Date: 05 February 2008
Author(s): Olaf Cramme
According to recent research from the University of Cambridge on well-being, Denmark is the happiest country among the old EU member states while the southern nations appear at the bottom of the league table. Britain ranks a mere ninth position scoring roughly as many ‘happiness and life satisfaction’ points as Spain, and slightly more than France and Germany.
The research analysed European Social Survey data for 20,000 people on topics ranging from sense of fulfilment to trust in parliament, the police and legal system, to altruism and citizenship. While research on happiness remains controversial in terms of its validity and utility, one of the main findings of the survey is that the relations of individuals with broader society and with public institutions play an important role in their sense of personal fulfilment. Indeed, it demonstrates that trust in society matters. And the countries that scored highest for happiness also reported the highest levels of trust in their governments.
What are the conclusions to be drawn from this? Does it mean that (once again) only the Scandinavian countries are able to serve as a source of inspiration for efforts to reform social policies elsewhere? Yes and no. In many policy areas, in particular with regard to education and equality, the Scandinavian countries do indeed remain Europe’s pioneering elite. However, when considering quality of life more generally, there is no country in Europe besides Spain that has witnessed such a rapid improvement over the last couple of years. There are lessons to be leant here too.
Much of the recent advances in Spain are due to the radical reform agenda undertaken by the Socialist (PSOE) government since 2004. Of course, it helped that the Socialists inherited a buoyant economy from their conservative predecessors, not dissimilar to the situation in the UK in 1997. Yet prime minister José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero’s main achievements have been hard-earned. In fact, it is his specific project of modernisation, often referred to as a ‘second transition’, which has transformed Spain to an extent which seems unprecedented in 21st century Europe.
Above all, Zapatero’s reading of societal changes has made the difference. In contrast to many other European countries, including Britain, where many of the traditional institutions and social structures have eroded and governments are trying hard to rebuild them, Spain’s challenge has been to create better conditions for individual initiative without undermining the high degree of social cohesion that has traditionally characterised Spanish society, still relying much on the role of the family. Multiple policy initiatives have been launched and implemented in this respect: for example, introducing targeted measures to raise the female employment rate (which is still comparatively low in Spain); establishing the legal right to paternity leave; and even challenging the traditionally long Spanish lunch-time in order to allow workers to return home earlier in the evenings.
While many of these reforms might appear uncontroversial to northern social democrats, in the Spanish context they have a very different flavour. In a sense, they must be understood as a bold answer to the numerous challenges that are generated by the current global and social-economic transformations, without losing sight of the unique character and circumstances of Spain’s evolving society and economy. Ultimately, it has allowed the PSOE to present itself as a force of social and economic progress, in touch with people’s needs, embracing a forward-looking, optimistic approach to future challenges.
This combination of social innovation, a caring dimension and sound macro-economic management is the key to Zapatero’s success. Despite early predictions that the PSOE government would reverse the economic upswing, a business-friendly policy in conjunction with fiscal austerity has helped to sustain and strengthen Spain’s unprecedented long period of economic growth. Unemployment has continuously fallen (until very recently) and Pedro Solbes, the highly respected finance minister, has been able to declare a budget surplus for a third consecutive year, topping 2 per cent of gross domestic product for 2007. Unlike most of the Eurozone countries, the PSOE government maintains the option of further tax cuts while increasing investment in public services.
Presenting himself as a bold social and political reformer while remaining conservative on the economy has brought Zapatero respectable approval ratings. A poll by Sigma 2, a Madrid-based polling firm, at the end of last year showed that the opposition Partido Popular, which is credited with much of the economic recovery in the nineties, was only considered equally competent to the PSOE government on economic management, while trailing behind on every other issue except terrorism. On social policy, for instance, Zapatero scored well above his rival Mariano Rajoy with a rating of 52 per cent to 29 per cent of approval.
Will Spaniards therefore reward Zapatero and his team with another term in government when the country goes to the polls on 9 March this year? Recent global and domestic economic developments have made the outcome far less predictable. Inflation has risen considerably. House prices are also starting to slip after a decade-long boom, in a country which has an 85 per cent home ownership rate. The global financial turmoil may well cause problems for Spain’s heavily indebted companies. And although the word ‘recession’ has not entered the debate yet, the economy is expected to grow next year much less than in previous years.
On top of this, polls indicate that Spaniards are beginning to resent the huge influx of foreigners that Spain has experienced in recent years. While the 600,000 illegal immigrants amnestied by the PSOE government in 2005 have certainly helped boost the country’s social security system, some observers also predict that the lack of a thought-through integration policy will soon cause further problems to the government. Such a development would be sadly ironic. For it is one of the Socialist government’s proudest achievements to have singled out Spain during recent years as a European state that actively and openly welcomes economic migrants. However, this open-minded approach to labour migration has not been backed up with sufficiently clear and effective policies to manage the social consequences of Spain’s rapidly increasing cultural diversity.
After four years of radical social and political reforms which the PSOE government has pushed through partly against stiff conservative opposition, Zapatero now looks more on the defensive than he ought to. Yet he is sticking to his modernising principles and reforming attitude. His strategy and positioning have not been altered despite worrying signs in the economy.
Instead, the PSOE’s new election manifesto will promise a new wave of social and economic reforms, helping to build the empowering state for the 21st century. It will explain why it is social democrats who today must be on the side of modernisation and change – in tune with the changing realities of people’s lives. Investing heavily in education and fighting child poverty is part of this strategy. Zapatero’s recent promises to offer 2,500 euros for every newborn child in Spain (‘baby cheques’) and to subsidise rents for young people fit perfectly into this framework.
Hence, trust in government and high levels of happiness, as well as life satisfaction, seem to correlate. Spaniards are getting happier, having left behind their Mediterranean neighbours. Zapatero has proven that a bold social and political reform agenda can find acceptance in large parts of the population and restore confidence in government activism. Were he to win the forthcoming elecions, his politics of modernisation and change will have shown the way.