Spain has taken a bruising in the international media recently. Madrid's street cleaners' strike in November prompted German daily the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung to comment: "The capital of Spain has no more money, not even to pay to keep its streets clean," adding: "Its inhabitants are not only suffering a strike, but also the consequences of having the wrong person in charge of City Hall."
Meanwhile, not to be outdone, The New York Times noted on November 13 that the upcoming soccer match between Spain and its former African colony of Equatorial Guinea, had sparked protests among opposition politicians, saying it would bolster the reputation of the country's leader, Teodoro Obiang, who has kept an iron grip on the tiny, oil-rich country since seizing power in a coup in 1979.
There's more. A trip by Prince Felipe to Brazil to meet senior business leaders was postponed after his official plane broke down, and the replacement was under repair. Then there was a provincial Spanish court's ruling, more than a decade after the event, that nobody was to blame for the Prestige disaster, in which a tanker sank off the coast of Galicia and released thousands of tons of oil that washed ashore.
And to further add to the country's already tarnished reputation, a European Commission education spokesman described the Spanish government's arguments for cutting Erasmus student grants as "garbage." Even the issue of the injuries caused to would-be migrants by razor wire on top of the fences in the North African enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla was covered by the international press.
Just about every story about Spain covered abroad is bad news
In fact just about every story about Spain covered by the international media is bad news: Argentina is investigating alleged crimes committed during the final years of the Franco regime; Madrid's third consecutive bid to host the Olympic Games failed miserably; the EU Court of Human Rights admonished the country for human rights violations by refusing to allow ETA prisoners access to early release programs; while the Bloomberg news agency revealed that the Prime Minister's Office had tried to prevent it from releasing part of an interview with Mariano Rajoy that dealt with his party's former treasurer, Luis Bárcenas, who has told a judge he had channeled cash donations from construction magnates into leaders' pockets, and was found to have stashed 48 million euros in Swiss bank accounts. Iñaki Urdangarin, the king's son-in-law, was also charged this year with embezzling six million euros of public funds.
At the same time, Spain's five-year economic slump, which has forced it to adopt tight austerity laws, has exposed how cozy relations between politicians and construction magnates had fed a disastrous housing bubble.
Nevertheless, Spain's image internationally seems to be on the mend. The Real Instituto Elcano think tank is about to release a survey based on 8,000 interviews carried out in eight countries showing that Europeans and Americans still rate the country's institutions highly.
Javier Noya, head of the independent Image of Spain Observatory, says the key to strengthening Spain's image internationally is improved economic performance. "We started to see a change in September, with Morgan Stanley's report entitled Viva España, or with Bill Gates' investment in FCC. We have passed our exams with flying colors," says Noya.
Carlos Espinosa de los Monteros is responsible for the Foreign Ministry's strategy to improve Spain's image abroad. "It was my luck to take over this post just at the moment when the country's image was at its lowest," he says. "But things are going better now."
Espinosa plays down the effects of so much bad news on the Spain brand. "There was a garbage strike in Naples that lasted a year, and it had no effect on Italy's image," he points out.
A garbage strike in Naples lasted a year, and it had no effect on Italy's image"
Outside of Spain people are neither aware of the scandals that have affected just about every institution in the country, nor are they much interested, he adds.
But Raúl Peralba of Positioning Systems says that incidents such as Prince Felipe's plane breaking down project badly among important decision-makers abroad. "It gave the impression that we can't deal with anything unexpected. They should have stuck him in the cockpit with the pilot on a regular flight," he says.
Fernando Prado of the Reputation Institute — which puts together an annual report on how countries are perceived internationally, ranking factors such as their institutions, quality of life and development — says that for a newspaper headline to change the way people around the world see a country, the news has to be very bad. "The rescue of the miners in Chile in 2010 did the country's image a lot of good, while in Mexico, if drugs violence increases again, its image will decline," he says.
"But these have to be news stories that occupy the front pages of the world's newspapers for days on end. The street cleaners' strike in Madrid obviously didn't help, but the coverage by our own media was more worrying, because it gave the impression that City Hall has run out of money," Prado adds.
The ongoing economic crisis has affected Spain's image negatively. According to the Reputation Institute, Spain has slipped from 12th in the international image league in 2009 to 18th this year, at the same time as Italy and France have managed to improve their image abroad.
In the first years of the crisis, the country's economic standing slipped, but over the last year, its institutions have come under fire. "It is difficult not to think that the many corruption cases have not had something to do with perceptions about the strength of our institutions," admits Prado.
He points out that it is not just the country's international standing that has been questioned. "Normally, Spaniards give their country a rating that is at least 10 points higher overall than, say, foreigners do. This was the case still in 2008: we had a better image of ourselves than the rest of the world. But since then, Spaniards' own perception of Spain has declined year on year, and by 2013, was lower than that of foreigners."
Espinosa says that scandals are for domestic consumption only, and cites the well-known anecdote often told by Spanish philosopher and writer José Ortega y Gasset more than a century ago after a visit to Germany: "Ortega y Gasset was in Heidelberg, where his hosts showed him an article in a magazine that was very critical of Spain. Ortega read it and said, 'I don't know who wrote this, but I'm sure it was a Spaniard'."