Our hardest hour

The crisis afflicting the economy and the banking system have led Spain to the brink. But the country’s problems, like those of Europe, have the same origins: the dominance of national interests. The solution? New institutions built on political voluntarism.

Published on 5 June 2012 at 10:47

Spain is going through one of the most difficult hours of its recent history. Gripped by the suspicion hanging over both its financial sector and its public finances, it’s trying by all means to avert the prospect of outside intervention.

Such intervention would be a double whammy: apart from the significant psychological blow that can be assumed, an intervention would undoubtedly be linked to new and deeper sacrifices, such as the almost complete loss of what little autonomy the country still has.

One would surely have to go back to some key moments of Spain’s transition to democracy or the early years of that democracy to find a similar sense of uncertainty about the future.

If joining the European Union sealed the democratic transition and international normalisation of our country, the news that Spain would agree to monetary union with the most advanced group of countries around us boosted the ever-fragile national self-esteem to such extremes that some even allowed themselves to play with the dates of 1898 –1998 to talk about the closure of a century of decline and failure and the opening of a radically different horizon. (In 1898 Spain was defeated in the war with the United States and lost its last colonies). As a result, even in the worst of these crises our country kept a comprehensible sense of direction and an exit horizon to head for that was clear and even ambitious.

Disappointment in Europe

Nothing of that is happening now, when the loss of confidence inside and outside the country and the lack of a national and European horizon make up the main features of the crisis. Perhaps for that reason this may be the first crisis in which many Spanish are not thinking of a better future but simply of how to win back their immediate past and the living standards they have already tasted, which marks an important psychological distance with respect to other eras of Spanish political life. This is evident both internally and externally.

Internally, the crisis has exposed a country split by multiple cracks. To runaway unemployment and economic stagnation we must add the shadows that, one after another, have been stretching out towards the main institutions of the country.

The monarchy, the political parties, the judiciary, the Bank of Spain, the autonomous communities, the local authorities and the financial system: one gets the impression that none of these key institutions, some of which have been and remain the keystone of the democratic state brought to life by the 1978 Constitution, have escaped the wear and tear and the loss of public trust.

A similar disappointment in Europe has been felt. Democratic Spain and European integration have been and are two sides of the same coin. Just as we cannot understand our recent democratic experience without touching on Europe, its institutions and its policies, we cannot make key decisions or even think about our future as Spaniards without doing so in a European light.

Lack of leadership

But now, in a country where the European interest and the national interest have been indistinguishable, the failure of a country is bound up with the failure of Europe.

At the hour of truth Europe has betrayed itself and its principles. Where a European logic and the common project should have prevailed, there has instead been imposed a logic based on national interests, on national identities and particularities.

Greece has been and remain a clear demonstration of this: the irresponsibility of the Greek elites and the lack of leadership of the European elites have created a vicious cycle that leads straight to disintegration and breakdown.

It is the coming together of these national and European weaknesses that explains why it is costing so much to escape the crisis and why the uncertainty is so high.

This crisis is political

Thus, just as reasonable doubts exist as to whether the current set-up of the autonomous system is an obstacle or an asset for overcoming the crisis, there is widespread belief in Europe that the crisis can be blamed on a bad institutional design behind the monetary union that has stoked the economic imbalances that have brought us this far.

It is no coincidence that at both levels, the European and the national, we are discussing the extent of decentralisation, powers, taxation, authority and political legitimacy: the national democracies and the European political system are both under heavy strain. If trust is to be built, those tensions must be adequately resolved.

In Spain and in Europe we must rebuild the institutions and trust, because it is clear that the current institutional design and the current power relations will not get us out of the crisis. Paradoxically, this permits some confidence in the future: in Spain and Europe this crisis is political, and so its solution is in politics and, therefore, close at hand.

Voluntarism? Yes, that's exactly what we need, in Spain and Europe.

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