Many medium and small provincial towns and cities are a daunting mix of retirees, civil servants, subcontractors of companies dependent on public money, service sector workers and business closures. But what does this mean for Spain’s role in Europe?
The pandemic has only made the situation worse. Many young people are leaving provincial towns. Cities such as León, Jaén, Soria and Salamanca, are not only suffering from the devastating effects of the coronavirus, but are also economic victims. Tourism seems to be a last resort, but these are not good times for tourism either.
Teleworking no solution for exodus
After 2019, Salamanca saw mostly younger inhabitants leave the city. In 2008, the province had 113,087 inhabitants in the age category 15-39; now there are 79,456. Salamanca hoped the exodus from the major capitals by Covid-19 would benefit the city. Provinces close to Madrid, such as Ávila, Toledo or Guadalajara, have seen a slight increase in population. Unfortuntely, Salamanca, despite the possibility of teleworking, is still too far from Madrid. Physical distance is still important for many people, and the option of teleworking does not appear to be sufficient to counteract the problem of migration from the small towns.
The ’empty Spain’ or the ‘deflated Spain’?
The campaign ‘Empty Spain’, which evoked the image of idyllic mountain villages, small towns with few inhabitants and beautiful landscapes, soon gave way to ‘deflated Spain’. Initiatives were devised to repopulate the abandoned places with examples given of successful rural entrepreneurs. However, the feeling this was a Spain on the verge of disappearing continued to resound. Sentiment does not help the cities, an efficient approach does.
Relocations, a lack of business structure and the absence of plans have left these cities in decline. They are crucial to the country, but can hardly compete with cities like Madrid and Barcelona, which have global opportunities and the most resources. With ‘hubs’ and festivals, the building of museums, conference centres, new stadiums and architectural masterpieces, they did try.
A weekend in any of these cities, from Gijón to Vigo, León to Granada, Valencia to Teruel, confirms these transformed cities are welcoming; with an offer not inferior to that of the big cities.
Despite all these efforts, the decline seems unstoppable. This is not unexpected since such the initiatives were stopgap measures, not solutions. A pretty picture was not enough to bring prosperity back; for that, employment is needed.
Even the arrival of fibre optics to the most remote places is not enough to breathe economic life back into rundown environments. Teleworking will not enable small towns and rural areas to regain their populations. Only a small minority of the Spanish population can choose where to live; but for the majority, work is an important factor in choosing where to live. Digital nomads might be attracted to telecommuting in sunny Spain, but that is also only a band-aid on the problem.
The example of the Basques
During de-industrialisation, the Basque Country invested a lot of money in making its cities more attractive. The best example of this is the transformation of Bilbao and the building of the Guggenheim Museum. Yet the Basque politicians were not happy with this change; they had distinguished themselves as an industrial area and they wanted to remain so.
As a result, with the support of the Basque government and a savings bank, they created an important network, rebuilding the remaining industry and creating new development areas. This in turn created jobs, a higher standard of living compared to the rest of Spain and better infrastructure.
This approach seems to be a good option for the rest of Spain as well. There is little point in investing in digitalisation and the green economy if jobs and economic vitality are not generated in the medium and long term.
Politics also plays a role in counteracting the exodus. For the time being, the provincial small and medium-sized cities are characterised by their conservatism. Not because they vote for conservative parties, but because of the resigned mood that prevails there. Politically, these areas have so far been characterised by their loyalty in voting (almost always the same parties win, whether they are left or right) and by their lack of interest in different options. This is the logical consequence of there being many pensioners, a lot of public employment and the local elite acquiring political power. This does not help to implement radical changes.
Slowly something is changing
Slowly but surely, something seems to be changing. Take Teruel for example, where the party Teruel Existe focuses on the pragmatic, on achieving something tangible for the province. Other similar parties are emerging, and perhaps they can participate together in the next general elections.
The other possibility relates to right-wing populism. The United Kingdom, France and the United States are clear examples of how the population of forgotten inner cities has ended up forming an inescapable political force advocating strong nationalism.
Whatever the direction, it is clear these areas will face tensions. The political activation of ’empty Spain’ could be one of the changes, if there is a force that knows how to mobilise and lead it. In Spain, international trends come too early or too late, but they will come.
Will Spain become the provincial town of Europe?
Spain itself has become a sort of medium-sized city, both in Europe and globally. It is a country of pensioners, with young people leaving the country, where employment comes from the civil service, services, small business and tourism. Industrial activity is almost non-existent. This will eventually lead to the same ills that plague provincial small and medium-sized towns: debt, unemployment, scarcity of investment and dependence on the service sector.
The stakes are high right now: the place Gijón occupies in Spain, could soon be Spain’s fate within Europe. The way out of this impasse is to plan for a more cohesive Spain, to take enough initiative to create where needed and to stimulate what could grow.
This requires a different perspective, one that has a vision of the State in mind and knows how to deal with Europe in a different way (not just to be Europe’s summer residence). The perspective that knows how to promote all that Spain has to offer.
The European digital and green movement could close the gap between Madrid, Barcelona, the Basque Country and the rest of provincial Spain. However, it also risks widening the gap. And that would be a mistake; because only a country that grows as a whole has a chance to play on the global chessboard.