The situation in Spain, alongside the one in Italy, is being described as especially severe when it comes to the effects of the Corona virus. So I decided to go the source and interview a friend living in Madrid, whose very harsh reaction on Twitter about the EU’s reaction to the crisis prompted me to prod deeper. I hope the interview will be interesting to all readers, even if we depart a bit in the usual language here on the blog. Please try to keep the comments in English as well. außen
Stefan: Hi Javi, before we begin, could you quickly introduce yourself?
Javi: Hi, my name is Javier Marcos. I am Spanish, I live in Madrid and am a friend of Stefan since quite a few years thanks to A Song of Ice and Fire, the fantasy masterpiece by George R.R. Martin adapted (kind of) to TV by HBO in the show Game of Thrones.
Stefan: Hey, thanks for the warm words and for doing this. So, to get things started, the impetus for our conversation was my retweeting an article of The American Conservative that stated the thesis that the EU betrayed Italy, to which you replied that they betrayed Spain as well and that you, as a formerly pro-European Spaniard, are now rejecting the EU as well, because you share in this feeling of betrayal. Could you maybe fill us quickly about the precise issue at hand?
Javi: Well, first of all, I have to say that I have always been very pro-European. I think that the EU prevented conflicts in a continent that has been suffering internal wars, between regions and countries, the last 2500 years.
But EU was founded with a purpose: no frontiers for people and capital, common market, common regulations and solidarity and cooperation between countries. The introduction of a common currency for most of his members helped it.
But we have realized when the situation is dire, EU simply is not there. It was not there in the Balkans Wars, it was no there in 2008 crisis, and, in the worst moment of Europe since World War II, the coronavirus crisis, we don’t see it AT ALL in Spain.
Stefan: So, before we get into the details about the EU’s action or inaction, could you give us a quick overview of the situation Spain? Here in Germany, the Corona crisis is, as of yet, not as acutely felt as in Madrid.
Javi: Spain is in the top 4 countries in the world with more cases of Coronavirus, considering deaths, people in Intensive Care Units and people sick at all. And we have only a population 45 million people. Remember, Spain it’s a country with a great Welfare State and notable public healthcare, better than the United Kingdom NHS and miles away of US public healthcare system.
We already know that a lot of countries are lying regarding the real data, not doing many tests and not counting for example people with previous illnesses and old people in elder residences – Spain counts them as death by coronoavirus. But even with that, we are really suffering this drama only under Italy, China and US. And China are US are far bigger countries than Spain. Yesterday we had 900+ deaths, and the last week we are having 800+deaths on average PER DAY. That is insane, numbers even bigger than a war.
Stefan: Thanks. With that unpleasant housekeeping business out of the view, let’s turn our view to the EU. It has never been known for decisive action, and its whole structure, decision making process and institutional routines are very badly adapted to this kind of crisis. It’s a very deliberative body.
However, I’ve been myself very critical of the organisation and its handling of the crisi on several grounds, especially where it comes to the closing of borders as a placebo that sends a wrong message (everyone for themselves, basically) and does nothing to alleviate the situation, and much more so when we talk about the question of finance. This was the direction the head of the Netherland’s government was going, irking your ire.
So, the point of my question is this: Are you mad because the EU is nowhere to be seen, like when it comes to providing emergency supplies, personell etc., basically the classical crisis reaction mode, or is this more about the reaction on the money side of things when it comes to questions of how the Eurozone is going to handle the immense amounts of money that will be required to handle the effects that are not directly related to the virus, but rather secondary effects, like unemployment and business crashes?
Javi: I am mad for both things, to be honest. And frankly, almost everyone I speak to, some of them pro-EU like me in the past, think the same when I ask them. The EU seems dead to us. Popular support for the EU is 19% in a poll, lowest ever conducted this week by one of Spanish biggest survey companies. First of all, the EU is completely unseen. Have they sent material? Well, maybe, but the number being so low is insignificant. The EU posted a tweet the other day showing the help sent to Italy. Great, but our situation it’s pretty similar to Italy, and even worse considering the date after the crisis started in each country. And there was not a single mention at all of us! Every single day we receive a lot of material from China, from American countries, airplanes filled with health materials…and I still haven’t seen a single plane with the EU flag carrying tons of respirators.
I have friends who are doctors and nurses. I talk with them almost every day. They told me than in their hospitals they have received professional advice (learning courses, how to treat when some pathology kicks off, use of material..) mostly from China and Italy. Nothing from the EU, nothing from the countries of Northern Europe (we consider France one of us), not Mediterranean ones.
The second thing you mentioned is of course also very important. Every time a politician from the north of Europe, those who called us PIGS in the past (never forget that), speaks about the crisis, sounds like a lecture. You should have had more austerity, like us. You should have been more responsible with money, like us. You should have handled your finances better after the crisis of 2008, like us. Well, it’s easier to be responsible if you are a de facto tax haven in the EU like the Netherland is. Or if you don’t treat elder people with the virus and just let them die to save resources. Or if, thanks to the euro, you kept the most high tech industries and sold us those products easily while we sold you sun, beaches and fruit. It’s a great deal always trading microscopes for oranges, due to the added value of the commercial transactions.
But the most outrageous stuff is the complete lack of solidarity, bordering sociopathy. We are a union of countries, after all. And when we have 700-900 deaths EACH day in Spain and Italy for the last two weeks and a Finnish, German or Netherland politician talks about the economical conditions of the so-called Euro-bonds and why they reject it instead of worrying about thousands and thousand of deaths…it’s easy to understand the rage. Socialist Portugal Prime Minister Antonio Costa said it better: it was repugnant.
Stefan: I’m unsure as of yet whether this is mostly a crisis of manners, basically, or of substance. What I mean by that is that I’m very sceptical about the value and volume of Chinese “help”. For example, the first Chinese plane that arrived with much fanfare in Italy only brought them goods they had actually bought and paid, but the Chinese marketed it (brilliantly, I might add) as a relief mission.
I also know that Germany actually did send some help to other countries. Not a lot, mind you, but it matches the Chinese marketing stunt any day. My question would now be whether the help offered by China is more substantial than the EU, or whether basically everyone leaves Spain and to fend for itself and the EU is just tactless enough to combine it with the, to quote, repugnant lectures. And to avoid any misunderstandings: I think the EU rhetoric is repugnant as well, and I fully share the assessment you make.
Javi: I have to say that I don’t like China at all. It’s a communist dictatorship regime, a country with no freedom, where the virus came from after nasty censorship of the government and a lack of measures to avoid situations like the ones that originated it. It’s insane that the wet markets are legal in 2020. I don’t buy their official data about deaths at all, and you just need to talk with someone with contacts there to know that the Chinese government is not only lying but also trying to cover up their mistakes.
And of course, the Chinese help is pure propaganda. But right now, we need health material from China. We need that China buys our debt if the Spanish State launches a founding campaign of national bounds in order to rescue companies that may collapse after the crisis. Now we need to survive, because thousands of people and business are dying. After the crisis is over, we’ll discuss if those who helped us were pures of heart. But first I eat, then I ask.
I don’t have all the data to know if China is sending more material than the EU to Spain. I think so. But I am sure that they seem to send more. And it’s not only important to do things, but to show that you are doing it. Communication is key, and the EU does not communicate well: it looks like a bunch of bureaucrats with no impact on the real life of the people. The image is not good at all.
Stefan: You mentioned earlier the Spanish welfare state and its health system being generally good. I have no idea how either of them works, so could you sketch out a bit how they work in Spain? What benefits is one entitled to, and how is the health system organized and financed?
Javi: Almost 80% of the Spanish national budget (around 1 billion euros, the european billion, not the American) is dedicated to the support of the Welfare State, mostly health, education and retirement pensions. Make it 85% with the pensions to the unemployed. I would say that more than half of that money is invested in health. Spain is not a federal state like Germany or US, it’s even more decentralized: the regions (Comunidades Autónomas) have a direct legislation on many matters, including health and education. The central State gives money to the regions and they manage the health system as they want, following some laws of the Spanish state but each one having some specific legislation, too.
Basically, the Spanish Welfare State regarding the health system in Spain is a pure dream of socialism. You can go to any doctor in the public health system for free, in every emergency, they will do even the most complicated surgeries or treatments without you having to pay for a penny. There is not a co-pay. Spain has the biggest life expectancy of the world, surpassing even Japan, and that is due to weather, good and healthy food and, yes, most of all, the public health system. A private health system exists, of course: you may go there in order to avoid waiting two months for a non-urgent surgery, to avoid waiting a week for X-Rays, for physiotherapy, for an special treatment if you are pregnant or for a beauty surgery. It’s a commodity. But if you have a life or death situation, you will almost sure go to a public hospital.
How is it possible? Well, because it’s not sustainable. The system only works because doctors, nurses, etc have wages far lower than in other European countries. There are thousand of Spanish doctors and nurses all around the world, due to that. They have a great reputation due to the formation, and as I will explain later, most of them go outside after 10 years of studies and 4 or 5 working as doctors.
Moreover, there is an interesting system that helps healthcare called MIR (internal medical residency). In MIR, after your six years of studying your Medicine degree (or four of Nursery, Pharmacy, Psychology, etc), you can work in a public hospital with a reduced but ascending (and at the end, quite nice) wage while you focus in your speciality: Surgery, Neurology, Nephrology, Oncology, etc for four or five years. Almost every doctor in Spain goes to MIR after he or she finishes the degree in the university. A doctor starts their professional career and looks for a job after 10-11 years studying and 4-5 working as a doctor in an hospital.
Stefan: That means that you basically staff the public health system with trainees? That’s fascinating. So when you say “not sustainable”, does this mean not sustainable for the people involved, so you have a high turnover, or does it mean that you think the system itself isn’t sustainable and needs to be reformed?
Javi: Well, not exactly “trainees”: that’s people who are 24-25 years old, have finished the medical degree (six years) and took a difficult national exam one year after they finished the degree. Considering the mark you get you can pick the specialty and hospital where you want to the residency. It’s not easy to have a place in the best hospital in Madrid regarding heart surgeries, for example.
I said it’s not sustainable because it’s only afloat due to low salaries for doctors/nurses in the public healthcare, considering what doctors/nurses earn in other countries. And one day it may collapse. But even in this crisis it resisted (at a high cost), so I am optimistic. The system does not need to be reformed, it just needs more money to hire more doctors/nurses and pay more to the ones already working. I think that regarding material and techniques, the Spanish public health system is fine.
Stefan: Financing is the same problem everywhere, and dare I say, the countries in which financing has been more generous (or “wasteful” to its critics) are doing better than those that bet on economic efficiency as the most important benchmark.
Returning to the heart of the matter, the EU, do you think Corona will be the death knell for the union, and if so, what do you think will replace it? Spain is depending on the free movement of goods and people for its economy, after all. And do you are an end to the Euro as a net benefit or net loss?
Javi: First of all, I want to remind the Italy and Spain are the third and fourth biggest economies of the EU. The exit of both of them after what happened to the UK would be the de facto end of the current system. And as I explained, for many people in Spain and Italy, the EU seems to beg for an anti-EU-movement after the pathetic display during the crisis.
Regarding the Euro, Spain’s individual wealth was reduced after the implementation. Prices increased since 2002 – the Euro adoption – far more than the average growth in salaries. But the Euro helps in other matters such as international foundation and access to overseas markets. You cannot print your own money to help in a crisis, but neither does your currency depreciates so much after a crisis like 2008. It’s a complex topic.
I think that coronavirus will be the death of the good image of the EU in the South. Brexit also brings a dangerous precedent: you can leave EU, and EU will do nothing to stop you. And the UK was very important to the EU, mostly because it was a country that was giving more money than receiving from Brussels. When the health crisis ends and the financial crisis starts to impact everyone, I think the image of the EU will be even worse than now in the Mediterranean countries (and now it’s an all-time low) due to the lack of long-term commitment, the refusal of corona-bonds and the lack of empathy of Holland, Finland, Germany, etc.
About the actual death…I don’t think so, even if Spain and Italy are outraged about the lack of European presence during the crisis. In a dream scenario, we may leave EU, form an association of countries with Portugal, Italy, France, Greece, Croatia, etc, a Mediterranean-EU with special deals for example with the Brexit UK (the country with more tourists here and with thousand of retired elders living in Spanish coast), US, China, etc. If UK got at the end a nice deal regarding movement of people and capitals after Brexit, why not in an Spexit or Itexit?
But that is not realistic. Tourism is a key of our economy and sharing a currency with other countries helps here, after all. I think that Spain and Italy will swallow the deal and the EU funding programs. But inside, we will never forget what happened, like we never forgot the North’s PIGS narrative after the 2008 crisis. Nationalism will rise, anti EU parties will grow, people won’t care about Brussels policies…but the current system will continue. Mostly because the richest and most powerful benefit from it.
Stefan: That is a rather gloomy outlook, but I can’t say I haven’t been prepared for it, given your initial statements. I have one final question on the topic: Why do you think wasn’t the impact of the EU’s conduct during the financial crisis, which was arguably much worse in its effects (albeit not in the looks of it), as strong and threatening to European cohesion as it the Corona-crisis?
Javi: I think that Corona-crisis is far bigger than any other crisis since WWII because people are dying every day, directly, because of of it. You could realize in the 2008 crisis that a lot of people would lose their job, would earn less money or work more hours for the same wage.
But you were not seeing an ice ring transformed into a morgue. You were not hearing how elders are not treated in a hospital because there are simply not enough intensive care units for them, that they’re dying alone and being stored in a coffins somewhere without a burial, without their families, due to the curfew and quarantine. You wouldn’t have a regular daily cipher of deaths compared to an actual war for weeks. And the EU simply was not there to help.
No EU flags on doctors traveling here to help. No EU flags on airplanes with health material. Not a high official of the EU telling us on TV that they will help us in everything we need without asking for compensation, because the priority is to save lives now and we are part of the EU family, so we care for each other. Instead, you turn on TV and check what the EU is doing, and the only thing you see of the EU is an economy minister from Holland or Germany saying than the South is responsible for this crisis because of their lack of commitment to austerity policies and that they will not agree to corona-bonds because they don’t trust us. Hearing that piece of news and minutes later hearing that “only” 700 people died yesterday due to coronavirus in my country – the EU seems like a joke.
Stefan: Thanks for doing this! If you have any final words, something we haven’t covered yet, it’s now or never!
Javi: Thanks a lot for this opportunity! I am sorry my words sound so dark and sad, but this crisis is devastating for my country, the one of the world with more deaths per habitant. And the people that die are not numbers, are the parents of grandparents of family and friends. Maybe in a few months I will have a different look, but now I just want health, justice and the promise of future help.
Stefan: Best wishes to you and yours, and let’s hope that there’s a brighter future ahead for all of us.