The Closer Spain has Moved to Europe, the More Democracy has Eluded Its Grasp

Excerpts from a story by Jonathan Blitzer in The New York Times (May 20):

The salvation that Europe promised 26 years ago increasingly resembles a charade…. Spain and its kin in Southern Europe have effectively become “pantomime republics”: elected national officials defer to the unelected supranational European Union. In policy terms, this means subscribing to the pro-austerity agenda emanating from Germany.

So what does it mean for Spaniards to “belong” to Europe now? Emigration and indignation, the defining strands of contemporary Spanish life. The number of Spaniards living abroad has spiked 23 percent during the crisis. And remittances sent back to Spain are higher than ever. Most emigrating Spaniards have streamed across Europe, heading north, where job prospects are best, although Latin America has also been a common destination. The economic crisis has inverted old Iberian paradigms: lured by the promise of developing economies, the continentals are now setting out for Angola, Ecuador, Brazil, Peru and Chile.

Here at home, the crisis has left one of every two Spaniards under 25 without work. Those who left school to capitalize on bloated salaries during the construction boom are now adrift. And the job market is desiccated for the better educated too; this generation is the best qualified in the country’s history, yet its members are the first since Spain’s civil war to face worse job prospects than their parents.

Disenchantment with politics is deep. Polls last autumn suggested that young protesters had two overarching grievances: the unresponsiveness of the political class and joblessness. The sovereign debt crisis can explain both. The Brussels agenda has rendered Spain’s two major parties – the Socialists and the conservative “populares” – impotent and indistinguishable on the most important issue of the day, job creation.

Daily, hordes of Spaniards swarm the streets to protest mounting government cutbacks, while protesters with more programmatic leanings sound a refrain of reform: change the electoral law; make state finances more transparent; crack down on political corruption.

Their fixation on process is revealing. Citizens are losing confidence in the power of their votes; assemblies and rallies are hurriedly convened to stem the tide of further government cutbacks, but to scant effect. As one young protester told me, “We don’t have the luxury of advancing much of an agenda beyond beating back government cuts.”

Because Spain’s economic fate no longer seems to be in Spain’s own hands, the crucial intermediary space between what the state needs and what the people want – the ground on which politicians are normally held to account – has shrunk. Sometimes it seems that the closer Spain has moved to Europe, the more democracy has eluded its grasp.

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