Monday, 1 October 2012

The Ancien Regime 1

Life in 21st Century Spain (though you wouldn’t know it)

1) Society - It ain’t watcha know, it’s who ya know

It is always the aim of this writer to look positively at what can be changed in the present society rather than dwell on historical grievances or time-worn dialectics of the deaf, like the classic Madrid versus Barcelona vendetta that gains its expression in everything from football to casino tourism schemes.

Nevertheless, if we’re talking about restructuring Spain and its relation to Catalonia, it’s best to know what we are saying when we talk about Spain, both politically and socially. Hence this week’s series of articles on contemporary Spain, and contemporary Catalonia. We’ll leave the Franco-era stuff to the history buffs.

Spain at present is the
Ancien Regime, the Old Guard of the PIIGS. Excessive bureaucratic control along with a corrupt and discredited political class and a fossilised trade union leadership strangle all attempt at business growth. Oh yeah, there are success stories in entrepreneurship and big business, powerhouses like Zara-Inditex, Santander, BBVA, La Caixa and Hola magazine. But these tend to thrive despite, not because of, the prevailing socio-economic model of Spain. Representing the old guard, meet Bankia or the Lleida-Alguaire Airport.

I’d like to discuss an article by John Carlin published in
The Guardian online last week, and entitled ”Behind Spain's turmoil lies a cronyism that stifles the young and ambitious”.

Cronyism” is later revealed in the article to be the Spanish amiguismo
– “looking after your friends”, a universal practice no doubt, but much more prevalent in the Catholic Latin-Celtic- Mediterranean periphery of Europe – the PIIGS of Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Greece and Spain.

Carlin’s article is subtitled “The country needs more than a bailout. It needs a revolutionary change in its hidebound social structures”. It’s almost redundant to read the rest of the piece. We have the essence of the ancien regime right here. Cronyism, hidebound social structures. This is precisely the heart of the problem of being Spanish. This is the old guard in its most common form – deadly, stultifying, incompetent, traditional, unyielding, yet surviving.

I have a large Spanish family, with 25 first cousins on my Madrileña mother's side alone. About 15 years ago, when the Spanish economy was buzzing, a male cousin came to visit me in Washington, where I then worked. I told him one night at a bar that I enjoyed my job. He said nothing in reply but, as I discovered two days later, he'd been mulling over what I said, deeply troubled. "What you told me the other night," he said, "about enjoying your job… you weren't serious, were you?"
Here was an employed, friendly, middle-class 36-year-old Spaniard and he had never, ever had wind of the notion that someone might feel enthusiasm for what he did for a living. For my cousin, as for so many Spaniards, work is a necessary evil, a nuisance to be dispensed with as briskly as possible before turning to the serious business of life – drinking, nibbling tapas, hanging out with friends until the small hours.

By contrast, Carlin tells the stories of two young entrepreneurs who left Spain to succeed at founding new businesses, and generating employment, in the UK. The exiles pour scorn on the Spanish way of doing business as an extended form of family favours: "To have got ahead the way I have in London I'd need an uncle with good connections. I didn't, so I left."
The lessons from these two stories, entirely typical of Spaniards abroad, are clear: the Spanish are not inherently idle; the labour market in Spain does not sufficiently reward talent and hard work. The Spanish disease that both these young men said they had fled was "amiguismo" –"friendism" – a system where one gets ahead by who one knows.
Reams of opinion columns in the Spanish press in recent months have pointed to amiguismo in the political classes. Which is no doubt largely true but fails to acknowledge that corrupt or lazy or incompetent politicians do not inhabit a closed ecosystem but behave in a manner in keeping with the way society operates at large…

It is dangerously infantile in the present circumstances… The brightest, the boldest or the most restless young people go abroad for money and fulfilment; the rest, half of whom are unemployed, stay at home – baffled, desperate, increasingly angry, kicking out at government and being kicked back.
The government does carry its share of the blame. But it is a symptom – a big, glaring symptom, for sure – and not the root cause… There is much talk now of a huge financial rescue plan from the north. Good. It will bring much-needed relief. But it will be no more than a passing cure so long as the corruption of amiguismo continues to stain Spain's otherwise warm and delightful soul, hampering the country's capacity to compete in the grown-up world.
In passing, our author compares Spain with Catalonia but finds all far from perfect in the latter:
Catalonia is a much more productive region than Andalucía, as the independentists will never cease to remind you, but the difference as far as amiguismo goes is only one of degree.
I would subscribe to everything that Mr Carlin says in his piece. I also know young people from Spain and Catalonia who have gone to the UK, Ireland, France, or Canada and thrived on a society more open to meritocracy and independent entrepreneurship. More are going every day. People have told me of new ventures killed stone dead by a lack of connections with the right political department in Barcelona or Madrid.

Enough cases of amiguismo in the local press could convince you that Catalonia is far from clean – Felix Millet, who allegedly skimmed millions off the top of the Palau de la Música Catalana and passed a part of it on to the CiU foundation Trias Fargas, the “Three Percent” allegations that CiU routinely skimmed 3% off local government contracts controlled by them, the alleged involvement of young Oriol Pujol in the “ITV” cases of “commissions” paid to CiU in return for vehicle inspection concessions (ITV – Inspección Técnica de Vehículo, the MOT test of Spain). That’s just one party, Mr Mas’s CiU party, in one region, Catalonia. Phew. The list goes on…

Across Spain, crooked local pols, cunning Mr Fixits and dodgy bankers are going down in a hellish wreck of trials, media allegations and prison sentences. The Balearic Islands and Valencia, governed by the PP, and Andalucía, governed by PSOE, though with PP enclaves like Málaga/Costa del Sol, are all badly scarred by widespead corruption scandals

This wave of court action extends of course even to the royal family, in which one Iñaki Urdangarin from uptown Barcelona is married to Princess Cristina, younger daughter of King Juan Carlos. He is accused of skimming millions off Balearic and Valencian regional PP governments through his Noós Foundation, along with his partner and his partner’s wife. Unlike this unfortunate lady, Mrs Urdangarin, the Princess Cristina, is not called to trial even as a witness although she allegedly received a €20,000 payment from the foundation.

Strangely, the only places in Spain where local amiguismo seems not to be commonplace or at any rate are not widely reported, are the autonomous communities of the Basque Country and Navarre, both of which have their own devolved tax-collecting power based on medieval fiefdom rights or fueros.

Could it be that the way to greater social and economic agility, and political transparency and accountability is to separate, as much as possible, from the “hidebound” and “corrupt” (Carlin’s words) practices of Spain?

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