OPINION: Will Spain learn from its mistakes in 2021?

Can Spain use its EU coronavirus recovery fund to solve some of the lingering problems it has with its job market and welfare state, asks Madrid-based writer Brendy Boyle.

OPINION: Will Spain learn from its mistakes in 2021?
Photos: AFP

As winter turned to spring, Spain went from being one of the world’s most invigorating and uplifting places to a claustrophobic frenzy of fear, anxiety, and anger.

While Covid-19 ripped through Northern Italy, bringing a nation to its knees, life in Spain carried on – until it was too late. As hospitals reached breaking point, extreme lockdown measures were put into place by Pedro Sánchez’s coalition government.

By that time, indecisiveness, complacency, and a failure to act in terms of travel restrictions as Covid-19 approached with the inevitability of a rising spring tide, leaving the highest risk members of society – the elderly and those in care homes – exposed. Like sitting ducks, they didn’t stand a chance.

The army was deployed to disinfect care homes across the country and found helpless residents dead in their beds. Madrid’s ice rink was converted into a makeshift morgue; home to rows of chilled bodies in wooden boxes lined side by side with numbers for names.

It soon emerged that care homes residents were denied hospital treatment – a generation of Spaniards were abandoned when they needed us most.

A societal straitjacket

A country where life is lived on its streets and in its bars and terraces, Spain suddenly found itself cooped up in small apartments, pisos, which house most of the nation’s urban population. Fifty days without proper exercise took its toll on a famously active nation. Children became anxious and restless, we all gained weight, and disputes between neighbours soared by 60 percent.

Flowers and trees bloomed in empty closed parks and “To rent” signs sprung up like mushrooms on the windows of bars, shops and beauticians as many local businesses folded, unable to pay rent and bills as the stream of income dried up.

We opened door handles with our elbows. We queued, one metre apart, outside supermarkets. With the daily news of rising deaths and spiralling debts, the initial wartime-like adrenaline turned to despair. Patrolling police cars served only to add to the dystopian feel of it all.

Greetings with kisses and hugs were replaced by uneasy moments of battling instincts as Spain quickly went contactless. The only smiles to be seen on the streets were from the discarded Amazon packages piled up alongside apartment block dumpsters.

There was no Semana Santa celebrations, no cheeky puente getaways, or long, dreamy summer holidays, the type you never want to end. Even Christmas looks set to be a “decaffeinated” version.

The holidays and fiestas are the lifeblood of the towns and cities across the country; they are not only huge economic drivers, but they also generate tremendous excitement and passion. Without the noise, people, colours, and rituals, Spain is a sad place.

Fatigue and contradictions

It has been a gruelling slog. Face masks, alcohol hand gels, incessant hand washing, and the fear of physical contact.

We saw every version of “how not to wear a mask” imaginable. Guidelines and restrictions were filled with baffling contradictions. During a global pandemic, with a virus spread principally through air particles, folk were able to waddle along busy streets with a cigarette in one hand and the face mask in the other, puffing to their heart’s content as the rest of us acted responsibly. Betting shops remained open as parks and other green spaces – such vital places for citizen mental and physical health – were locked shut.

As the second wave punished those who initially got it right, the party has kept going in the Spanish capital. Madrid's regional premier Isabel Díaz Ayuso filled the airwaves and column inches and like her spiritual mentor Esperanza Aguirre, she has thrived in the animosity.

A woman with a placard reading “Ayuso resignation, her incompetence criminalizes our neighborhoods” takes part in a demonstration at the Carabanchel neighborhood in Madrid. Photo: AFP

As Portugal rallied around the flag to combat the virus, across the border Spain couldn’t help itself as its famous divide and flounder politics once again took centre stage. Catalan independence, ETA, the royal family, Franco – all the hits were given another spin out as the nation’s real heroes reached breaking point on the frontline.

The mudslinging continued with the same ferocity of the virus itself, reaching peak levels with the then Partido Popular congressional spokeswoman, Cayetana Álvarez de Toledo, calling Deputy PM Pablo Iglesias “the son of a terrorist.

We watched on as residents of the wealthy Salamanca neighbourhood in Madrid took to the streets, because they had to follow the same lockdown measures as everyone else. Those at the other end of the economic ladder also gathered in huge numbers — to queue for meals at the capital’s food banks.

The welfare state

Years of closures and cuts left Spain ill-equipped to face the gravest humanitarian crisis to hit the country since the 1936 Civil War. Doctors, nurses and healthcare staff were asked to battle the devastating virus without proper protection. Many became infected; others were physically and mentally shattered. And then came the second wave.

The Ministry of Education estimated that approximately 10 percent of the 8.2 million students in Spain have been unable to follow classes online. According to El País, in the Catalan and Valencian communities this number is actually closer to 15 percent, while parents in Andalusian cities like Seville, Granada and Jaén claim that the figures are greater still.

While more affluent families will be able to recuperate lost time quicker through extracurricular activities, history has shown us that those left behind from an early age tend to fall through the cracks in later years.

Covid-19 has been a knockout-blow to the now dubbed “double crisis generation,” those who found themselves leaving education to a barren wasteland of unstable and poor-quality employment a decade ago.

They’ve have to accept jobs well below their qualification levels with little to no security. They’ve have to postpone moving out of home or getting married and god forbid if they ever wish to have children! Not the news a country with a rapidly greying population struggling to pay pensions and deal with depopulation wants to hear.

Spain’s labour market needs radical reform. How can any country aspire to create a welfare state with 75 percent of its workforce employed with temporary contracts? The days of “It’ll-be-alright-mañana” economics and an unsustainable dependence on cheap and cheerful tourism are over. Spain needs to get a grip.

Real change demands bold decisions from expert thinkers, not well-heeled headline grabbers.


With a mounting migrant crisis in the Canary Islands, the Catalan elections in February, and the political circus in Madrid, it’s difficult to see Spain being anything other than a divided nation in 2021. It can, however, become fairer and more equal.

While Pedro Sánchez, Pablo Casado, Santiago Abascal and Pablo Iglesias occupy themselves with stoking the flames of political warfare, Spain’s labour, education, finance and ecological transition ministers – all women – have opted for actions rather than words.

Yolanda Díaz, Labour Minister, has emerged in the eyes of many as Spain’s great hope. Dubbed by El País as the “Agreements Minsiter,” Díaz has shown an abilty to unite both sides of the political spectrum to lead positive change.

She has blasted Mariano Rajoy’s “better to have something than nothing” policies and is leading the drive to creating a more robust and stable labour market. Having already raised the minimum wage to €950 and spearheaded the ERTE program to sustain businesses throughout the pandemic, Díaz is proving that things can be done quickly in Spain with the right people on board.’

The economy is expected to shrink 12 percent this year but the recently approved budget has defied the temptation to go down the austerity route with spending increases in healthcare, education and other welfare services.

Moreover, having been allocated €140 billion from historic EU coronavirus recovery fund, combined with extremely low borrowing costs, Spain will never again have a better opportunity to the reinvent itself and tackle other areas such as gender violence, inhumane working conditions for seasonal workers, outdated administrative processes, and digitalisation.

Will it seize the moment and strike while the iron is hot?

Brendan Boyle is an Irish writer and has lived in Madrid since 2016, covering Spanish current affairs for Jacobin and Tribune magazines. For more of his views and analysis follow him on Twitter 


ANALYSIS: What does 2021 have in store for those living in Spain?

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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?