Most of the economies of the European Union are slowly moving out of recession. Both Germany and France are boasting modest growth rates and they are pulling other countries, like Italy, on the road to recovery. There is one country that seems utterly incapable of keeping pace however and that is Spain.
Government stimuli have been of some help but the Spanish national bank warns that early signs of recovery are misleading: because imports have fallen even more dramatically than exports have, BNP-figures might appear optimistic but in truth, the country lacks a solid foundation for economic growth.
During the ten years between 1997 and 2007 the Spanish economy was almost exclusively driven by a rapidly expanding real estate market, producing a stable growth rate of 4 percent annually. In the same period the country attracted almost four million immigrants. Now that construction has come to a standstill many of these people are moving away while millions of Spaniards are left unemployed with so much as two million living off unemployment benefits.
Spain’s prime minister Rodríguez Zapatero came to power in 2004 promising to diversify the country’s economy. He intended to invest in renewable energies, bioengineering, high speed infrastructure, construction and logistics to encourage innovation and the emergence of a solid services economy. Now, five years later, the prime minister continues to repeat his promise will little progress made in the meantime.
“My government’s ambition is to make this an innovative, creative, entrepreneurial country while upholding the social welfare state,” said Zapatero last July. He foresaw no trouble combining the two at the time. “Some people will say that a social welfare state and a competitive economy are incompatible, that innovation is incompatible with workers’ rights. They want to deregulate workers rights, deregulate social rights. That is exactly the same tune as people who say we have to deregulate the financial markets and I do not dance to that tune.”
As a result, Spain faces both an enormous trade deficit and a deficit on the state’s budget of almost 10 percent with the public debt, of course, mounting fast. Zapatero nevertheless counts on foreign investments to carry his country out of recession although no one in their right mind would entertain the notion of investing in Spain nowadays.
It’s not just money from abroad that is lacking however. Spanish banks are hesitant to borrow which is hurting small businesses and the whole of the real estate market because people can’t a mortgage.
Today, finally, the Spanish government announced long awaited labor market reform after unemployment reached a staggering 19.3 percent in October this year. Zapatero proposes to provide for greater flexibility, reducing high dismissal costs but also reducing working hours to preserve employment: a controversial step that seems unwise considering how little it did to once ail Britain’s economy during the 1970s.
Spain’s lack of recovery left the European Central Bank with a difficult choice to make. As the French economy grows once more it is expected to see inflation go up above the European average next year. France has proposed to temper it by increasing the interest rate (a step Australia and Norway have already taken) although this would hurt the Spanish economy terribly by further depriving it of credit. The Bank had to chose between serving France, whose recovery is helping other European economies also, and supporting wearisome Spain because its own government lacks the political will to do so. For the time being, it elects do to the latter, maintaining the interest rate at 1 percent.