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The International Writers Magazine: Time Off in Spain

Spain's Bridges
James Skinner
‘Spain, like most countries has several holidays throughout the year. In the Western world some are common such as New Year or Labour Day and others are specific such as ‘Thanksgiving’ in the USA, or ‘Boxing Day’ in the UK. But Spain has an added set of time-offs’ that are the days after or before a holiday if the latter coincides in the middle of the week.

Spanish economic woe

These are commonly known as bridging holidays as the whole nation tends to couple it to a weekend at either end. Should they be lucky to have two such days in the same week then ‘bingo’ you now have a ten lane highway of a ‘Bridge’. In other words nine days of leisure for the price of two. Such a case took place during the week beginning the 3rd of December that ended on the 14th. The whole country shut down and took off in all directions using all the means of transport available. But ah! A surprise monster was waiting for those wishing to fly off as Peter Pan into ‘Neverland’.

This country beat everyone in Europe at the starting point of airport shutdowns in December that caused havoc in air travel everywhere. But unlike the horrors that took place due to weather, it was human bondage that caused the rumpus as Spain’s traffic controllers decided to call an ‘unofficial strike’ on the 4th. What followed was yet another unprecedented event unheard of in Spain’s still embryonic democracy. The government declared a ‘State of Emergency’, called in the troops and unlike what happened during Ronald Reagan’s similar act back in 1982 whereby he sacked the whole lot and replaced them with US Air force controllers, the Spaniards were forced to return to their posts, supposedly at gun point and placed under military control. The reactions were mixed as most citizens that were deprived of their holidays were hollering victory whilst the legal beagles began to dust off the Spanish Constitution to figure out whether the government acted legally or not. Normality returned but the aftermath has just started. Suffice to say that AENA, the state company that employs the controllers is up for grabs on the privatization list because it is literally bankrupt. A great deal of the controllers’ grievance is tied to their working conditions that, they say is a financial spin off of the huge debt accumulated over the years. Meanwhile, the major trade unions just looked the other way.

Talking about trade unions, the two major outfits CCOO and UGT had their little strike binge at the end of September that didn’t amount to a ‘hill of beans’ as Humphrey Bogart would say and then went into hibernation, that is until a couple of days ago. Meanwhile, Zapatero’s government has been accumulating a series of measures that are about to set the country on fire. Let’s start with the state pension scheme.

It is a well known fact that most schemes such as those in the UK and USA have been up for review for years if not decades for two simple reasons. People are living longer and the funding methodology of paying your way whilst you were working only went straight into the pockets of those already doddering around the country’s gardens, playing with their grandchildren or the lucky few who played cards and drank beer in the local pub. Systematic action around the world; up the retirement age and begin, in some cases to switch over to part state and part private pension planning to save the whole system from going under. But I’m digressing slightly. In Spain’s case the government has more or less been forced to follow suit including other measures that I shall discuss later as part of the cutbacks forced upon them by the European Union to reduce their deficit. Naturally the country is again up in arms and, similar to their French neighbours massive strike action and probably rioting is on the cards.

Coupled to these woes is another government pledge that ironically includes pension revision but of a different sort. As mentioned in earlier reports, Spain’s banking system, the pride and joy of President Rodriguez Zapatero, is in a shambles on equal footing to the other members of the European ‘Finance’ Club. The main problem is the Savings Banks that need to be shaved down considerably both in numbers as well as offices and staff. The exact figures are not yet out but the Bank of Spain had given them up until the beginning of Christmas to get their act together and as I go to press little has been heard of them since. In a nutshell, around forty seven of these banks have to be merged into somewhere between six or ten. Hundreds of offices and thousands of staff have to be made redundant or given early retirement at the age of 55 on 85% of salary. This last part relates to the previous paragraph. No one as yet has blown the whistle on the banking elite but it will hit sometime into the next year. What’s the bottom line? These banks all have toxic assets; you’ve heard the term dozens of times over the past three years and must be flushed out by 2013. Heaven only knows whether they’ll all make it in two years.

To summarize, other cut back measures have been announced to ease the financial burden virtually stripping down the idyllic welfare state set up during the last seven years. They are real harsh! As examples, the 420 Euros of extra unemployment benefit for those that had reached the limit will be cut as well as the 2500 Euros paid out for every newborn child. More families will be out begging in the streets and living off the Catholic Church meal houses. On the positive side Zapatero is at last beginning to throw some goodies at the small and medium size companies that are the backbone of Spanish business and industry. Companies will see a reduction in their start up costs (this is a huge benefit) as well as bureaucracy, no longer required to register with the Chambers of Commerce and above all allowed a drop in seniority rating for unavoidable dismissals of long term employees. Europe is naturally clapping away yet Spain’s credibility rating is far from being upgraded. The Stock Markets are still not convinced. So what else?     

Zapatero has suddenly announced just before the holidays that the crisis and above all the appalling unemployment figure of 20% may go on for another five years. He’s also been playing cat and mouse as to whether he will step down or carry on until the end of the present legislation. Elections are not due until mid 2012. Successor speculation has started. His popularity is way down and the party’s confidence level is dropping by the bucketful. To cap it all some autonomous regions as well as municipal elections are up in less than six month’s time. Meanwhile the Popular Party just sits on the side line waiting for everything to erupt as each day or week that goes by the country falls deeper into uncertainty. All the above has yet to be proven and may take time. Will it be too late?

Then we have ETA, the never ending terrorist group’s Damocles Sword that continually dangles over the whole nation’s head. The chief honcho man of the illegal ETA party Batasuna is still in jail but murmurings have been coming from this mischievous politician that the groups is looking for a peace deal and a possible cease fire. Both government and opposition, including their governing coalition in the Basque country, the very heart of the problem child do not believe a word. Yet there is a catch. If Zapatero could pull off a real, repeat real ‘laying down’ of arms similar to the peace accord in Northern Ireland, who knows all his other disasters could be brushed under the carpet and the Socialists rise once again to lead Spain into glory. Wishful thinking! It’s another reason to remark, ‘watch this space’, which leads me onto the next hot potato: Catalonia.

Remember I mentioned in my previous essay that a Sr. Artur Mas from the right wing CIU nationalist party won the regional elections and that his main theme was the eventual autonomy meaning ‘full independence’ of Catalonia from the motherland. Well, he’s all set to move in that direction. I’ll leave the details until another day because the whole issue could be a real turning point in Spanish history regardless of all the other problems that this country has. Nevertheless he did start on the right foot. No sooner had he been sworn in that he placed as his number one priority Catalonia’s unemployment rate and its financial deficit. Whether he stops paying into Madrid’s coffers is another matter.

On top of all this, the country is welcoming the New Year with tax, electricity, fuel, gas and other hikes including VAT. The year also starts with a total ban on smoking which means bars, restaurants, coffee shops and ‘tapas’ joints are no go areas for the cigarette guzzlers and cigar puffers. Naturally the hotel industry is up in arms threatening an increase of at least 15% more closures with the loss of fifty thousand workers. I asked my local publican how he felt and in a typical Galician response said, ‘we’ll just have to wait a see what happens.’ I’ll end this session with the following.

Many of my previous forecasts are coming true. Most sensible authorities, economists, lawyers, press commentators (exclude hard left and nationalists) and others are calling for a political national ‘pact’ between the two major parties to redesign Spain’s present system. In a nutshell it means hacking away at the hierarchy of public services, especially at the autonomy level and reducing government duplicity in posts. A review of how the money is distributed through regional and town council budgets and above all a better control on how it is spent. Just to give you a small example, in Vigo my own home town, the Socialist mayor and his ‘gofers’ have ignored the national plea to cut costs and has embarked on another massive 2011 credit binge to continue renovating roads and pavements in the city. In other words, the debt will rise yet again by the end of next year. One of his spendthrift themes is to give Vueling, the low cost airline a subsidy cheque for 650000 Euros to open up a direct route to London during next summer. I’m all for this last bit as my fare will be paid for by the rest of the local taxpaying chumps and I can once again enjoy a pint at my old local in Islington at their expense!’         
© James G. Skinner
Jan 2011

Spain Needs Statesmenship
James Skinner

Amidst campaign propaganda using pornographic videos, Pac Man computer games gobbling up illegal immigrants and one showing a man running through the streets dressed as mainland Spain stealing the wallets of innocent bystanders Catalonian citizens finally went to the polls.

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