As Spain reaches its 30 years in the EU; it seems a time for reflection.
A sombre note hangs over the celebrations of Spain’s 30 Year membership of the European Union; with the recent Brexit vote and the increasing anti-EU sentiment in France and the Netherlands, membership of the ‘club’ seems to take on a less important meaning. Spain is reflecting on a mixed history as a member state, with austerity measures brought in by Brussels because of high national debt, has caused hardship across Spain, and on more than one occasion narrowly escaped being fined for consistent failure to meet deficit targets.
Bureaucracy and very high expenses for MEP’s and Commissioners, have come into question, along with the rising of the far right in some member States. And when the votes were counted after Brexit, lucrative trade deals and the political community were shaken to the core. Joining the EEC (as it was then) was the launch pad that Spain needed to repair itself. With illiteracy far higher that any civilised western country, Spain was still a very poor country and had only known democracy for a decade after living under the dictatorship of General Franco for more than 40 years.
Nowadays, the EU is a far cry from that which was designed by Alterio Spinelli, an Italian reporter who challenged the Italian Dictator Mussolini, who exiled him to Venice Island. He wrote an open letter calling for a Federal, united, but free Europe, a far cry from what he witnessed during the height of WW2. He wanted to see Europe protect human rights, an end to the nationalism and totalitarianism in individual states as a way of preventing another world war, given that WW2 had left the equivalent of the population of the UK dead in just six years. Spinelli’s idea was supported by France, Italy, Belgium and the Netherlands and said that Spain could join ‘once they got rid of Franco’. This would take another 30 years and only happened once he died.
Back in Franco’s time, the European Union was a symbol of freedom and censorship and social and professional liberty – everything that Franco detested. In fact, one ex-Parliamentary speaker, Jose Maria Gil Robles said that he was “quite jealous of students in universities being able to live as they wished and voice their opinions without fear of reprisals”. In recent years, polls seem to hint that a third of left-wing voters feel that the EU has harmed Spain, more than it has benefited the country, the idea of a ‘Spexit’ remains unthinkable.
Spain has enjoyed EU funding allowing it to improve its infrastructure, and the country believes that the smooth running of the EU lies with each and every member state – meaning if any one of the members are unhappy, then they must take part of the blame for it. Also, the country recalls that the usefulness of the EU to any member country is dependent upon what each country contributes; in terms of ideas, not just financially.
Back in 1986, when Spain became a fully paid-up member, two thirds of workers were in the farming or agricultural sector, and had no Social Security provisions. Rural communities often had no electricity or running water, relying on wells; just 10 years previously had one state controlled TV channel, which praised Franco in every programme, and by the time of joining the EU, still only had two channels.
Roads were cracked and full of potholes, motorways didn’t start to appear until 1980s and its GDP was less than half of the EU average. The difference in 30 years in astonishing, mobile phones and internet signals are available nearly everywhere in the country, with 4G and fibreoptic being rolled out across more developed areas. State pensions provide a liveable wage, laws covering human rights and equality including same sex marriage and adoption and protection for domestic violence victims are part of national law. Exports have increased 800% since 1986 and Spain’s largest companies have a top international presence – in fact, the chairperson of Inditex, the country’s biggest clothing company, with shops such Zara and Pull and Bear under its umbrella, is the richest man in Europe.
With over 14,000 kilometres of motorways across the country are a far cry from the 483 in 1986 and whilst the 2,500 kilometres of fast rail links remain insufficient to connect the country’s major cities, the quality of trains and the level of service are among the best in Europe. Much of the growth in Spain has been in industry, banking, transport, arts and culture, manufacturing, healthcare and social programmes and it’s to receive another €45 billion before 2020.
The amount Spain normally receives from the EU has been curtailed somewhat due to the less well-off countries from the East joining the Union, but the benefits Spain gets in return for its membership fee of 1.24% of its GDP remain very high.
Jose Maria Gil Robles described the EU as the ‘vitamin pill’ that has put Spain on the fast track to becoming a modern, western country and the returns have been worth it for Europe, since most regions are becoming net contributors rather than net beneficiaries, with the exception of Andalucia, Extremadura and the Spanish-occupied city-province of Melilla on the northern Moroccan coast, where the GDP is less than three-quarters of the average for Europe. Even life expectancy has soared as a result of EU stimulation – from just 76.4 three decades ago, it is now one of the highest in the world at 83.2 for men and 85 for women.
Although Spain signed the treaty to join the EU on June 12 1985 its membership was not complete until January 1 st 1986. Although Spain initially resisted some of the changes imposed on them and was predictably, vociferous and rebellious as a member it could never be accused of not fighting its people’s corner or pushing for change – such as the industrial reform, turned out for the best. After Brussels had informed the then socialist President Felipe Gonzalez that Spain had to either ‘get rid completely or rehash’ the industrial sector which was completely ‘out of date’, he says he was ‘terrified’, but without it, Spain would not have the thriving motor export industry it does now, with the largest European Ford plant based just south of Valencia. Gonzalez also mentions that Spain has more green belt nature reserves than anywhere else on the continent which is largely due to the EU’s funding. Spain was, after the Berlin wall came down, the largest recipient of cash from the EU for infrastructure and the second for agriculture. Spain’s own contribution has always been hugely valued – even if it has not always been in financial terms, with its strong pro-European view, its dedication and highly qualified civil servants which gained Spaniards the nickname of the ‘Prussians of the South’. Also the major advantage of opening up the Latin American trading market to the EU, thanks to its language, historic and cultural ties.
We have Spain to thank for being able to vote in European Parliamentary elections and the human rights charter, since it came up with the idea and worked with France to push Germany into agreeing. And immigration’s so called ‘Spanish model’ has been hailed as a blueprint, especially with the diverse cosmopolitan of over 140 nationalities living in Spain. Once, Spain offered Europe the ‘wisdom of an old nation’ and the ‘energy of a new nation’, in the words of president Felipe Gonzalez, but he now feels that Spain has lost its influence and is bringing nothing of value to the EU. Germany appears to be the main driver, because no one country wants to step up to the plate and take on the responsibility, and once again countries like Spain and Portugal and relying far too much on the Germans to come up with the solutions to the problems they face.
The general consensus in Spain is that Europe is ‘part of the solution’ rather than ‘part of the problem’ and its down to Spain as a member to contribute to the changes it wants to see. Whilst the Brexit vote in Great Britain has left the EU dazed and punch drunk, and the surge of the far right and Euro sceptics rearing their ugly heads, there is a feeling in Spain that is the UK genuinely does not want to feel part of Europe and does not believe in the unity and teamwork of nations, it will be better for them to leave.