Storms in the Mediterranean, calmed in the latter half of last year, now whip up again. Greece’s woes hardly surface in the rest of the world now, but they’re deep and the people remain restive. Seamen struck last week over unpaid wages and extended the strike this past Sunday. The strike cuts off the many islands around the country, and limits exports and imports. For a country so defined by the sea and shipping, it takes on an iconic quality. A 24-hour general strike has been called for Feb. 20: Golden Dawn, the far-right party that targets immigrants and that stands third in the polls, held a thousands-strong rally in Athens on Saturday. No one can say whether the lid will stay on until matters improve – or, indeed, if matters will improve.
Greece’s recent history makes its troubles largely discounted internationally. But along the world’s most famed stretch of water, from which both European and Middle Eastern civilizations drew their inspiration, is Spain, a much larger economy, a weightier state, one whose Spexit could not be contemplated, which is why its failing banks received special care and attention from the European Central Bank to stay in business.
Mariano Rajoy, Spain’s prime minister, had been neatly packaged by the news media as “dull but honest” – one who would apply himself with patience and a clean conscience to the hard grind of leading Spain out of its post-bubble miseries. That narrative was brought to an end last week with the publication in the daily El Pais of details of the parallel accounts that one of Rajoy’s former colleagues, the onetime treasurer of the center-right People Party (PP), Luis Barcenas, had kept. These purport to show that Barcenas had paid out generous and secret amounts, from a Swiss-based slush fund, to senior party officials, including Rajoy. Barcenas, treasurer from 1990 to 2008, had already resigned because he appears implicated in a separate scandal involving kickbacks to PP officials in return for public contracts.
These and many other scandals now rock the Spanish political scene. The editor of the Spanish edition of Foreign Policy, Cristina Manzano, writes that “this cancer has reached all levels of institutions and society, from the King’s son-in-law to major political parties, from small and large municipalities to NGOs and foundations, from the Chinese mafia to the Russian mafia, from lifelong career politicians to flamenco celebrities.”
Suddenly, Spain, apparently stabilized and in good hands, is fragile under questionable leadership. It’s not clear yet whether Rajoy is guilty of what the Barcenas documents show; he has denied the allegations in unambiguous terms, and his party has a large majority. Yet the European markets lost their cool on Monday, and the Spanish 10-year bond yields zipped up once more to last year’s levels, after having settled down nicely.