This week, the Spanish Statistical Office (Instituto Nacional de Estadística; INE) released its annual demographic report. It was all bad news; the population of the country is decreasing, mainly due to the returning home or relocation to other, less depressed economies of immigrants — over half a million of them. Combine these data with others that have recently been compiled by the INE and the future appears to be looking bleak indeed for Spain. The rate of unemployment for the last quarter of 2013 was 25.73% — down a whopping 0.05% from the previous quarter. That’s almost six million men and women (5.935, to be precise) with no jobs in a country of 46.6 million. The number of new mortgages registered in February was down 33% on last year. Your average Spaniard is not feeling optimistic enough about the future to buy a new apartment. The consumer price index (CPI) is also showing a 0.2% annual decline, something that has alarmed the boffins at the European Central Bank who are living in mortal fear of the word deflation. The falling CPI is probably as a result of weak demand; a shrinking population of skittish, fearful and unemployed or overworked citizens earning less year upon year is not likely to be rushing out to the shops to fling its money around. Throw into this mix a 3% annual decrease in the Export Price Index and 1.2% annual decrease in the Gross Domestic Product during 2013’s final quarter and you get the distinct impression of a country sinking further and further into a depression that some are now predicting will last until 2020.
An interesting question would be: if Spain is so clearly a sinking ship why are only immigrants abandoning it? Why aren’t native Spanish people emigrating? The answer is that they are — only we don’t have the official figures for it. This has to do with how the INE performs its calculations. To find out who is living in the country, the INE goes to the town halls of Spain’s thousands of municipalities. The town halls, you see, have a register of everyone living in their municipality; if resident in a municipality, one is legally obliged to register with the town hall. If one moves house and finds oneself living in a different municipality, as might easily be the case if one were to move neighbourhoods in a big city like Madrid, one has to put oneself through the misery of getting all the documentation together for the bureaucratic nightmare that constitutes registering with your new town hall; spending the morning queuing in a thronged and sweltering office and crossing one’s fingers that one has dotted all the i’s and crossed all the t’s and doesn’t have to return to repeat the process for want of a form being filled out incorrectly or some document being out of date or missing a stamp.
Now, all well and good, you might say. The INE gets the figures of who is living in each municipality and adds them up and arrives at a figure for the total population of the country. Nothing more simple than that. But what happens if you’re a young Spaniard emigrating to London or Berlin or Toronto. Amidst all sadness and hurly-burly of saying goodbye to friends, getting all your necessaries together for the flight and arranging accommodation online for one’s new country is one going to bother de-registering with the town hall? I know several Spaniards who lived abroad for years but were still officially registered with their town hall back home and, thus, still officially counted as living in Spain.
So how many such emigrants might there be? We are forced to rely on rough calculations and anecdotal evidence. The Fundación Alternativas think tank has come up with a formula for estimating the numbers of Spanish emigrants. Spanish citizens living abroad are meant to register with the Spanish consulate in their host country. Because of the paperwork this involves and potential complication of matters such as inheritance, the Fundación Alternativas has calculated that only one fifth of Spaniards in any given country register with their consulate. Again, from personal experience I know this to be true. The Fundación Alternativas has, therefore, collected data on how many Spanish citizens are registered with their consulates abroad — and multiplied this figure by five. They have calculated that, between 2008 and 2012, 700,000 people, mostly younger people, left the country — an annual rate of roughly 150,000. So can we say that in 2013, as well as half a million foreigners, around 150,000 young Spanish left the country? I’ve heard that anecdotally this figure may be as high as 200,00.
This emigration is a nothing short of a tragedy for Spain. Given the alarming demographic profile of the population (something I’ll write about next week), the greying country needs all the young people it can get, be they natives or immigrants, to fund the social services and pensions keeping the huge block of their retired family, friends and neighbours going. With emigration haemorrhaging what is the country’s lifeblood the country is at risk of becoming a creaking, moribund gerontocracy — the nation-scale equivalent of Oliver Goldsmith’s The Deserted Village.