A Dutch expat, Vincent R. Werner, has written a book about his impressions of Spain, having lived here for the last 17 years. Many Spaniards have taken it badly because it names the areas where Spaniards have difficulties and it doesn’t paint a brilliant portrait of us as a society.
Apparently, most Spaniards have seven shortcomings in common. We lack information about what happens around us (1), our ethics are not up to the “western ethics” (2), we have no financial culture (3), no one assumes responsibilities (4), nor risks when undertaking or adapting to changes (5), we are short-term and we decide on the fly (6) and the services offered by our companies and public administrations are a real disaster (7).
Werner has devoted 383 pages to explaining everything that, in his opinion, works badly in Spain. The thesis of the book that has just been released (” It is not what it is, The real (S) pain of Europe “) is that our society is a time bomb that could end up dynamiting the entire European Union. The text is a succession of ideas, topics, data and personal anecdotes accumulated over 17 years: two in Madrid and 15 in Barcelona.
His data-for which he does not cite sources- is shocking in some instances: 22.5 billion lost because of job absenteeism, only 7% of adults speaking English or other European languages fluently, poverty rates being equivalent to those of post World War Spain…
According to AROPE ( an index which measures factors of poverty and social exclusion in Europe), around 28% of Spaniards are at risk of social exclusion due to low wages. Those who have it worse are children under 16 (31.7%) and young people between 16 and 29 (37.6%). The European rate is 23%. We have an unemployment rate of 19.6%. Surprisingly, the biggest risk of exclusion and poverty is suffered by the very touristic Canary Islands (44.6%) and Andalusia (41.7%), so therefore it is safe to assume that, contrary to what many people think, tourism is not a way out of the crisis for Spain.
As for foreign languages, about a third of Spaniards speak one, but only two out of ten speak it fluently.
From my own personal and professional experience, I can say that people think short or very short term. I’ve explained my life goals to people that have asked me about them and I get surprised faces as a reaction to thinking beyond next month, let alone beyond next year. However, I think this is more a consequence of the financial situation which we live, in which it is increasingly difficult to plan ahead because jobs are precarious, so perhaps the reason Spaniards suffer this reticence to planification is an issue related to practical matters as much- or more- than as a reflection of a particular idiosyncrasy.
As for financial culture, the ones that traditionally had more of an inclination to save and redistribute their earnings were farmers. They lived by the old maxim ‘Waste Not, Want Not’ and always put aside whatever money they could for emergencies. Maybe that’s why they are trying to do away with farmers and indeed rural areas, except for touristic purposes. Spain is being turned into a tourist resort for the richer northern European countries at an ever increasing pace. This is true even in areas hitherto unexplored by tourism.
It is known that when visitors begin to proliferate, neighborhoods lose their identity, everything is destined for the tourist and little or nothing for the neighbors. There are partial exceptions, such as O Cebreiro in Lugo, which is on the Camino Francés. It is a small, typical hamlet in the Galician mountains, but there are no houses other than shops, restaurants and guest houses. Obviously, there is a church, too. The entire village has been turned into a tourist centre and more specifically, a pilgrim centre, one of the most famous in Galicia due to the Camino Francés, or the French Way. It looks like the same village as a century ago, but the local economy has been reduced to providing services for pilgrims and tourists.
Spaniards became used to finding jobs easily in the 50s, 60s and 70’s. People changed jobs when they wanted and the country prospered. The entrepreneurial spirit was not a common thing because there was no incentive. Why risk your money if you could just work for someone else? Just be a part of the mass, live, watch the football on TV and shrug when someone asks you about the situation the country is in. Fit in, pipe down and acknowledge that this country is full of corruption, from top to bottom but don’t do anything to change it.
To the Spanish mind, being different or having peculiarities is the most unforgiveable crime . People don’t want to risk being seen as different. You lose friends, family, support systems. They’ll usually never say why, you’ll just find yourself alone one day.
The Spanish are more interested in being part of a large group, the larger the better, in which to hide. That’s why Catalonia (or the Basque country, or Galicia, and even less Asturias) will not be independent within, at least, my lifetime. Because Spain is “one, great, free” country and 30 something million people is a bigger group than, say, 5 million, so the criteria is: I will go with whatever group provides a bigger number because there is safety in numbers.
As for the corruption and inefficiency of Spanish civil service, it is notoriously known and accepted as something inevitable by many Spaniards. The bureaucracy, the slowness of everything, the queues, the waiting . It’s all exasperating. People put up with it because they think it is something that will never change about our country. They are as disgusted with it as much as resigned to it. This attitude is best expressed by conversations I’ve had with people who said, literally, that they’d rather be robbed by the same old politicians than by the new ones from emerging parties because they see them as less trustworthy and left-leaning, which in their opinion means that they should work for peanuts because they are ‘communists’. They literally want to be robbed by the same thieves as always.
It is safe to deduct that what Werner means by ‘western ethics’ refers to work ethic. He says that he has managed groups of people where some of them wanted to take a break every 15 minutes and leave the office early and then complain that they’d worked hard, when what had really happened was that they had spent a lot of hours at the office.
It’s obvious that Spaniards work and work hard because no one comes and does it for us, but I do see the points he tries to make. People want to be rich like in northern Europe but don’t realise that in order to make the money they must put in the time and effort.
For me, the choice is clear. Spaniards must decide whether we really want to be rich and have less of a life or if we’re content as we are because money isn’t the be-all and end-all of a prosperous society.
Where I patently disagree with him is in the belief that Spain might be bad for the European Union. In fact, I think it is rather the opposite.
Whatever good the European Union did for Spain, it took much more from us in terms of hope in the future and confidence, while it convinced more prosperous countries that we were a lost case. The one size fits all model that the EU wants to impose on its members is useless and ineffective.
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