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LIFE IN SPAIN

Mother loses custody of child for living in ’empty Spain’

A Galician mother has lost custody of her one-year-old son after a judge in Marbella ruled that “rural Galicia” was not a suitable environment for a child to grow up in. 

Pesqueiras village in Lugo Galicia Spain
Although the Galician village where the child's mother lives has not been named, it's in the province of A Coruña and was described by the judge as "far from everything". Photo: nuberu_na/Pixabay

Is rural Spain not a suitable environment to rear a child?

This is the question being asked by many in Spain following a custody battle between a mother who lives in a rural setting in the northwestern region of Galicia and a father who is based in the glitzy city of Marbella on Spain’s southern coast. 

Court proceedings took place in the Costa del Sol city, with the judge ruling in favour of custody for the father as “Galicia profunda” (‘deep’ Galicia, as in rural and secluded) was not as suitable a place for a child to grow up in, favouring “cosmopolitan” Marbella. 

According to the magistrate, the mother’s home, in a village in A Coruña province between the Muros and Noia estuaries, doesn’t offer “many possibilities for the adequate development of a child’s personality and for him to grow up in a happy environment”.

The judge stressed that “a very small village”, “far from everything” and with “no job options” couldn’t compare to “all the infrastructure”, “good hospitals” and “all kinds of schools to choose from, public and private” in Marbella, adding that she would only get joint custody if she moved to the upmarket southern city.  

The one year old’s mother left her region for work reasons four years ago, met the man who would become the father of her son and together they moved to Marbella where the child was born in 2020.

After the couple ended their relationship last summer, the mother returned to her native Galicia with her baby. Both parents requested joint custody and a judicial proceeding which has now been covered by Spain’s leading newspapers, El País and ABC among them, ensued. 

The mother’s lawyer has filed a complaint with the disciplinary commission of Spain’s General Council of the Judiciary, arguing that the judge was “partial” and acted with “absolute contempt”, calling the decision “discriminatory against Galicia and its rural areas”

It’s an opinion shared by Galician politicians such as Ana Pontón, head of the Galician Nationalist Bloc (BNG) , who argued on Twitter that “it cannot be that in 2021, ‘deep Galicia’ be used as an argument to deprive a mother of her child”.

The judge’s decision has also been condemned across Spain, although some legal sources have since pointed out that the fact that the mother took the child back to her village without the father agreeing to it worked against her, as did the derogatory language and threats she used towards her ex-partner in WhatsApp messages read out in court. 

If a couple in Spain cannot agree on how they will split time with their child/children after a breakup, it’s up to a judge to decide what the custody arrangement will be.

The divisive court case comes at a time when the Covid-19 pandemic and the advent of remote working in Spain have seen many city workers move to rural areas in search of better quality of life, from cheaper costs to bigger spaces and more nature, as well as a healthy environment for their children to grow up in. 

This repopulation of so-called ‘Empty Spain’ (La España Vacidada) has been encouraged by a new visa for digital nomads, improving internet connections and offers of free accommodation or financial incentives, but a lot still remains to be done to close the gap between Spain’s densely packed cities and its ageing and struggling pueblos (villages). 

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MONEY

Rampant branch closures and job cuts help Spain’s banks post huge earnings

Spain’s biggest banks this week reported huge profits in 2021 and cheered their return to recovery post-Covid, but ruthless cost-cutting in the form of thousands of layoffs, hundreds of branch closures and the removal of many ATMs have left customers in Spain suffering, in this latest example of ‘Capitalismo 2.0’. 

A man withdraws cash from a Santander branch in Madrid.
More than 3,500 Santander workers lost their jobs in Spain in 2021 and a further 2,000 more employees working for Santander across Europe were also laid off. Photo: PHILIPPE DESMAZES / AFP

Spanish banking giant Santander on Wednesday said it has bounced back from the pandemic as it returned to profit last year, beating analyst expectations and exceeding its pre-COVID earnings.

Likewise, Spain’s second-largest bank BBVA said on Thursday that it saw a strong rebound in 2021 following the Covid crisis, tripling its net profits thanks to a recovery in business activity.

It’s a similar story for Unicaja (€137 million profit in 2021), Caixabank (€5.2 billion profit thanks to merge with Bankia), Sabadell (€530 million profit last year), Abanca (€323 million profit) and all of Spain’s other main banks.

This may be promising news for Spain’s banking sector, but their profits have come at a cost for many of their employees and customers. 

In 2021, 19,000 bank employees lost their jobs, almost all through state-approved ERE layoffs, meant for companies struggling financially.

BBVA employees protest against layoffs in May 2021 in Madrid. Spain’s second-largest bank BBVA is looking to shed 3,800 jobs, affecting 16 percent of its staff, in a move denounced by unions as “scandalous”. (Photo by GABRIEL BOUYS / AFP)

Around 11 percent of bank branches in Spain have also been closed down in 2021 as part of Spanish banks’ attempts to cut costs, even though they’ve agreed to pay just under €5 billion in compensation.

Rampant branch closures have in turn resulted in 2,200 ATMs being removed since the Covid-19 pandemic began, even though the use of cajeros automáticos went up by 20 percent in 2021.

There are now 48,300 ATMs in Spain, levels not seen since 2001.

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Apart from losses caused by the coronavirus crisis, Spain’s financial institutions have justified the lay-offs, branch closures and ATM removals under the premise that there was already a shift to online banking taking place among customers. 

But the problem has been around for longer in a country with stark population differences between the cities and so-called ‘Empty Spain’, with rural communities and elderly people bearing the brunt of it. 

 

Caixabank laid off almost 6,500 workers in the first sixth months of 2021. Photo: ANDER GILLENEA/AFP

Just this month, a 78-year-old Valencian man has than collected 400,000+ signatures in an online petition calling for Spanish banks to offer face-to-face customer service that’s “humane” to elderly people, spurring the Bank of Spain and even Spain’s Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez to publicly say they would address the problem.

READ MORE: ‘I’m old, not stupid’ – How one Spanish senior is demanding face-to-face bank service

It’s worth noting that between 2008 and 2019, Spain had the highest number of branch closures and bank job cuts in Europe, with 48 percent of its branches shuttered compared with a bloc-wide average of 31 percent.

Below is more detailed information on how Santander and BBVA, Spain’s two biggest banks, have reported their huge profits in 2021.

Santander

Driven by a strong performance in the United States and Britain, the bank booked a net profit of €8.1 billion in 2021, close to a 12-year high. 

It was a huge improvement from 2020 when the pandemic hit and the bank suffered a net loss of €8.7 billion after it was forced to write down the value of several of its branches, particularly in the UK. It was also higher than 2019, when the bank posted a net profit of €6.5 billion.

Analysts from FactSet were expecting profits of €7.9 billion. 

“Our 2021 results demonstrate once again the value of our scale and presence across both developed and developing markets, with attributable profit 25 per cent higher than pre-COVID levels in 2019,” said chief executive Ana Botin in a statement.

Net banking income, the equivalent to turnover, also increased, reaching €33.4 billion, compared to €31.9 billion in 2020. This dynamic was made possible by a strong increase in customer numbers, with the group now counting almost 153 million customers worldwide. 

“We have added five million new customers in the last 12 months alone,” said Botin.

Santander performed particularly well in Europe and North America, with profits doubling in constant euros compared to 2020. In the UK, where Santander has a strong presence, current profit even “quadrupled” over the same period to €1.6 billion.

Last year’s net loss was the first in Banco Santander’s history, after having to revise downwards the value of several of its subsidiaries, notably in the UK, because of COVID.

The banking giant, which cut nearly 3,500 jobs at the end of 2020, in September announced an interim shareholder payout of €1.7 billion for its 2021 results. “In the coming weeks, we will announce additional compensation linked to the 2021 results,” it said.

BBVA

The group, which mainly operates in Spain but also in Latin America, Mexico and Turkey, posted profits of €4.65 billion ($5.25 billion), up from €1.3 billion a year earlier.

The result, which followed a solid fourth quarter with profits of €1.34 billion, was higher than expected, with FactSet analysts expecting a figure of €4.32 billion .

Excluding non-recurring items, such as the outcome of a restructuring plan launched last year, it generated profits of 5.07 billion euros in what was the highest figure “in 10 years”, the bank said in a statement.

In 2020, the Spanish bank saw its net profit tumble 63 percent as a result of asset depreciation and provisions taken against an increase in bad loans due to the economic fallout of the virus crisis.

“The economic recovery over the past year has brought with it a marked upturn in banking activity, mainly in the loan portfolio,” the bank explained, pointing to a reduction of the provisions put in place because of Covid.

In 2021, BBVA added a “record” 8.7 million new customers, largely due to the growth of its online activities. It now has 81.7 million customers worldwide.

The group’s net interest margins also rose 6.1 percent year-on-year to €14.7 billion, said the bank, which is undergoing a cost-cutting drive.

So far, it has axed 2,935 jobs and closed down 480 branches as the banking sector undergoes increasing digitalisation and fewer and fewer transactions are carried out over the counter.

At the end of 2020, BBVA sold its US unit to PNC Financial Services for nearly 10 billion euros and decided to reinvest some of the funds in the Turkish market.

In November, it launched a bid to take full control of its Turkish lending subsidiary Garanti, offering €2.25 billion ($2.6 billion) to buy the 50.15 percent stake it does not yet own.

The deal should be finalised in the first quarter of 2022.

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