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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Theresa May's big thinker - an interview with George Freeman

The Conservative policy board chair on the meaning of Brexit, state intervention and whether "Mayism" exists.

Theresa May’s three months as Prime Minister have been marked by ruthless changes of both personnel and policy, from grammar schools to fiscal targets. The man tasked with overseeing the latter is George Freeman, a newly bearded 49-year-old who jokingly describes himself as “a designated thinker”.

“It’s a huge privilege,” Freeman told me when we met recently in Westminster. “As [May] has indicated, she’s determined to open up the policymaking process to good ideas from a much wider pool.”

After entering parliament as the MP for Mid Norfolk in 2010, Freeman distinguished himself as one of the most intellectually energetic Tory MPs. He founded the 2020 group of Conservative modernisers and became the first ever life sciences minister in 2014. Before this, he had worked for 15 years as a biotech entrepreneur.

Politics is in his blood. The Liberal prime minister William Gladstone was his great-great-great-uncle and Mabel Philipson, the first female Conservative MP, his great-aunt. Yet Freeman attributes his reformist zeal to the belief that “with privilege comes responsibility”. He boarded at Radley College after his parents, both alcoholics, divorced and has spoken of his “emotionally damaged” childhood.

It is unsurprising that May, confronted by the greatest policy challenge since 1945 – EU withdrawal – has called on his services. The chair of the Prime Minister’s policy board, to give Freeman his official title, was a passionate Remainer but told me “we are now all Brexiteers”. The “Brexit roar”, he explained, was “a mixture of very deeply felt concerns and complaints about globalisation, powerlessness and the growing gap between London and [other] places . . .

“There’s an understanding that if we simply delivered Brexit, and didn’t tackle the rest, we would only have dealt with some of the problem.”

His ambition was “to do for our generation what Disraeli did in the 19th century, in understanding that the extraordinarily challenging pace of franchise extension was also a huge opportunity to harness and fashion a New Model Conservative Party”.

Besides abandoning the surplus target (“to boost growth and investment in infrastructure”), Freeman cited welfare policy as a point of departure. The government would “better differentiate” between changes in the welfare budget and systemic reform – a division that May believes was eroded by George Osborne.

The Prime Minister underlined her commitment to industrial strategy by naming a new department after it. But what does it mean? “I think there is a recognition that we are embracing something unrecognisable from the failed ‘beer and sandwiches’ interventionism of the Sixties and Seventies,” Freeman said. “Twenty-first-century Conservative industrial strategy is about backing our science, innovation and knowledge economy, and other sectors where we have serious global leadership.” He spoke of “stepping in where only the state can”, citing the publicly funded Diamond Light Source synchrotron facility, which he recently visited with the astronaut Tim Peake. The government must be not merely “pro-enterprise”, but “more enterprising”.

May has endured her heaviest dissent over education, and Freeman was notably lukewarm about the idea of new grammar schools. “As well as her position” on the latter, he emphasised, “the Prime Minister set out a much broader vision”. Asked whether he understood MPs’ objections to academic selection, he said “there will be all the usual consultation and discussions through parliament about specific measures”.

The Prime Minister has entered office with greater ideological definition to her thinking than David Cameron, who struggled to reconcile his early vision with austerity. Can we speak of “Mayism”? “I’m not sure the ‘ism’ is helpful or appropriate at this stage. The Prime Minister is very strongly driven by her conservative values, and converting those values into effective policies to tackle the challenges we face. I think we have to wait for the judgement of history to define the ism.”

Freeman is close to “DC” (as he calls Cameron) and praised his premiership. “I was very sorry to see him go. But in the end, given the way the referendum turned out, it was inevitable. I thought he handled that whole last week in the most exemplary way: typical of the man. In time, I think he will come to be recognised as a transformational leader who brought the Conservative Party to terms with modern Britain.”

He rejected the former education secretary Nicky Morgan’s suggestion that May would struggle to “reach into” the marginal seats that the Tories won under Cameron. “Theresa May is appealing widely across whole swaths of the country as a One-Nation leader,” he declared.

With the re-election of Jeremy Corbyn, Freeman said, “the centre ground of British politics, once dominated by Blair and New Labour, has been vacated . . . That is a huge opportunity for a One-Nation Conservative Party to demonstrate our relevance beyond our core vote to those around the country who have clearly felt so marginalised.”

Corbyn’s triumph “illustrates the extraordinary challenge for mainstream political parties in this age of asymmetric, post-Brexit politics . . . We now have to use the opportunity of incumbency in government to tackle the root causes of the insurgency that has taken out the Labour Party.”

Freeman acknowledged the risk that Labour’s divisions would produce an internal Tory opposition.

“It also creates a question for the Conservative Party. Will we turn in on ourselves and generate our own arguments, or unite and reach out into the space that Corbyn has vacated?” 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories