Staying out of the euro has spared us a Spanish-style catastrophe
Half-built flats and soaring unemployment show that the boom has turned to gloom on the Costa del Sol. And it's a fate that could easily have befallen Britain.
By Jeff Randall
Last Updated: 5:43AM GMT 09 Jan 2009
For a place that's called the Sunshine Coast, Spain's Costa del Sol was unusually wet and cold last week. Friday and Saturday were particularly miserable in Marbella, as the rain lashed across the main promenade, forcing restaurants to bring in tables and pull down shutters.
It was as though the weather gods had decided to reflect the country's economic outlook – which is becoming darker by the day. What many in Spain had regarded (foolishly) as an eternal summer of expansion, driven by a breakneck construction boom, has turned into a winter of plunging property prices, failing businesses and an epidemic of redundancies.
Spain's traditional new year greeting is próspero año nuevo. But even in this part of Andalucia, a favourite playground of wealthy sunseekers and golf fanatics, it is hard to find locals who are expecting prosperity in 2009. For a growing number of workers and small-business owners, anything better than a sharp decline in income will be greeted as a triumph.
Like the toros bravos that die in the corrida, Spain's bull market began with impressive vigour but ended up being dragged off through the dirt. Unemployment hit three million yesterday, about 13 per cent of the workforce (double the rate in the UK), the worst it has been for 12 years. Nearly one million of those without jobs have lost them during the past 12 months.
The speed of descent, from fiesta into crisis, has shocked the country's political class and commentariat. Inflation has dropped from 5.3 per cent to 1.5 per cent since the summer. According to the newspaper El Pais: "This situation was impensable [unthinkable] in July".
As historians begin to assess damage from the credit crunch, Spain will surely be singled out as a classic study for what can go wrong inside a monetary union when the policy requirements of its members become hopelessly misaligned. It is simply not possible to pursue the best interests of every participant when some nations are running trade and fiscal surpluses while others clock up huge deficits.
Ten years after it was launched, the euro is propelling Spain towards disaster. In giving up control of domestic interest rates to the European Central Bank, Madrid handed over a vital instrument of macroeconomic management. It is learning to regret that.
For the early part of this millennium, that loss of power seemed not to matter: Spain's outrageous (and in some cases illegal) construction frenzy hid a multitude of sins. At the peak, about 800,000 homes were being built annually on the basis that demand from foreign buyers was limitless.
That dream has vanished, along with the over-supply of cheap money that funded it. Drive down the E-15, the main motorway link between Malaga and Gibraltar, and you will see block after block of half-built apartments, connected neither to essential utilities nor to financial reality. They stand as temples to a religion that ceased to exist when the bubble popped.
The Spanish economy is weak; it needs lower interest rates and a softer currency. Such a prospect, however, doesn't suit Germany, the eurozone's dominant force, so Madrid has to sit and suffer while its people cry for help.
Discomfort is palpable in tourist centres where the purchasing power of British visitors and second-home owners has played a pivotal role in boosting local enterprise. Germans and Swedes have been important, also, but it is on the British that the leisure sector in southern Spain has depended most.
A quick scan of the exchange-rate charts explains why. In the summer of 2000, about 18 months after it was launched, the euro was out of fashion on the world's currency markets. At that time, £1 bought €1.75, making British travellers feel especially wealthy when holidaying in Spain.
Today, however, as the British economy sinks into recession, prompting the Bank of England to slash interest rates to 1.5 per cent (the lowest level in the central bank's 315-year history), it is sterling that looks like a six-stone weakling.
Many in the queue at Gatwick airport's Travelex desk last weekend were shocked to discover that the pound had fallen to below parity against the euro. For them, Spain has become an expensive experience. Old jokes about Costa Notta Lotta are no longer relevant, much less funny.
I was treated by a friend to a round of golf at Rio Real, a middle-ranking course, that is by no means among the priciest. He was charged £172 for two (no buggy). Dinner for three in a modest pizza joint came to £75. One must assume that hoteliers from Morecambe to Margate are cheering wildly.
Competing currencies invariably fluctuate on a daily basis, but not all in the City are expecting a swift recovery of sterling against the euro (even though it has picked up in the past few days). HSBC believes: "In the UK… a weaker currency seems desirable to policy makers… in our eyes all roads lead to a stronger euro."
If that analysis proves correct, parts of Spain will face devastation, and social policies that seemed generous during the go-go years will quickly become unaffordable. For example, in some instances the state pays 70 per cent of salary for up to two years when a worker is made unemployed. How will that be funded if, as some are predicting, Spain's jobless total reaches four million in 2010?
Adding to Madrid's woes is the extraordinary influx of five million immigrants, who boosted the population by about 15 per cent between 1998 and last year. It was always assumed that in tough times many would return home. But for penniless fruit pickers from Africa, life in Spain, even in the harshest economic climate, is often better than what they left behind. The number of foreigners claiming dole payments has doubled and there are mounting tensions as native job-seekers slip down the food chain.
Marbella is not used to life on a budget. Shopkeepers, newspaper vendors and bar staff seem baffled by the downturn in their fortunes. On Sunday, my family and I had dinner in a seafront bodega and were the only customers all night. "What has happened to los Ingleses?" asked the waiter.
The answer is that the United Kingdom never joined the euro. As a result, our government and monetary authorities are free to adopt policies that suit our needs. In today's circumstances, that means the freedom to live with a devaluing currency. This hurts those of us who can still afford to visit Spain, and is unfortunate for British pensioners living abroad, but is a small price to pay for the revival of our domestic industries.
Had Britain been locked into Europe's single currency, at an exchange rate far higher than today's, there is good reason to believe that we, too, would be suffering double-digit unemployment. You won't read this very often under my byline, but Gordon Brown played a blinder in keeping us out.
in The Telegraph