Spain is facing a crisis on three fronts. The most evident one is the economic front. There’s the rub. The economic crisis has financial and fiscal elements and is expressed by a sky-high level of unemployment, especially among the young, all of it the consequence of the traditional weakness of the nation’s productive fabric: little innovation and scant productivity.
Spanish society simply does not produce enough to provide jobs and fund the welfare state and the enormous bureaucracy generated by 17 regional governments. It’s obvious: If you want to live like the Germans and the Swedes, you have to produce and manage like them. Otherwise, the accounts won’t balance.
That crisis is followed by the old ghost of Basque and Catalonian separatism, especially the latter, exacerbated during the lean years. With a land measuring 32,000 square kilometers, a population of 7.5 million, a separate language, history and culture, many Catalanes feel part of a national entity that’s different from Spanish citizenship. Are they the majority? It’s hard to tell. It depends on the province and even the town where one measures the intensity of the nationalist feeling.
It is also impossible to measure a subjective phenomenon like the importance with which each individual assumes the Catalonian identity and the degree to which he contrasts it to the Spanish identity. (Four of my grand-aunts on my mother’s side, born in Lloret del Mar, four beautiful women, died as spinsters in Havana, sighing because they never found Catalonian men to marry.)
The Basque picture is different. With a small territory measuring 7,200 square kilometers — the reclaiming of France’s Basque provinces is a children’s fantasy — a population of fewer than 2.25 million, a separate language (Euskera, devilishly difficult to learn and spoken by less than one third of the population) and very few cultural manifestations, it is improbable that the Basques can create an independent state. Besides, according to polls, that’s an objective not shared by half of the region’s inhabitants.
Nevertheless, Euskadi is Spain’s most industrious zone, generating the highest per-capita wealth and achieving (along with Navarra, which is half Basque) the best quality of life in the entire peninsula, as anyone who is lucky enough to visit San Sebastián or Vitoria can verify
The third factor of instability is institutional fragility, especially the model of the state. In the past two centuries, the Bourbon dynasty has provoked three terrible Carlist wars, has disappeared three times (and been restored thrice) and in two instances the Spaniards have tried — unsuccessfully and with bloody outcomes — to install a republican style of government.
King Juan Carlos is very popular in the country and most Spaniards attribute to him (and with reason) a very relevant role in the transition to democracy, but he is probably more respected than the monarchy itself, although his son Felipe and Princess Letizia also are much beloved and admired.
In any case, the relationship of the Spaniards with their Royal House does not seem to be as strong as the one in England, Holland or the Scandinavian countries. As recently as 1975, on the eve of Franco’s death, Juan Carlos was called “the Brief” because many Spaniards thought he wouldn’t last long on the throne.
The conclusion of this succinct analysis is obvious. Spain as we know it, with its autonomous governments and its monarchy, can survive in democracy only if it achieves a reasonable minimum degree of economic prosperity, social mobility, and material progress where most of the population and the various regions feel that it makes sense to participate in a model of state and a form of government that benefits them and are at their service.
But all that implies expanding, strengthening and modernizing the entrepreneurial fabric. If that transformation does not occur, the crisis could culminate in a permanent disaster. That’s the dilemma.