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Modern Spain: Bullfighting, lottery and politics

Ernest Hemingway was a huge a fan of bullfighting. He was also a huge fan of hunting and fishing, and eventually shot himself. Most people, outside of Spain, find bullfighting distasteful.

It seems a significant part of Spain feels the same way.

In December, 2009, the Catalan parliament agreed to a petition banning bullfighting, a sport synonymous with bravery, glamour, dust and death, which, as much as anything, has come to symbolise Spain. It could become law this year.

In the UK, the Labour government banned fox hunting, although it seems to continue unabated, and, just as that ban was seen as a socialist curtailment of upper-class pleasures, the Madrid media sees this threat as a taunting, red-cloak waving dismissal of the rest of Spain.

It certainly has little to do with animal welfare, more a collective nose-thumbing in an election year, seen as rampant separatism by others. It actually reveals a huge amount about Spanish politics and its identity.

It is fundamentally about Catalan autonomy. In 2006, the Spanish parliament passed an ‘autonomy charter’ and approved a referendum for Catalonia’s 5.5m voters. Spain’s constitutional court has been cogitating over this ever since, and a decision from the judges is said to be imminent.

Impatient, 167 towns who wanted autonomy held their own informal referenda and won 95% of the vote. However, this was on a turnout of only 27% of the electorate. If the cosmopolitan citizens of Barcelona and the less fervent Catalonians turn out come official polling, the results may be different, in fact almost definitely a resounding ‘no’.

In 1978, the Spanish constitution named the three key regions, the Basque Country, Catalonia and Galicia. The powers of these three, in a state which already had 17 regional governments, has never been fully ascertained. It has caused struggle and bloodshed ever since.

Later this year, the Catalans will vote for their parliament. The last seven years has seen a coalition between socialists, the far left and extreme separatists in power, but Convergence and Union (CiU), who ran Catalonia for 23 years, may return to power.

The CiU, if it does not win an absolute majority, may be able to do a deal with Spain’s hamstrung prime minister, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, by offering him Madrid and hence a more stable government. People outside Catalonia hope this will happen to enable the government to sort out its parlous economic position.

The Spanish are, broadly speaking, pro-European. Before Spain’s planned referendum on the European Treaty, in 2005, their prime minister, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, told everyone about the billions of euros in subsidies Spain had received since joining the EU in 1986. He said nearly half their road network had been built with European money and they should vote yes out of gratitude.

Joining Europe, after the dictatorial reign of Franco, was a form of liberation for the Spanish, a symbol of democracy and the European constitution had hugely positive overtones.

The Spanish love of Europe explains why Mr Zapatero’s government is celebrating the fact that, at the beginning of January, Spain took over the six-month presidency of the EU and Zapatero has launched a 2020 strategy for Europe, a ten-year plan to boost competitiveness to help pay for Europe’s generous welfare systems.

Unfortunately for Zapatero, the rest of Europe’s reaction has been less than enthusiastic; Spanish unemployment is near 20% and many think it is outrageous he should try to lecture Europe on its economic recovery.

The six-month presidency is an anachronism. Herman Van Rompuy is the new council president and is annoyed at having to share the stage with Zapatero, who is hosting an EU-US summit in Madrid in May, to welcome president Obama to Spanish soil. The bureaucrats think it should be Rompuy’s job.

Eonomists say Spain represents broad European trends; it joined Europe and became a success story, it modernised and its economy flourished, but its current economic frailties are a blow to the model of convergence.

There is an inherent problem being a midsized country in a world dominated by emerging powers. Spain has had to fight to be invited to G20 summits and world leaders thought there were too many Europeans present, discussing how the world should be run, from a parochial base.

If you are not a superpower, it is hard to be listened to, and Spain, like many midsized European countries, runs the risk of being totally ignored, but Zapatero’s presidency gives him the opportunity to make some noise. The next six months will be interesting.

The Spanish economy may be failing, bullfighting may end up banned, but one Spanish institution is flourishing.

El Gordo (the Fatty), Spain’s national lottery, is a huge success story and last Christmas it paid out €2.3 billion in prize money.

It is a clever business model and although the Spanish are not generally big gamblers, they spend over €12 billion a year on lottery tickets, which represents 1% of total GDP.

Around 75% of the nation buys lottery tickets and are encouraged to buy €200 tickets, which are split into décimos (tenths), for €20 each. Most people set up syndicates at work or with friends. There are huge jackpots on offer, as well as smaller prizes, which means a one-in-six chance of winning something.

The lottery in other countries is often derided as a tax on the poor, but in Spain it is part of the social fabric, syndicates crossing all social classes. One banker said: “I don’t want to be the only idiot who has to turn up to work if the office number wins.”

The Spanish government gets 30% of the revenue from ticket sales, which makes it the biggest winner.

Spain is a divided and fascinating country, where tradition and self-identity collide with the modern world, often with uneasy results. For the next six months it feels that it is holding centre-stage, and in terms of Europe, it probably is.

The Spaniard is a bad servant, but a worse master.

(Old English saying)

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