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OPINION: Will Spain continue to be a viable country for foreigners to live and work in?

Many foreign citizens in Spain might be reconsidering our lives here given the economic crisis that appears to be only just beginning. Writer Graham Keeley examines when and if Spain will ever really recover from coronavirus.

OPINION: Will Spain continue to be a viable country for foreigners to live and work in?
Life in the new normal on Barceloneta beach. Photo: AFP

Living through lockdown has given us plenty of time to think.

Now, as we begin to return to some semblance of normal life, our priorities may have changed. 

If we have lost our jobs or have been laid off, we will be cutting back on spending or even trying as best we can to find new jobs.

Those lucky to still be working, may be re-thinking how they do that.

Office life, who needs it? Who wants to take the risk of mixing with colleagues, just now? Or who wants to rent an expensive office in the centre of the city when home working was not that bad after all.

Holidays? It may be summer and some of us could do with seeing something else than our own four walls, but is it worth cramming onto a plane with scores of other people all wearing masks?

There may be many other aspects of our lives which for once we have had a moment to ask ourselves about.

If we are foreigners living in Spain, we may even be thinking about our lives here.

A man with a face mask sits by the Prado Museum in Madrid. Photo: AFP

In the past few weeks, I have seen a steady stream of emails from people selling up everything because they have suddenly decided to – or been forced by circumstances – to leave.

For others who may have been vaguely thinking of making a move, lockdown was the game changer.

A friend told me that living in a flat with noisy neighbours above was the thing that made a difference. Then a good job came up elsewhere and it was a done deal.

Another friend said many people they know are shipping out to the suburbs to work from home and have left the commute behind forever.

Whatever language you get your news in, it will have been hard to avoid the grim forecasts that Spain is heading for a deep recession. Unemployment could reach 19 percent, according to the Bank of Spain, and GDP might shrink by nearly 13 percent.

Statistics do not mean much to most people. What really matters is if they have work and a roof over their head.

So, perhaps, some of us have been considering how viable Spain will be as a place to live?

If you chose to come here to live, the last thing you probably want is to leave.

However, life is, as John Lennon said, what happens when you are making other plans.

Your future in Spain may depend, of course, to a large extent on what you do for a living.

Some industries have been worst hit than others.

Tourism and the automotive sectors, two of the most important sectors in the Spanish economy, have been crippled – for the time being. The impact on the service sector has also been significant.

However, Spain's central bank does predict the economy will resurge next year, provided there is not another outbreak of the virus.

For others, the coronavirus epidemic may have been a big opportunity. I know someone who recently landed a job selling PCR tests and is up to their eyes in work.

Another friend works in finance and specialises dealing in failing companies. He has obviously been busy.

Aside from employment, something else to consider is what kind of place will Spain be?

Spain's minority government will have to get the country out of this mess but lacks the political strength to make the bold reforms necessary to do this easily. So, it will be a struggle to pass every law given the splintered nature of the Spanish parliament.

Given the makeup of the coalition between the Socialist Workers' Party and the far-left Unidas Podemos, there have been hints it will resort to raising taxes on the wealthy.

Business leaders have expressed concern at the way the government has done much to help workers who have suffered from the crisis but little to assuage the concerns of company owners.

For example, workers who have been on ERTEs – or laid off temporarily – cannot be sacked until at least six months after they return to work.

It seems a reasonable measure to take. However, how will these companies be able to pay this workforce when they have had little or no income during the state of emergency.

An internal report from the Civil Guard which was published by El Periodico newspaper last month predicted civil unrest and attacks on political party headquarters because of the economic problems caused by the epidemic.

Then Madrid and other cities were gripped by days of demonstrations mainly by right-wing groups calling for the government to quit.

Might this be a taste of things to come? The demonstrations in Madrid seemed politically motivated but if the economic downturn gets much worse, perhaps those who are struggling to find enough to eat might get desperate.

On a recent visit to a Red Cross food bank, I met people who, from one day to the next, had no income and no savings. The number of people forced to resort to handouts from food banks has grown by at least 30 percent since the start of the state of emergency, according to the charity.  

However, what might make us think again about living abroad are our families at home.

Lockdown has emphasised the fact we cannot see our loved ones. For some, particularly those with elderly relatives, it could make us think we want to see more of our families. 

On the other hand, in case you think this is a sermon of doom, perhaps it is worth thinking about this: when I came to Spain years ago, someone said 'you will love it, you will hate it, but you will never be bored.' 

How right they were.



Graham Keeley is a Barcelona-based freelance journalist. Follow him on Twitter @grahamkeeley .





Member comments

  1. Most of what the author discusses will be problematic in any country, not just Spain,
    as the world adjusts to and recovers from the pandemic.

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For members


Is Spain as corrupt as it was a decade ago?

Corruption cases are resurfacing in Spain after a number of years when they weren't major news. The Local looks into the stats, the headlines, and main culprits to ask: is Spain as corrupt as it was a decade ago, and are things getting worse?

Is Spain as corrupt as it was a decade ago?
Former king Juan Carlos’s dodgy dealings, Andalusia’s ERE corruption case and the Gurtel PP scandal have all continued to erode the trust Spaniards have in politicians and the monarchy. Photo: Oscar Del Pozo, Cristina Quicler, Fernando Alvarado/AFP

In January 2022, it emerged that Spain had dropped in the global ranking of the 2021 Corruption Perception Index (CPI) compiled by NGO Transparency International.

It dropped two places since 2020, to 34th internationally, and has actually fallen four places, from 30th, in less than three years. Its new position places it 14th among the 27 European Union member states, and in the bottom three of Europe’s biggest economies: only Italy and Poland (tied for 42nd place) finished behind Spain.

But what explains Spain’s steady decline? Is there anything that can explain the drop, have other countries cleaned up their act, or is Spain really becoming more corrupt? 

The rankings

Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index (CPI) ranks 180 countries and territories around the world by their perceived levels of public sector corruption. Each is given a corruption score on a scale of 0 (highly corrupt) to 100 (very clean).

Drawing on information sourced from survey data carried out by globally respected institutions such as the World Bank, the index considers several factors or indicators of bribery, studying how susceptible public institutions are perceived to be to bribery, embezzlement, officials who use public office for personal gain, institutions preventing anti-corruption and enforcement regulations, bureaucratisation and nepotism, among others.

One key takeaway from the 2021 Index is that corruption levels are stagnant worldwide, with “little or no progress” made in 86 percent of the countries evaluated in the index over the last ten years.

​​At the top of the perception list are Denmark, Finland and New Zealand, countries that, according to the Democracy Index, are also the top for civil liberties in the world. The countries who received the lowest scores, 11, 13, and 13, respectively, were Somalia, Syria and South Sudan.

Transparency International suggests that the world’s larger economies – such as Spain’s, which is among the top 15 in the world – should never receive a CPI score of below 70, especially if it wants to maintain its respect and competitiveness on the international scene. Yet in the 2021 CPI Spain received a 61/100, not only lower than the previous year but a score that places it below countries such as Chile, Uruguay, Lithuania, Estonia, the Bahamas, and Barbados.

transparency international

Map showing Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index for 2021

Looking back

Using data available from past CPI studies, it becomes clear that Spain’s recent slip in the league table is not an anomaly but part of a longer-term trend. In 2000, Spain sat in 20th place with a score of 70 (or a 7.0, as the CPI was done on a 1-10 scale back then), and was neck and neck with countries such as France, Ireland, and Israel. Yet by 2005 it had slipped to 23rd place, albeit with the CPI score holding firm at around 70.

However, by 2010 Spain had dropped to 30th position, and its CPI score had dropped dramatically by 9 points to 61 (6.1 on the old scale). By 2015 the position had worsened, sinking to a score of 58 and flanked by Lithuania and Latvia, and in 2018 Spain ranked 41st in the world albeit with an unchanged CPI score of 58. 

It seems clear that Spain’s CPI score had been in steady decline for the last two decades. Since the year 2000, the perception Spaniards have of their public institutions and actors – whether it be political parties and politicians, the police force, public administrations, and local ayuntamientos – and their susceptibility to corruption has worsened.

But the statistic that sticks out in the CPI data is the sudden drop in trust in public institutions from 2005 to 2010. Was there something specific that could explain such a change in public opinion?

Corruption in the news

The infamous Gürtel case is perhaps one famous corruption case that could explain both the sudden drop in public trust between 2005 and 2010, and the steady decline in more recent years. The Gürtel case, a case that engulfed right-wing party PP in accusations of money laundering, tax evasion, and bribery, came to light in 2009 but the main suspects were not put on trial, or even publicly named in some cases, until late-2016, both periods of time when Spain’s CPI score dropped.

The corrupt activities involved party funding and the awarding of contracts by local and regional governments in Valencia and Madrid, among others. Judges estimated the loss to public finances was a staggering €120,000,000.

Operation Kitchen has dominated the headlines in more recent years, and could also be a contributing factor in Spain’s falling position in the CPI. It also follows on and is connected to the Gürtel case, neatly tying together over a decade of corruption in PP.

Known as “Operación Kitchen” because the code name of the alleged informant was ‘the cook’, the informant worked as a driver for the former treasurer of the Popular Party (PP), Luis Bárcenas, who in May 2018 was sentenced to 33 years in jail for his role in a kickbacks scheme which financed the party known as, you guessed it, the Gürtel case.  


Former PP treasurer Luis Barcenas in the National Court near Madrid in February 2021, on the first day of a new trial probing an illegal funding system run by the conservative party. (Photo by Juan Carlos Hidalgo / POOL / AFP)


The ruling led to the ousting of PP prime minister Mariano Rajoy in a confidence vote in parliament several days later. Public prosecutors allege the driver received €2,000 ($2,370) per month, as well as the promise of a job in the police force, in exchange for obtaining information regarding where “Bárcenas and his wife hide compromising documents” about the PP and its senior leaders.

The probe into “Operation Kitchen” is one of several which have been opened based on searches carried out following the arrest of José Manuel Villarejo, a former police commissioner who for years secretly recorded conversations with top political and economic figures to be able to smear them.

Of course, you can’t talk about corruption in Spain without talking about its royal family. Juan Carlos I, the now exiled former King of Spain (through personal choice), had a list of alleged corruption charges longer than a Spanish waiter’s order pad on a Saturday night: the Saudi rail payoffs, and money hidden in Swiss bank accounts; the mystery credit cards paid off by Mexican businessmen; the €10 million found in a Jersey bank account and, finally, his goat hunting trip with the President of Kazakhstan in which Juan Carlos left with armfuls of briefcases containing over €5 million in cash.

In March 2022, Spanish prosecutors dropped all investigations into his finances.

People hold banners reading “Nobody is better than anyone else” during a demonstration against the alleged corrupted monarchy in Madrid on July 25, 2020. (Photo by PIERRE-PHILIPPE MARCOU / AFP)

But corruption in Spain not only exists at the elite level; although the upper echelons of Spanish society – government, the royal family – have been tarnished by allegations of corruption, perhaps it is the perceived corruption of local and regional institutions that contribute to Spain’s falling CPI score.

Small town corruption is nothing new. In January 2022, a councilwoman in the tiny Alicante province beach town of Santa Pola was arrested on suspicion of taking up to €40,000 in bribes over several years, and handing out catering contracts for money and favours.

The ongoing environmental scandal at Murcia’s Mar Menor has also been stained by corruption allegations. Former Minister of Agriculture in the region, Antonio Cerdá, is facing up to six years in prison for fraud and embezzlement and his role in the pollution of Murcia’s Mar Menor lagoon.

Police forces across Spain are no better, it seems. As the Catalan Generalitat investigates several cases of corrupt Mossos in its police force, port authorities and Guardia Civil agents across Spain, including Catalonia and Algeciras in Andalusia, have been arrested for taking bribes to turn blind eyes to drug trafficking. 

Even during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, local mayors across Spain and its territories were caught out using their position and influence to queue-jump and get vaccinations before vulnerable groups.

Looking ahead

Perhaps the combination of this low-level corruption, and the slow-term eroding effect it has on public trust in institutions, with the more high-profile national cases that envelop kings and politicians explains Spain’s steady decline in the CPI score.

Spain’s upcoming 2022 CPI rankings may be very telling following the more recent news that Spain’s Supreme Court has upheld jail convictions for two former Socialist leaders in Andalusia involved in the long-running ERE corruption scandal, a decision Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez has actually criticised.

READ MORE: Why is Spain’s PM defending politicians charged with corruption?

And Catalonia, despite the separatist ambitions of many of its politicians, appears no different from the rest of Spain in terms of political recent corruption, as the latest graft charges against the speaker of the Catalan Parliament Laura Borràs suggest.

Social media undoubtedly plays a major role in influencing public opinion, as it provides Spaniards with minute by minute, rolling twenty-four hour news coverage of every misdeed anyone in public life does that they didn’t have in the past.

Judging by the CPI data available, it does seem that public opinion in Spain is swayed by such events and coverage.

The noticeable drops in public trust in institutions between 2005-2010, and again around 2018, mirror major national scandals.

Perhaps Spain isn’t necessarily headed on the downward trajectory the figures would suggest, and it isn’t set to tumble further down the corruption league tables.

In fact, judging by the 2021 CPI rankings, Spain is on a downward trend.

A multitude of factors could contribute to the worsening public perception of corruption in Spain: greed, social media, a constant news cycle, small town politics, pay-offs, bungs, bribes, new major national scandals, more dirt on exiled former kings.

If Spain is to fully emerge more economically secure from the pandemic and the current inflation crisis, rekindle the trust between the public and its institutions, as well as live up to its position as one of Europe’s major players, it better hope that its culture of political corruption dies off soon.

Could a new generation of young and conscientious politicians be the solution?