Spain - the new sick man of Europe

As the peseta is devalued for the fourth time since 1992, the gulf between the rich and poor nations of the EU becomes increasingly marked. Elizabeth Nash traces the rise and fall of Spain's dream of becoming one of Europe's core nations
For the fourth time in two and a half years, the Spanish government has had to devalue the peseta. The decision, a bitter one for the ruling Socialists, was forced upon them by the continuous instability of recent weeks. It forces them to confront the possibility of eventual withdrawal from the European exchange rate mechanism, which would be a shattering blow to Spain's once euphoric expectations of European unity.

The European ideal has been at the heart of the Socialists' vision of a new post-Franco democratic Spain since the party came to power in 1982. At first they saw EC membership as essentially a political guarantee that the generals would never return. Later, as Spain achieved membership in 1986 at the beginning of Spain's economic take-off, the government came to identify the development of a modern prosperous economy with being at the heart of European decision-making.

The country enjoyed spectacular economic and political success in the second half of the Eighties. It became Europe's wunderkind. The benefits of membership, with a relatively cheap labour market offering an irresistible lure for investors Europe-wide, was one factor.

But perhaps even more important was the explosive impact of the international market upon a country that had been corseted for decades during the autarchic isolation of the Franco years. "Mediterranean underdevelopment" was how one Socialist leader recently described the condition of the country his party inherited in 1982. Opened to the force of the world economy in boom, the Spanish economy, and the society as a whole, blossomed.

The boom generated an enormous amount of wealth that was flaunted by a new generation known as "los beautiful people". Much of it was unearned: it came from the sale of family businesses to foreign investors, from stock market speculation - much more profitable in those years than actually running a business - from a boom in land and property prices and from graft. By 1992 Spain was some 40 per cent richer in real terms than in 1980 and most Spaniards were better off than ever before.

The boom turned to bust as the Eighties gave way to the Nineties, though the splash and dazzle of Seville's Expo 92, the Barcelona Olympics and the celebration of the 500th anniversary of Columbus's voyage to America - described cynically by some as "bread and circuses" - helped keep the momentum going.

In the nature of the boom lay the seeds of the downturn. Expansion started to slacken off as early as 1986 and by 1992 the recession was biting hard. It was to bite deeper and last longer than for most EC members.

Things might not have rebounded so badly against the ruling Socialists if so many prominent heroes of the boom had not stumbled into scandals of corruption and greed. The flamboyant banker Mario Conde, a son of a customs official who became chairman of the country's most aristocratic bank, Banesto, plunged from grace in 1993 accused of criminal fraud and embezzlement. The chairman of the Bank of Spain, Mariano Rubio, was disgraced on suspicion of tax evasion.

The latest fallen idol - more damaging to the Socialists for being a party member - is Luis Roldan, appointed in 1986 as head of the Civil Guard, who did a runner seven years later with a fortune estimated at 5bn pesetas, apparently pillaged from interior ministry funds. Last week, after 10 months on the run, Mr Roldan was captured amid much congratulatory fanfare in ministerial corridors. But his capture is itself shrouded in murk and could heap more embarrassment on the government of Felipe Gonzalez, which is already covered in shame at having appointed the man in the first place, then having let him slip through their fingers and then trawling three continents for 10 months before bringing him in.

The importance of all this is that further political convulsions on the Roldan front will feed into the fate of the peseta. And the fate of the peseta - specifically whether or not it is forced to drop out of the European exchange rate mechanism - is probably the most important determinant of whether or not Mr Gonzalez calls early elections.

Since the elections of 1993 in which his party failed to win an absolute majority, Mr Gonzalez has been backed by the 17 MPs of the conservative Catalan Convergence and Union party. A CiU spokesman said yesterday they would continue to back the ruling Socialists "as long as the economy continues to grow". Inflation, already a worry, can be expected to rise now that devaluation will make imports more expensive. An interest rate rise could jeopardise a recovery that for the moment remains unconvincing. The moment the Catalans decide to back out, Mr Gonzalez is sunk.

Mr Gonzalez, and the Catalans, are desperate to stay in government at least until the end of the year to reap the expected benefits from Spain's presidency of the European Union which starts in July. But ordinary Spaniards are disillusioned with the whole saga of European unity, which many feel was just another disappointment fraudulently sold to them by Socialist leaders.

A survey conducted in November 1994, the results of which were issued in January this year, found that Spaniards, who on the eve of EC membership in 1986 were passionate pro-Europeans, had turned in less than 10 years into a nation of Euro-sceptics. The survey, commissioned by the European Commission, found that 68 per cent of Spaniards thought that Spain had little or no influence within the European Union and 44 per cent thought that the result of European integration had not been as beneficial as they had hoped when they joined in 1986. Only the Italians were more disenchanted.

With the expansion of Europe to the east and the north, Spain fears it may be left stranded on the southern fringe, destined to remain the poor relation, dependent on ever bigger subsidies from Brussels. Such a prospect would be particularly galling for Mr Gonzalez, so committed is he to the idea that Spain belongs in the heart of Europe. But the belief that Spain could catch up economically with Germany or even France or Britain and stand shoulder to shoulder with them in the engine-room of European economic development now seems fanciful. As the barriers between European countries come down, and Europe-wide competition becomes fiercer, Spain may even fall further behind.

The continuing weakness and marginality of the peseta which this week's crisis revealed must give Spain's rulers cause to wonder if their ambitions beyond the Pyrenees will ever be realised.