Jobless in Europe: The wretches of Spain

What kind of a social model is it that leaves half of young people out of work? George Eaton profiles Spain's employment woes.

What kind of social model is it that leaves more than half of young people out of work? In two European Union countries, Greece and Spain, this grim threshold has now been passed. Of the pair, it is the latter that is most striking. In the EU’s fifthlargest economy, youth unemployment stands at 56.1 per cent, a level that would once have been considered unthinkable by those who lived through the post-Franco Spanish “economic miracle”.

The chronic joblessness is largely attributable to the 2008 crash and the austerity subsequently imposed at the behest of Berlin. In the boom years the Spanish economy became dangerously reliant on construction, which at its peak accounted for 16 per cent of GDP and 12 per cent of employment. When the property bubble burst, after house prices had risen by more than 100 per cent in ten years, unemployment immediately surged.

The €27bn of spending cuts and tax rises introduced by the Rajoy government have made a bad situation worse, with the economy falling into a double-dip recession. Keynes’s advice to “take care of unemployment” and let the budget deficit “take care of itself” has been ignored by the austerians of Brussels.

Yet this alone cannot explain Spain’s exceptional youth joblessness, which stood at 18.2 per cent even before the crash. The root of the problem lies in the country’s two-tier labour market, which gives permanent workers huge advantage over their temporary counterparts. Unable to adjust the pay and conditions of long-standing employees established through collective bargaining agreements, companies took to laying off the third of workers on short-term contracts. A report last year by the Bank of Spain’s Centre of Monetary and Financial Studies found that 90 per cent of those who had lost their job since 2007 were in temporary employment. The apparent ease with which short-term work could be found before the crisis, most notably in the property sector, also encouraged the young to drop out of school as early as possible. As a result, 30 per cent of young Spaniards have no qualifications, leaving them unable to compete for high-skilled jobs. The problem is compounded by a welfare system that removes all support from claimants once they find work, however low-paid, prompting some to conclude they are better off remaining on benefits and working in the black economy.

The labour-market reforms introduced by the government, including allowing struggling companies to opt out of collective bargaining agreements and a reduction in the highest level of severance pay (aimed at encouraging firms to take a chance on new workers), may improve the situation at the margins but many are not waiting to find out. More than 280,000 young people left Spain last year in search of work, with Germany, the UK, Argentina and Venezuela the most popular destinations. Thousands of young scientists and academics have departed after a 40 per cent cut in state spending on research and development. It leaves Spain ill-equipped for when recovery comes.

In the meantime, those unwilling or unable to emigrate are left with the melancholy reflection that they are just halfway through what is almost certain to be a lost decade.

An employed mother of four in unfurnished social housing in Bollullos del Condado, Spain. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 19 August 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Why aren’t young people working

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Leader: The unresolved Eurozone crisis

The continent that once aspired to be a rival superpower to the US is now a byword for decline, and ethnic nationalism and right-wing populism are thriving.

The eurozone crisis was never resolved. It was merely conveniently forgotten. The vote for Brexit, the terrible war in Syria and Donald Trump’s election as US president all distracted from the single currency’s woes. Yet its contradictions endure, a permanent threat to continental European stability and the future cohesion of the European Union.

The resignation of the Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi, following defeat in a constitutional referendum on 4 December, was the moment at which some believed that Europe would be overwhelmed. Among the champions of the No campaign were the anti-euro Five Star Movement (which has led in some recent opinion polls) and the separatist Lega Nord. Opponents of the EU, such as Nigel Farage, hailed the result as a rejection of the single currency.

An Italian exit, if not unthinkable, is far from inevitable, however. The No campaign comprised not only Eurosceptics but pro-Europeans such as the former prime minister Mario Monti and members of Mr Renzi’s liberal-centrist Democratic Party. Few voters treated the referendum as a judgement on the monetary union.

To achieve withdrawal from the euro, the populist Five Star Movement would need first to form a government (no easy task under Italy’s complex multiparty system), then amend the constitution to allow a public vote on Italy’s membership of the currency. Opinion polls continue to show a majority opposed to the return of the lira.

But Europe faces far more immediate dangers. Italy’s fragile banking system has been imperilled by the referendum result and the accompanying fall in investor confidence. In the absence of state aid, the Banca Monte dei Paschi di Siena, the world’s oldest bank, could soon face ruin. Italy’s national debt stands at 132 per cent of GDP, severely limiting its firepower, and its financial sector has amassed $360bn of bad loans. The risk is of a new financial crisis that spreads across the eurozone.

EU leaders’ record to date does not encourage optimism. Seven years after the Greek crisis began, the German government is continuing to advocate the failed path of austerity. On 4 December, Germany’s finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, declared that Greece must choose between unpopular “structural reforms” (a euphemism for austerity) or withdrawal from the euro. He insisted that debt relief “would not help” the immiserated country.

Yet the argument that austerity is unsustainable is now heard far beyond the Syriza government. The International Monetary Fund is among those that have demanded “unconditional” debt relief. Under the current bailout terms, Greece’s interest payments on its debt (roughly €330bn) will continually rise, consuming 60 per cent of its budget by 2060. The IMF has rightly proposed an extended repayment period and a fixed interest rate of 1.5 per cent. Faced with German intransigence, it is refusing to provide further funding.

Ever since the European Central Bank president, Mario Draghi, declared in 2012 that he was prepared to do “whatever it takes” to preserve the single currency, EU member states have relied on monetary policy to contain the crisis. This complacent approach could unravel. From the euro’s inception, economists have warned of the dangers of a monetary union that is unmatched by fiscal and political union. The UK, partly for these reasons, wisely rejected membership, but other states have been condemned to stagnation. As Felix Martin writes on page 15, “Italy today is worse off than it was not just in 2007, but in 1997. National output per head has stagnated for 20 years – an astonishing . . . statistic.”

Germany’s refusal to support demand (having benefited from a fixed exchange rate) undermined the principles of European solidarity and shared prosperity. German unemployment has fallen to 4.1 per cent, the lowest level since 1981, but joblessness is at 23.4 per cent in Greece, 19 per cent in Spain and 11.6 per cent in Italy. The youngest have suffered most. Youth unemployment is 46.5 per cent in Greece, 42.6 per cent in Spain and 36.4 per cent in Italy. No social model should tolerate such waste.

“If the euro fails, then Europe fails,” the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, has often asserted. Yet it does not follow that Europe will succeed if the euro survives. The continent that once aspired to be a rival superpower to the US is now a byword for decline, and ethnic nationalism and right-wing populism are thriving. In these circumstances, the surprise has been not voters’ intemperance, but their patience.

This article first appeared in the 08 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit to Trump