Old Spanish practices
IN FEBRUARY 2005 Charlemagne spent a morning pestering voters in Barcelona for their views ahead of Spain's referendum on the European Union's planned Constitutional Treaty. It proved a tricky few hours. Voter after voter appeared baffled that their Yes might even be in doubt. "Pues hombre, cómo no?" replied one pensioner--or, roughly, "Of course I will vote Yes." After further prodding, the pensioner offered an explanation. "We have to support Europe, because it means progress."
Later that year, the constitution was killed off by No votes in France and the Netherlands, following heated referendum debates. (Reborn as the Lisbon treaty, a near-identical collection of rule changes, it came into force in December 2009.) But Spain's referendum was never in doubt. The prime minister, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, toured the country talking about the tens of billions of euros in subsidies poured into Spain since joining the EU in 1986. Four out of every ten kilometres of Spain's highway network were built with European money, Mr Zapatero told rallies: now, it was time to vote Yes "in gratitude".
It was not just the money. Arguments for or against European integration are often expressed in terms of objective economics, or rational interests. But one of Europe's little secrets is that Euroscepticism and Europhilia are not really determined by the head, but by the heart (and life-story). Who you are, and where you are from, matters more than any theory. For Britons, joining Europe in 1973 was overwhelmingly an act of economic pragmatism. For Spaniards old enough to remember Franco, joining the European Union felt like the capstone on a long process of liberation. Spaniards talk about "Europe" as bound up emotionally with the coming of democracy, with the release from isolation in a conservative, rural Iberian peninsula, even--in Barcelona--with the scrapping of Franco-era rules repressing the Catalan language. The phrase "European constitution" had positive overtones, thanks to Spanish reverence for their first post-Fascist constitution, drawn up in 1978 and still celebrated in an annual holiday.
All of this Euro-enthusiasm helps explain why Mr Zapatero's government is making such a meal of the fact that Spain took over the six-month rotating presidency of the EU on January 1st. Five days in, a series of former Euro-bigwigs, among them the ex-president of the European Commission, Jacques Delors, arrived in Madrid to discuss Spain's biggest ambition for its turn chairing ministerial meetings: the launch of a "2020 strategy" for Europe. This is a ten-year plan for boosting competitiveness and growth to help pay for Europe's generous welfare systems. It follows another ten-year plan, the old "Lisbon strategy", which failed wretchedly in its aim of making the EU "the world's most competitive and dynamic knowledge-based economy" by 2010.
Alas, the reaction has been unenthusiastic. Spanish unemployment is heading close to 20% (double the average among euro-zone countries), following the popping of a housing bubble of monstrous proportions. It is worsened by a two-tier labour market in which a hard core of permanent workers is almost impossible to sack, shovelling the pain onto those on temporary contracts, all too often meaning the young and immigrants. Editorials across the EU have mocked the idea of Mr Zapatero advising Europe on economic recovery.
Outsiders' hostility has other causes, too. Among these is belated shock that rotating six-month presidencies still exist. The Lisbon treaty creates a new standing president to chair meetings of national governments in the European Council, and a foreign-policy chief to chair meetings of foreign ministers. Brussels fizzes with rumours that the new council president, Herman Van Rompuy, who started work on January 4th, will be locked in a fight for airtime with Mr Zapatero. There is much sniffiness about Spain's insistence on hosting an EU-US summit in Madrid this May, so that Mr Zapatero can welcome Barack Obama to Spanish soil, though--some say--Mr Van Rompuy should by rights host the summit in Brussels. Some of this is just snippiness from bored Eurocrats. But some of the hostility matters.
The refrain in Spain
In important ways, Spain symbolises, on a national scale, broader European trends. Its booming economy was hailed, for years, by those who (rightly) supported a model of EU enlargement based on competition, the removal of trade barriers, and catch-up growth. When Spain joined the block, it was a poor, rural, rather protectionist place. Long before the Polish plumber became a bogeyman, neighbours like France fretted about competition from cheap Spanish tomatoes and bricklayers. The deal, in effect, was for Spain to lift trade barriers and accept competition within the newly created single market in exchange for cash to modernise. For more than two decades, the results looked like a win for both sides. Spain modernised beyond recognition, and two-way trade with the rest of Europe boomed. Like it or not, Spain's economic agonies are a blow to that convergence model.
Next, Spain's rigid, overpriced labour market will be a test case for the euro zone, and whether countries that use the euro have the political will to regain competitiveness by lowering labour costs, now they cannot devalue their own currencies.
Finally, Spain offers warnings about being a midsized power, in an age increasingly dominated by emerging giants. Spain fought like fury to be invited to recent G20 summits. Mr Zapatero succeeded only in amplifying the sense that there were too many Europeans sitting at the table. The European Union, a bunch of midsized powers with lots of ideas about how the world should run its affairs--notably over climate change and financial regulation--should ponder Spain's lesson. If you want your advice to be heeded, you need something credible to say.
[Source: By Charlemagne, The Economist, London, 07Jan10]
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