The state of Spain

I was lucky enough to spend a couple of weeks travelling through Spain in late September, narrowly avoiding getting washed away in Almeria.

It's a while since I've spent so long in Spain at one go and I'm not sure I've ever covered quite such a lot of the country in such a short time. From Almeria to Granada to Seville to Madrid, Bilbao, La Rioja, the Pyrenees and then out from Barcelona.

The trip left me with a couple of abiding impressions. The first is that I love the country more than ever before, the sheer variety of wonderful places is breathtaking. The second is that I was travelling through a country in crisis.

Spain is a country divided. Unemployment is over 20% nationally but in Andalucia, it's over 30%.  The contrast between the north and south of the country is incredibly marked. You would be hard pressed, as a visitor, to notice the crisis in Barcelona whereas in Granada and Seville the signs are much more apparent.

The Gran Via, Granada's commercial artery, has around half of its buildings and shop fronts closed up and covered with graffiti. In Seville, for the first time, I saw people sleeping out in the Barrio Santa Cruz. What I found peculiarly upsetting about the site were the lines of neat, fairly new looking suitcases they had alongside. As if you or I had gone on holiday and found ourselves having to sleep outside for the night. These aren't hardened street sleepers, these are newcomers to the game.

Equally, the headline unemployment figures can't be taken at face value.

Firstly, and all Spaniards will tell you this, the hidden economy is enormous. If truly 30% of all Andalucians were out of work then you would see a much more chaotic and traumatic picture. There is a lot of money, particularly in the south of Spain, hidden from view.

On the other hand, even when you do get a job, it's hard to be given a contract which pays more than €'1,000 a month. In fact that figure was often met with snorts when I brought it up, 'Ni mucho menos' being the response, 'Nor anything close'.

In Seville I stood on the main shopping street in the late afternoon. It was full of people out wandering, taking their paseo. With these thousands of people and all these shops, there were hardly any, and I mean hardly any shopping bags. People simply are not spending money. There's no cash being spent.

Whilst you can therefore say that the number of people actually not working isn't as bad as they say, what is true is that those people with work are just barely treading water. And this is where I think it gets scary for Spain and I worry.

The people who can, educated people, are leaving. I lost count of the number of stories I heard of architects, designers, engineers, doctors, dentists, etc who were leaving Spain. Many heading off to Latin America, others out into Europe, to not just find work but to find work which pays a reasonable salary.

It's an enormous drain of talented people. At this point in the cycle you could say that it's the market correcting itself and supply is heading off to find demand. That's all well and good but it strikes me that once they are gone, those people are gone for at least the medium term. When the recovery starts to gain traction in Spain, the country is going to be missing a great slew of brainpower. It's paid to educate its people, over the past 30 years in particular, and create a country of huge potential. This potential is leaking out and will be very, very hard to recover.

The state of Spain is part 1 of a series of 3: read part 2 or read part 3.


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