Speaking the language of 400 million

SOCIETIES must be vigilant when any form of xenophobia, racism or intolerance emerges, says José Ángel López Jorrín who represents a country of 46 million people with one of the highest levels of immigration in the European Union in 2007: Spain. Ambassador Jorrín believes that communication is the key for bridging cultural gaps and he indeed possesses a powerful tool: Spanish, which is spoken today by about 400 million people and serves as an official language in more than 20 countries.

Spanish Ambassador José Ángel López Jorrín.Spanish Ambassador José Ángel López Jorrín. (Source: Jana Liptáková)

SOCIETIES must be vigilant when any form of xenophobia, racism or intolerance emerges, says José Ángel López Jorrín who represents a country of 46 million people with one of the highest levels of immigration in the European Union in 2007: Spain. Ambassador Jorrín believes that communication is the key for bridging cultural gaps and he indeed possesses a powerful tool: Spanish, which is spoken today by about 400 million people and serves as an official language in more than 20 countries.

The Slovak Spectator spoke to the Spanish ambassador to Slovakia about aches and pains in the Spanish labour market, his country’s hopes in renewable energy resources and about areas in which Slovakia and Spain could shape viable business links.

The Slovak Spectator (TSS): According to Spanish media, a total of 702,000 immigrants came to Spain during 2007, which was the largest intake of immigrants of all EU countries during that year. What are the challenges that this phenomenon poses to Spain? Is there effective legislation to deal with the circumstances of immigrants in Spain?
José Ángel López Jorrín (JALJ): Spain has about 4 to 5 five million immigrants today, which for a country of 46 million people, is a pretty high number. We have had a large increase in population. This is surprising for a country which traditionally has been the source of emigration. This is a totally new situation for us, but the challenges we face are the same as any other modern country with large immigration faces: the need to integrate immigrants who are coming from different cultures and backgrounds. We are receiving immigrants mainly from Latin America, eastern Europe, northern and sub-Saharan Africa. While the integration of Latin American immigrants might come easier as we speak the same language and the Europeans have some advantages of sharing similar cultural backgrounds, African immigrants come from a very different cultural environment and pose a different integration challenge. Immigration presents challenges for the education system, for social and public services and even for transportation.

The most important aspect is to promote tolerance. When a homogeneous society becomes more heterogeneous, there is always a danger of different forms of racism, xenophobia, and intolerance emerging. Societies have to be very vigilant towards those possibilities. But Spaniards are quite open to immigrants for this simple reason: we also were emigrants. There is not a family in Spain without a relative who had emigrated at some point. They know what a hardship that means.

This is not to say that we have no problems. When a society is abundant and there is much to share, problems are usually fewer; but when you have a crisis, problems are more likely to emerge. For example, there are a lot of people who came to Spain to take up temporary jobs in agriculture. But in times of crisis not as many of these workers are needed.

In Spain, private organisations that have been helping the immigrants are flourishing. These non-governmental organisations have been acting as mediators between civil society, the immigrants and the population since they are more aware of the immigrants’ problems. The best way, however, to solve any of these problems is to manage the legal status of the immigrants and to provide them with work. When these needs are secured, good coexistence comes out naturally.
But I also think that the immigrants must make a great effort to integrate and show respect for the values of the country to which they came because a country’s majority cannot just reshape their own values.

TSS: Both Slovakia and Spain have been struggling with high unemployment rates and Slovakia’s greatest problem is with the long-term unemployed. What are the reasons behind the Spanish unemployment rate and what are possible cures?
JALJ: Spain has had in the last 15 years a pretty high growth rate, not as high as Slovakia over the last few years, but our economy has grown quite dynamically. The growth has been to a very large extent based on construction and housing, which are industries that require less-qualified labour. It was this market that attracted the most immigrants, either for temporary work or full time work. At this moment the mortgage bubble has exploded, a real crisis has emerged and the construction industry is almost paralysed. The need for less-qualified labour has disappeared very quickly and so the rate of unemployment is rising very quickly. At the end of 2008 we already had 3.2 million unemployed, which is 14 percent of the economically active population. By the end of 2009, this number could reach 4 million people, 16 percent of the population, which would be the highest rate in the EU. This shows a structural difficulty in Spain’s labour market which has been distorted by the construction industry.

We are now trying to subsidize or encourage the return of some of these workers to their home countries. We are trying to promote education and retraining and to prepare people for taking up more-qualified jobs.

Even if this crisis eases, our construction industry will never fully recover and we will need to remodel our housing market, which must become more restrained and adjusted to the real needs of the market.

TSS: Spanish is the world’s fourth most widely spoken language and in many countries it is becoming increasingly popular. In many countries, such as the United States, its spread and vibrancy is evident. In your opinion has the status of the Spanish language changed in Europe over the past decade or so?
JALJ: Spanish is spoken by about 400 million people and it is an official language in more than 20 countries. Spanish is important culturally, but it is also an economic tool. The Chinese language has the power of the numbers while English is the lingua franca of the world and there is no competition with that. But Spanish is the language that serves as a real edge to develop economic connections and business ties with a large part of the world. This is why we make an effort, together with the Instituto Cervantes and with Spanish teachers, to develop a network and help people to acquire this useful tool.

In the US more than 40 million people speak Spanish as their first language, which is more than in Spain. The US is the second largest Spanish speaking country after Mexico. It is studied as a foreign language by 75 percent of all US secondary school students. This shows how can Spanish help in the penetration of those markets.

TSS: Slovakia has been making some progress in recognizing the importance of foreign languages, with English and German being the dominant languages. Have you noticed interest in learning the Spanish language in Slovakia?
JALJ: Interest in Spanish language has been growing in Slovakia. You have a good policy of bilingual educational institutions. There are already seven bilingual schools and our Ministry of Education is making efforts to send teachers here. All this creates a better ground for more intense exchange of knowledge about our countries. Once you speak the language, you are going to be more interested in literature, art, culture and contacts with Spanish businesses.

Translators of Spanish literature into Slovak are very well prepared. The Comenius University and the University of Economics in Bratislava have exchange programmes with Spanish universities in Granada and Madrid and that is probably a seed that will grow into other contacts.

TSS: Europe is now seeking ways to achieve greater energy efficiency and safety. What are Spain’s experiences with renewable energy sources and which are the ones that could serve as inspiration for Slovakia?
JALJ: Spain is heavily dependent on external energy resources because we do not have our own oil and gas. We are not dependent on eastern gas but rather on gas from northern Africa. Even though we have a long term contract we are still highly dependent. This is why we have had to make an extra effort towards renewable energies. It was a priority for the previous government just as it is for the current government. We had to develop technology and we invested into wind and solar energy parks. We have developed the area of hydro energy to the largest possible extent but we have limitations there.

TSS: Several EU countries have made a rather positive shift towards nuclear energy. What is Spain’s position regarding nuclear energy?
JALJ: We have declared a moratorium on nuclear energy. Not only there is no political consensus but the majority of the population is against nuclear energy for safety reasons, as the issue of waste processing is not yet solved.

All our efforts are directed towards renewable energy. We have good technology which we can export. Moreover, we are pioneers in developing some of these technologies and now 9 percent of our energy is coming from renewable sources.

The current government has said that during its term there will be no change in its nuclear energy policy. Spain now has more than 10 nuclear power plants and the policy is that these will continue working until their life span is reached and then they will be closed down. However, people are beginning to see that it will be inevitable to start dealing with nuclear energy again. But it always is a turbulent discussion.

TSS: What sectors of the Slovak economy could be interesting for Spanish businesses and where do you see some investment potential?
JALJ: We have to make an effort to bring in more Spanish investments. Of the sectors that might be attractive, it is currently construction. Slovakia has the available labour. I was very pleased to learn about a huge housing project developed by a Spanish company: Bilbao near Martin. We also have strong firms with experience in building highways and railways. The renewable energy sector is another area. If Slovakia is ready to build and open some renewable energy parks, we would be more than ready to bring in our expertise and technology. Then, of course, the tourism sector is interesting too. We have extensive experience in managing hotel resorts and I see possibilities of foreign investments here. Spanish companies are already present in the automotive sector as sub-suppliers. The third mobile phone operator in Slovakia is owned by the Spanish company Telefónica and we had a Spanish company assisting in the decommissioning of the Jaslovské Bohunice nuclear power plant. These companies would be ready to participate in any future projects.

TSS: Slovakia has been struggling with balancing its regional differences and finding ways to bring the undernourished parts of the country closer to the wealthier western parts. What is Spain’s experience with balancing regional differences? Are there experiences that Slovakia could also use?
JALJ: Developing the regions and balancing the differences between them is very important for the stability of the whole society. During the first half of the 20th century Spain was an extremely centralised country, with many internal differences. We then created a model of autonomous regions and now Spain is a country with 17 autonomous regions, which are administering half of the national budget. There is a need for solidarity, which tries to develop and help the less advanced regions so they can reach the average level of the country’s development. You always face controversy: the wealthier regions will always feel that they are giving too much and the poorer ones will feel that they are receiving too little. But that is the dynamics of politics. But in the end the regions understand that they are mutually dependent. It is a very long process, though.

TSS: What aspects of the Slovak culture could be appealing for Spaniards? Could you give some examples of the cultural ties between Slovakia and Spain?
JALJ: We have to develop these ties more. You have a good tradition in the film industry in both feature films and documentaries and it has always been appreciated in Spain. You also have very good musicians, who are appreciated in Spain. The interest in classical music in Spain is rather recent. Now that classical music is becoming more and more popular, there is the chance for these links to become more vibrant. Spanish people are always interested in gastronomy, so exchanging chefs could be interesting.

Spain: general facts

Political system: kingdom
Capital: Madrid
Total area: 504,782 square kilometres
Population: 46 million
Official language: Spanish
Currency: euro
Key exports: machinery, motor vehicles; foodstuffs, pharmaceu ticals, medicines, other consumer goods
Numbers of Spanish citizensliving in Slovakia: 120

Source: CIA/ The World Factbook and the Spanish Embassy in Bratislava

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