Recommended article by Miquel Puig, originally published in the Catalan daily Ara on December 15, 2012. Translation by Ailish Maher.
History will judge Spain’s Second Restoration and its protagonists. Right now, however, the verdict couldn’t be harsher: between 1980 and 2012, Spain’s unemployment rate climbed to over 15% in two of every three years and to over 20% in two of every five years. No other European country has ever reported such rates. In fact, of the thirty-five countries classified by the IMF as "advanced economies", only one reported an unemployment rate of over 20%, and that only for a single year, namely, 2012: Greece.
Has Spain experienced a natural disaster? Has it been the victim of an international boycott? Has it simply been unlucky? No, not at all. Spain’s journey to democracy was not entirely without obstacles, as the political crisis of the transition period coincided with the worst international economic crisis since World War Two, featured by oil shocks, raw material shortages and devaluation of the dollar. But Spain did have advantages: its geographic location ensured political stability, the EU gave it access to the largest market in the world and granted it the equivalent of three Marshall Plans, the growth in tourism surpassed even the most optimistic forecasts, financiers lent it astronomical sums of money and investors had sufficient confidence to locate factories there. But, just 33 years after it adopted its Constitution, Spain is an economy in ruins, incapable of offering a future to most of its young people and unable to guarantee pensions in the medium or even short term.
It is against this background that Felipe González and José María Aznar recently resurfaced to issue advice to their successors, one on the occasion of an anniversary and the other on the occasion of the publication of a book.
“González taught young people to be lazy,” a retired farmer from Extremadura once commented to me. He was referring to payments under the Rural Employment Plan (PER in Spanish), but could well have been referring to the worker compensation packages and early retirement and disability schemes, all introduced during industrial restructuring, or unemployment benefit legislation that offered no incentives to work.
Felipe González undoubtedly had some successes, but he is to some degree responsible for the current situation. For one thing, he inaugurated public spending on a vast scale with the lavish projects of 1992, namely, the Olympic Games in Barcelona, the Expo in Seville and Madrid as Capital of Culture; he also embarked on an infrastructure policy – commencing with the high-speed Madrid-Seville train connection – that was off-target in terms of priorities.
Aznar compounded the impact of these policies by fuelling a housing bubble that eventually devoured us. At the end of Aznar’s first term, the economy was relatively stable, with an unemployment rate that was beginning to look decent (10.6%), modest inflation and external and fiscal balances under control. The accelerator was pressed to the floor, however, by a base electricity price kept below production cost, public debt and a frenzied public works policy that included renovation of all Spain’s main airports and the construction of one of the world’s biggest high-speed rail networks. And to feed the euphoria, he allowed two million immigrants to enter Spain, two thirds of them through Madrid-Barajas airport.
The Second Restoration may have been characterized by massive public works, yet curiously, all the governments (without exception) avoided implementing a coherent logistical policy that would connect Spain’s most dynamic export zone with its markets. In these pages some days ago, Josep Parcerisa referred to the Alicante-Almeria railway bottleneck in Lorca, the still unfinished Tarragona-Vandellòs line and the fact that central and regional PSOE and PP governments have sabotaged the Mediterranean goods axis, as designed and supported by the EU, rendering it subsidiary to a central axis that defies logic. Political suicide.
It seems that the Mediterranean Motorway – the only major work of the Franco era that does not follow the radial layout – originated in a World Bank report published in 1961, when Franco’s government had to beg for foreign aid. Now, as then, the recommendation to logically design Spain’s infrastructure comes from abroad: in mentioning Spanish plans, Siim Kallas, the European Commissioner for Transport, pointed to the need to ensure that “connections come from somewhere and go to somewhere.”
Current Spanish leaders will need great humility to deal with the repercussions of the acts of their predecessors, who should, at the very least, keep their mouths shut.