Spain's enthusiasm for EU dwindles as austerity bites


Spaniards are beginning to question the EU, many for the first time, writes GUY HEDGECOEin Madrid

AT THE start of the 20th century, philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset said: “Spain is the problem. Europe is the solution.” And when Spain eventually joined the European Union in 1986, it did so with gusto, becoming one of the bloc’s big beneficiaries and among its most enthusiastic members.

But these days, as the euro zone economic crisis bites, Spaniards are wondering if Europe isn’t the problem.

“We’ve seen benefits from being part of the EU, there’s no question, but we’re paying the price for that now,” said José Bermudez, who works as a janitor in a block of flats in Madrid. “A lot of people are starting to ask whether being part of the EU is a good idea.”

A recent poll showed that only 55 per cent of Spaniards now see membership of the EU as positive, down from 80 per cent just three years earlier.

“People feel the EU is not responding to their needs and fears, that it doesn’t have the appropriate mechanisms to fight the crisis,” said Josep Lobera, a senior analyst at Metroscopia, which carried out the study.

Circumstances have forced Spaniards to wonder about their future in the bloc in recent weeks as the country’s soaring borrowing costs have put it at the heart of the European debt crisis.

Spain has Europe’s highest unemployment rate at 24.4 per cent, a deficit of nearly 9 per cent of GDP and an economy that has fallen back into recession. In addition, a financial crisis sparked by the woes of the country’s fourth-largest lender Bankia has intensified talk of a possible international bailout.

Much of Spaniards’ new-found rejection of the EU is caused by the severe austerity programme the country is undergoing at the instigation of Brussels. The previous Socialist government of Jose Luis Zapatero introduced cuts and tax increases towards the end of his term and the new administration of conservative Mariano Rajoy has gone further in an attempt to slash the deficit in line with EU targets.

“Germany always seems to be imposing measures on us,” said Manuela Gonzalez, who owns a newspaper kiosk in Madrid.

“We need spending cuts, yes, but not as much as those that we’re seeing. I think it’s good for us being in the EU but we should have more weight within it, rather than the big economic powers like Germany and France always dominating it.”

When Spain joined the EU, it had recently made the transition to democracy from the right-wing dictatorship of Francisco Franco, who died in 1975. After four decades of repression and isolation, it was desperate to modernise and be seen as an open, stable democracy.

As well as burnishing the country’s image, EU membership helped it modernise its infrastructure, with millions in European funds going into projects such as the high-speed train link between Madrid and Andalusia.

“Spain has improved since it’s been in the EU,” said Manuela Gonzalez, who at the age of 52 remembers the isolation of the tail-end of the Franco years.

“Now we’re better known in other countries, we’re more open to the rest of the world. It’s always good to be in a big group.”

Spain easily met the criteria to join the new euro currency at the end of the 1990s and further strengthened its European credentials by approving the EU constitution in a referendum in 2005. However, as its economy thrived, it went from being a net recipient of bloc funds to a net contributor, meaning it has seen fewer tangible benefits of membership in recent years.

Yet it is the current economic woes that have done the real damage to Spain’s view of Brussels.

Recently, there has been talk not only of an international bailout to help the country’s banks, but even speculation about an eventual exit from the euro.

Despite widespread disenchantment, though, only 21 per cent of Spaniards believe exiting the euro zone would be good for them in the short term, according to Metroscopia.

One of the big challenges for Rajoy since taking power in December 2011 has been to persuade Spaniards that he is not simply taking orders from Brussels – or Germany – as he implements his austerity plan.

However, labour unions, the indignados protest movement and other social groups have all led mass demonstrations against government economic policy in recent months, each time accusing Rajoy of ceding sovereignty.

Fernando Vallespin, a political scientist at Madrid’s Autonoma University, says this reflects a feeling in Spain that the terms of the country’s relationship with Europe have been altered.

“The idea originally was that we delegated sovereignty to Brussels and that we then participated in the decision- making,” he said, “but now the perception is that having devolved that sovereignty to Brussels, the decisions are being taken in Berlin and Paris.”