IN JUST a decade Spain received more than 5 million immigrants, equivalent to the entire population of Slovakia, turning the country, which in the past produced emigrants, into a new home for people from other countries. Félix Valdés, the Spanish ambassador to Slovakia, explains how Spain’s previous experience as a country with high emigration rates has made it, in his words, mentally prepared to receive immigrants.
The Slovak Spectator also spoke to Valdés about the 1-million-strong, well-integrated Roma community in Spain as well as the challenges that the financial crisis has placed on Spain’s shoulders.
The Slovak Spectator (TSS): Spain has one of the highest immigration rates in the world. Countries like Slovakia sometimes take comfort that the pressing issues of immigration do not directly concern them. However, migration is already a global challenge. How can this challenge in your opinion be addressed effectively?
Félix Valdés (FV): I do not think there are any general rules since immigration has its specifics and circumstances for each country, which should not be generalised. The process of immigration in Spain sped up considerably over the past ten years and even though we have absorbed immigrants before, Spain has jumped from having a foreign-born population of 5 percent to almost 15 percent. We are talking about more than 5 million people, with 500,000 people coming each year, thus I could say that in ten years we received a country [the size of] Slovakia. It was a very demanding process to handle since we had neither the legal norms nor the people to manage this [level] of immigration. One of the positive aspects was that at that time we had enough jobs on offer, so it was easy for immigrants to find employment and to sustain their lives there. Yet, another aspect of immigration was that many immigrants were undocumented, including those who came from Latin America, and they were very poor. Latin Americans in fact have an advantage because after two years in Spain they can apply for Spanish citizenship and thus many of them by now have already acquired it. Currently, the main country of origin of immigrants is Romania as well as Morocco.
Of course, the issues of language and religion are very important and immigrants from Latin America spoke Spanish, which helped their integration into society: it is much easier to integrate for a person who watches the same television and shares the same cultural traits.
Also, Spain was a country that produced emigrants, for example in the 19th and 20th century, most Spanish emigrants went to Latin America until the 1960s and 1970s, when they targeted Germany, Switzerland and France. So we changed from being a country of emigrants to a country [that] absorbs immigration in a mere 30 years. This is why Spain was mentally [prepared] to receive immigrants, since the country itself produced emigrants for decades.
In 2003, almost 50 percent of the immigrants were undocumented, but successive governments gave them residence permits and regularised their status after they proved that they had lived in Spain for two years, and gave them access to social and health services. But many of them worked in low-qualification jobs and when cycles of crises hit, the situation with unemployment worsened in Spain, which made an impact on the welfare system because the immigrants were eligible to receive unemployment benefits.
TSS: Slovakia and Spain share the problem of high unemployment rates, which in Spain hit a record high in April. What is the reason behind this development in Spain and what are the possible cures in your opinion?
FV: Spain always had a structural problem of unemployment as well as [high] illegal employment. Thus the Spanish government has undertaken reform of its labour market, which indeed is one of the most important structural reforms. The labour market was very rigid in Spain. For example it was very expensive to dismiss employees who had to be paid one months’ salary for each year the person worked for an employer: someone who worked for a company for 20 years was eligible for 20 months’ severance payment. Thus it was much easier to dismiss young people because they had worked less for the company. Thus the government wanted to give more flexibility to the market and while there was a very fiery debate around the legislation, by now the reform of the labour market is already a reality.
TSS: Spain has joined the countries that have had to request financial help from the eurozone due to the financial downturn. What steps has your government taken to face this challenge?
FV: The government has put in place a very strong budgetary and fiscal consolidation programme, which involved hiking taxes and cutting public spending as well as launching a structural reform of the financial sector through monitoring the activities of the players. Public administration and the labour market are being reformed as well. Just two weeks ago, the government chose to cut wages in public administration, not only at the central level but also at the regional and municipal level, by 7 percent. This is why HM The King and Prince Felipe also accepted a 7-percent cut along with former ministers.
In terms of our economy, we have been trying to increase our labour productivity and exports; for example last year we posted a 29-percent increase in exports. We have very important companies, which are mostly internationalised and some of them make 60 percent of their operations abroad.
TSS: The construction industry was a significant contributor to the Spanish economy and was the primary factor behind the robust economic growth recorded in the country between 1997 and 2007. By 2007, the Spanish construction industry’s contribution to GDP reached 16 percent, compared with the EU average of 6 percent. How has the crisis affected this sector and how do you see its prospects?
FV: Currently we have an excess on the construction market and it will take the market at least four to five years to absorb that excess. The boom of course was also linked to the cheap credit available for people to purchase new houses. Many people, including low-income immigrants, were able to take out a mortgage and purchase new houses in Spain. When the interest rates increased and the conditions changed many people could no longer afford their loans. Thus the banks absorbed a huge number of houses and they are selling them now for a price 20-30 percent lower than three years ago.
TSS: The Spanish embassy and SARIO undersigned a Spanish-Slovak roadshow to present business opportunities. What were in your opinion the most important outcomes of the roadshow? How did businesses respond?
FV: The investment agency SARIO took the initiative to present Slovakia as an investment destination while the Spanish authorities supported the event since they want the Spanish companies to get internationalised. Madrid, Barcelona and Bilbao, where many of these companies are based, hosted the events, which attracted more than 150 companies. At the moment, we have 60 Spanish companies in Slovakia, where the automotive sector is of key importance. We believe that the number of Spanish companies that invest in Slovakia will increase.
The automotive sector is already quite important in Spain; we are the third exporter of cars in the EU so the Spanish industry has a lot of experience. For example, these companies are also investing in the Republic of Korea and we are already in the main markets.
TSS: In 2012, Time magazine printed an interesting piece on the integration of Roma people in society under the headline “Spain’s Tolerance of Gypsies: a model for Europe?” How well is the Roma minority, which is the second largest community in Europe, integrated in your homeland?
FV: I believe that the 1-million-strong Roma community in Spain is well-adapted and the community has made progress from the late 1950s, when they began to integrate after having to move to the cities. I think education played a key role, because they were obliged to send their children to school and many of them advanced to higher education.
Some of the Gitanos, as we call them, are accepted and some of them are quite popular, since some aspects of the Spanish culture do embrace Gypsy culture and you can see them everywhere. Of course there are also [Roma] communities who come from Eastern Europe and they find it more difficult to integrate. One of the strong features of Spain’s Gitano community is that they wanted to integrate, while the church also played a role. Unfortunately, you might still encounter individual cases of discrimination, but generally our Gypsies are part of the culture and society.
TSS: How do you assess the interest in learning Spanish in Slovakia, where English and German are the dominant foreign languages?
FV: I was impressed by the quality of Spanish some people speak here. There are Spanish bilingual gymnasiums in seven different parts of the country. I handed over some prizes a while ago and some students, mainly women, spoke Spanish with no accent at all. We are actually providing 30 teachers from Spain, some [of whom] teach Spanish language and culture while some teach scientific subjects as well.
TSS: The Way of St James, a leading Catholic pilgrimage route, has grown more popular, even here in Slovakia. What do such sites mean for local tourism and how do you assess challenges of sacral tourism for both Spain and Slovakia? How do you assess Slovakia’s tourism potential for Spanish visitors in general?
FV: I have made the St James’ route myself and since I liked it very much I might be quite partial on that. I would not even call it a tourist attraction but rather a cultural, religious and spiritual experience. I did the 700 kilometres by foot by passing the Pyrenees and going through different parts of northern Spain. There are also people who in fact do only the last seven days of what is a one-month journey and they start in Galicia, which is a green part of Spain. On the route there are free or very cheap hostels.
As for the tourism potential, Spain is not among the most visited tourist destinations of Slovaks, as they go mostly to countries around [Slovakia]. Maybe they are mostly looking for sun and beaches, which they can find in Croatia or the Mediterranean. But along the beaches, which I see as one of Spain’s advantages, are cultural and highly cosmopolitan cities like Madrid, Barcelona, Cordoba, or Seville. As we receive only 30,000 Slovaks from a total of 55 million tourists a year, there is a lot of room for improvement.
As for Spanish tourists, I think that rather than visit only Slovakia, they perhaps want to come to central Europe and see [several of the] different countries in the region. Your castles and churches are amazing, quite different from what we have in Spain. The countryside and the mountains are also an important attraction. I arrived only two months ago and I have not yet had a chance to travel but I certainly plan on doing so. In my tenure I hope to visit all of the country.