More Cigarrettes, Fewer Immigrants, and Lots of Cuts: What does the Future Hold for Spain?

It’s been barely a week since the Conservative PP (Partido Popular, or Popular Party) swept the elections in Spain, winning an absolute majority in parliament here.  For the currently (but not much longer) ruling social democratic party, the PSOE, it was its worst defeat ever.  For weeks polls had been predicting a conservative victory, and the socialist party had drawn “a line in the sand” at keeping 120 of the 350 parliamentary seats – its performance, ten seats bellow that has been called a “debacle,” a “fiasco,” and a “major defeat” in the papers.  While the parties to its left, the IU (the Izquierda Unida, the United Left, a sort of refoundation ex-communist party) won 11 seats, and the Catalan Republican Left won 2, it appears the electorate has spoken and conservatives have a clear mandate.

And what will they do?  While next-door Portugal burns – general strikes, severe austerity, and the country’s credit rating reduced to “junk” – the question here in Spain is what will happen once conservatives come into office.  The PP candidate, Sr. Rajoy, was vague during the campaign, though at different times saying he would spare education, health, and pensions.  But the general expectation are that there will be cuts and streamlining as a way to try to restart the Spanish economy.  This week Rajoy met with heads of banks, but has announced few specifics.  One was that he was intent on finding a way to restore smoking to public places like bars and hotels, something that has evoked quite a stir in response.

The other came from the PP itself, and it was on immigration: the government will revoke the current “amnesty-style” law that permits immigrants without documents to regularize their situation within three years if they can establish they’ve worked for one of those years.  It is wrong, according to their press release, to “incentivize immigration when unemployment is so high in Spain,” and they would like to encourage “circular migration” rather than settlement.

There is a specific kind of nastiness in the logic of the argument, the same that once was used to justify the Bracero program in the United States: “they are less desirable as citizens than as laborers.”  If previously the language of integration (“they must integrate to Spanish culture”) barely hid paternalism or cultural chauvinism, and the distinction between “the good immigrant” and the “lazy immigrant” barely masked contempt – the latest discourse is, I think, actually quite a bit nastier because it does not even allow for the possibility of “integration” or being a “useful immigrant.”  It simply states: “we don’t want you” but recognizes that “we need you.”

Spanish unemployment is tremendously high.  A report this week on regional unemployment figures in Europe showed that 8 of the 12 highest regions were within Spain (the 4 others being French Colonies, I mean, “overseas territories”), with some regions like Andalucía having unemployment close to 30%.   But these figures are relative, and need to be understood in the context of social democratic unemployment insurance and other social rights like universal health care and education.  So, those nearly one out of three Spaniards looking for work are, in many many cases not going to settle for some of the more precarious, seasonal, and low paying job positions that have come to be occupied by immigrants who now make up over 10% of the population.  If you add to the that the fact that Spain has an aging population with low birthrates, and a very high proportion of retired people to working people, it becomes clear that this country needs working-age immigrants who will pay into the system.

The relatively civilized immigration rules here may well come from enlightenment, but they serve a function.  The anti-immigrant discourse that circulates – sometimes quite nasty, especially when dealing with Romanians,  is present in public discourse but even conservative party policy makers recognize that immigration is important to the economy.  This most recent proposal – we’ll take your labor and taxes but please don’t stay too long – is a way to try to reconcile plain disdain with economic imperatives.  Unfortunately, it has traction during these times of uncertainty.  The Bracero program was one shameful chapter in US history (also originally hatched during economic difficulties), and it would be terrible to see something like it emerge here.    Unfortunately, so far it appears that the smoking proposal has more opponents than the immigration one.

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