see their wages fall on average by 5% and frozen in 2011, along with the pensioners whose state pension will also be frozen at its current level. The cheques for each new baby will be shelved and general spending cuts in the public administration are planned, all of which will attempt to find €15 billion. Given the size of the civil service and public sector, which is around 20-25% of the active population, this is going to affect most families across Spain and the two main unions UGT and CC.OO. are already talking about strikes.

Why now? It’s clear that this is a knee-jerk reaction in response to the EU talks last weekend and the attacks on the Euro. Spain’s international economic credibility is low and Zapatero was left with no choice except to try and do everything possible to placate the shadowy gods of speculation.*

The problem is that these measures won’t address the fundamental issues at the heart of the civil service (its lack of productivity and the fact that it is too top-heavy) and the people consider it unfair for them to pay for a recession created by speculation and the construction bubble.

As for the leader of the opposition, he enjoyed his moment of severe criticism of the measures in the Spanish parliament yesterday. Rajoy continued to promote his delusional plan to save the Spanish economy through destroying the Ministry of Equality and eliminating the Third Deputy Prime Minister of the government. The Popular Party will only have the authority to criticise the government’s economic strategy when they apply their own philosophy to the public expenditure in their own Autonomous Communities. Practise what you preach.

Rajoy should have enjoyed the fact that the news story which was expected to make all of the headlines was pushed lower down the list because of the drastic economic adjustment plan. That particular news story was the reopening of the corruption case against Camps, the President of the Community of Valencia, for his acceptance of three suits. This is bad news for Camps. He, and the PP in general, had hoped that this particular case would be swept under the carpet so that they could continue to portray the Gürtel scandal as simply a few people and businesses who have taken advantage of the party. Camps is still at the heart of the scandal and despite his cries of innocence, there is evidence of the illegal financing of the Valencian PP.

Rajoy, nevertheless, continues to say that Camps is definitely the PP’s candidate for the regional elections this year. It’s a breathtakingly hypocritical move that they themselves are now putting pressure on the judicial system, given how the PP protested so vehemently against the demonstrations in support of Garzón.

An interesting day, all in all, between scandals and drastic measures. The PP should have been delighted that Zapatero managed to steal the headlines from Camps and he did it through announcing spending cuts that the PP has been demanding for months and months. The PP should have been clapping themselves on the back, but instead they launched a ferocious attack on the measures and the negative effects they will have on Spanish families, in a completely illogical u-turn. Or maybe not. In Spanish politics it’s not what your stance on certain issues is, it’s how you differ from your political opponents. The PP will never applaud any measure adopted by the PSOE even if they agree with it. Criticise for the sake of criticising, oppose whatever your opponent says, that’s Spanish political tactics.

*It’s interesting to note that whilst I write this the shadowy gods have rained benedictions down on the Spanish economy thanks to the severe measures. Spain has been graced with the rising of the international markets. The citizens will pay for the recession. Amen.

The Economy II: The ‘Thousandamonthers’

Haga clic aquí para leer esta entrada en castellano

One of the recent media phenomena in Spain has been the extension of the idea of the ‘mileurista’, or ‘thousandamonther’, someone whose monthly income struggles to breach €1000. The term has become a byword for long term employment insecurity, lack of prospects and advancement and, perhaps most crucially, well-qualified graduates in their twenties and thirties who have a job which is well beneath their actual skills and capabilities. The thousandamonther lives at home until he or she is in their thirties and can finally move out, or else moves abroad to find work in line with their qualifications.

This phenomenon is not a minor issue. According to Europa Press, nearly sixty per cent of salaried workers in Spain fit into this category. Obviously it is a huge problem for Spain and young people, who are beginning to feel that going to university will not guarantee them a good job. Currently, you either do the civil service exams (which goes for most public sector posts, including teaching) which offer a relatively well-paid job for life with protection virtually unheard of in the private sector, or you’re stuck as a thousandamonther for a least the foreseeable future: an engineer fluent in German working in Zara, for instance. Some escape abroad and, upon finding better working conditions, encourage others to follow them, which is also a depressing problem for Spain, but a problem which is never highlighted in the press. With so much focussed on immigration, nobody seems to note that Spain’s long tradition of being a country of emigration continues but in a new and worrying way. Rather than those who would leave at the beginning of the twentieth century to make their money in America and return to invest it in Spain (like how El Corte Inglés started) or those workers who left during the dictatorship for economic or political reasons, it is the well-qualified graduates who are leaving, a problem denominated ‘brain drain’ and which is usually associated with developing countries. It is these minds that Spain needs to move out of the recession and become an innovative and globally competitive country.

Another interesting dimension of the ‘thousandamonther’ phenomenon that merits further discussion is the culture of staying at home until you’re thirty. Personally, I am a ‘thousandamonther’ and if I lived at home with my parents, I would have a large disposable income. In other words, the figure of €1000 is an interesting one. It makes it difficult for a person to move out on their own into accommodation, yet at the same time they have a relatively large amount of money to spend each month. And in the modern world of consumerism, globalisation and advertising, this money is spent. Thus, a thousandamonther can experience a relatively good standard of living whilst he or she lives at home (for example multiple foreign holidays due to the explosion of cheap flights) but this is intrinsically linked to living at home with the resulting lack of independence and depressingly, at the same time, the €1000 barrier means that once the person leaves home, it will be difficult for them to maintain such a standard of living. €1000 means more than just a low wage, it means dependence on the previous generations.

Let’s move on to a slightly different but nevertheless closely related issue. Why is there so much job insecurity? Firing someone in Spain who has an indefinite contract is not cheap, so the usual practise nowadays is the use of temporary contracts, including the graduate contracts, which mean that graduates can be employed at 60-75% of the price of a ‘normal’ person for the same job. This is great for the top dogs and fat cats at the top of the pile, but a disaster for everyone else. There are complaints about the lack of productivity in Spain; perhaps if businesses were encouraged to hold onto their staff for longer, expertise would grow and the whole economy would benefit. Instead, people drift from temporary contract to temporary contract, hoping for the perfect job which will give them long term stability and security, as well as the ‘nómina’, the regular salary paid directly into a bank account, essential for buying a house and even opening certain basic bank accounts. This is why the dream of so many people is to work for the state.

The Spanish economy suffers from many problems, of which the ‘thousandamonther’ issue and the contracts are just two. With the rate of unemployment running at nearly 20%, posts need to be created as fast as possible. But that should not mean the reduction of workers’ rights again. Commentators and politicians recall those heady early Aznar years during which unemployment dropped sharply. They would do well to also remember that in that period the relative acquisition power of the Spanish worker dropped whilst temporary contracts increased. It was a myth of development, propelled by a property bubble which only benefited a few, whereas the reform is required now has to address the needs of many: the four million unemployed and the 25% of employed, but who remain in temporary employment.

The Gürtel scandal: The missing debate

Haga clic aquí para leer esta entrada en castellano

Whilst the newspapers debate whether the Popular Party has taken advantage of the corruption money at the heart of the Gürtel scandal* (for those looking for a quick guide to the scandal please see the bottom of this post) or rather several members of the party have in fact taken advantage of the party itself to make money, there is another more pressing issue about which nothing has been said or written. It’s about the way in which contracts are agreed with private companies and the lack of transparency inherent within this part of the political system.

In these cases of corruption (see the Matas case as well) the Popular Party swings between a policy of inactive denial and political counterattack against the Socialist Party by making claims about falsified evidence or dredging up examples of corruption in the Socialist Party from the past. The government, on the other hand, tries to make stern comments about honour and keeping promises about anti-corruption policies whilst trying not to gain political leverage from the scandal by being strongly critical.

The scandal will not have an important, lasting and direct effect on politics. The voters are apathetic and uninterested; in their eyes both sets of politicians are as bad as each other. The respective cohorts of each party accept the bad behaviour of their leaders because their hate of the other party is a lot stronger than their reaction against corruption. In other words, the Gürtel scandal will not affect the stance of the voters.

What the Gürtel scandal should call into question is the way in which the regional governments work. The current system is opaque. Contracts are signed and money passed under the table without any kind of third party critique or review of the process. Presently, there are too many interests at work that are self-protecting and protected by the upper strata of society, to the detriment of the majority of the population. Costs are inflated, there are delays, and yet no questions are asked. Basically, the system is too easy to manipulate and the use of illegal methods of payment is too easily accepted by business and the public at large. How can it be that Correa can go ten years without declaring anything to the tax office? How can Camps declare his worldly goods to be half of a flat, an old car and 2,000€? We all know that it’s not true. In essence the money has been stolen from public funds and stuck in private bank accounts abroad, from which it is impossible to retrieve it. This is why the judge ordered a €200m bail charge, in an attempt to recover these funds.

The Gürtel scandal is yet another in the long list of deplorable diseases of corruption that Spain seems to suffer. It demonstrates how the oligarchic political class continues to look after its own interests using public tax money. Whilst the politicians squabble about points of law, political advantage etc, they continue to sit at the top of a system that serves their interests and not those of the people. Surely we have a right to know where our money goes? We need a full review of the system of agreements with private companies and whether we citizens are getting value for money, or simply lining the pockets of the political class.

*The Gürtel scandal in less than 270 words:

What is it?

A network of private businesses headed by Francisco Correa (supported by associates such as the sinisterly named ‘Mr Moustache’), such as Orange Market and Easy Concept, that received contracts for organising events from local and regional governments in Valencia, Madrid and Galicia. Members of these governments received expensive gifts from Correa’s company in exchange for the contracts. There is evidence of money being paid ‘under the table’ (known as black money in Spain) to avoid paying tax. The money was moved between businesses and was laundered in foreign companies and bank accounts. Correa has not declared any income to the tax office since 1999.

What has been the fallout?

Several members of the Popular Party have been suspended or forced to resign, such as three members of the Madrid Assembly and the number two of the PP in Valencia, Ricardo Costa. Luis Bárcenas, (ex-)treasurer of the PP, is currently being investigated. The reaction of the PP has been disjointed and improvised to say the least. Camps (President of the Community of Valencia) has avoided appearing in the Valencian regional assembly, Rajoy (leader of the PP) has not really commented, some members of the PP have hinted at ‘invented’ evidence and Aguirre (President of the Community of Madrid) claimed she uncovered the scandal before going back on her remarks the following day. On 6th April 2010 the 50,000 page judicial summary of the evidence was released. The scandal continues to rumble on and will continue to do so for some time yet.

And finally, why is it called the Gürtel scandal?

Gürtel is the German translation of the Spanish surname Correa (which means leash), although it can also be translated as belt.

Here’s an excellent account of the scandal.