40 years of spanish democracy

France’s Manuel Valls: “Spaniards must ask themselves what it means to be Spanish”

In a debate to analyze democracy and the challenges ahead, leaders discuss Spain’s inferiority complex

Former French prime minister Manuel Valls at the debate.
Former French prime minister Manuel Valls at the debate.ÁLVARO GARCÍA

Former French Prime Minister Manuel Valls suggested on Tuesday that Spaniards need to debate their own identity in order to reinforce their common project as a nation.

Speaking at España 40-40, a debate series organized by EL PAÍS to discuss four decades of Spanish democracy and the challenges up ahead, Valls said that Spaniards should ask themselves “what it means to be Spanish.”

Spain is an inhibited power without an important role

Moisés Naím, political analyst

“Spain has not answered that question yet. The Spain narrative is missing,” said Valls, who was himself born in Barcelona.

The French politician was part of a panel of experts that included EL PAÍS columnist Moisés Naim, former US ambassador to Spain Alan D. Solomont, National Transplant Organization director Beatriz Domínguez-Gil, film director Rodrigo Cortés and the architect Rafael Moneo. The speakers were introduced by EL PAÍS editor-in-chief Antonio Caño.

Valls believes that the 40-year-long Franco regime, and the fact that many people still associate shows of patriotism with that era, helps explain why Spaniards have failed to “talk about the homeland” in all the time since the dictator died, back in 1975.

Alan D. Solomont speaking at the debate forum.
Alan D. Solomont speaking at the debate forum.Santi Burgos

It is imperative, he said, to craft a narrative that synthesizes the need for an open world while fomenting a sense of belonging to a country, group or family.

“All countries are suffering from a cultural identity crisis because of globalization, the political crisis, social media, the refugee problem,” said Valls. “All this poses the question of who we are, and I think Spain has yet to answer this question: what does it mean to be a Spaniard today?”

The French politician said that there are two options for doing politics in Spain. There is “the nationalist, populist way, which is to always blame somebody – Madrid, capitalism, Brussels, Washington, foreigners, Muslims...

Spain sells itself short. It doesn’t exude the confidence that I think it warrants

Alan D. Solomont, former ambassador

“But there is also another answer, which is an open answer while also being proud of who we are,” added Valls. “And I think that Spain can be proud of these 40 years of democracy, of its history, of its cultivated men and women, of its system, even though everything can naturally be improved.”

Valls insisted that Spain is too humble: “A new patriotism needs to be consolidated in Spain. France has a superiority complex. Spain has an inferiority complex.”

Alan D. Solomont, who served as the US ambassador between 2009 and 2013 and currently chairs the US-Spain Chamber of Commerce, agreed with this view.

“Spain sells itself short. It doesn’t exude the confidence that I think it warrants. And this lack of confidence is inconsistent with all the things that Spain has to be proud of,” he said. Solomont first visited Spain and Portugal as a young man in 1971, then returned 40 years later as ambassador.

Other speakers agreed that Spaniards underestimate their own shared successes. Nobody is harder on Spaniards than Spaniards themselves, they said.

EL PAÍS editor-in-chief Antonio Caño at the event.
EL PAÍS editor-in-chief Antonio Caño at the event.Santi Burgos

People abroad view us as extremely well prepared, as a country full of ideas, and they admire our flexibility, our innate ability to find solutions,” said Rodrigo Cortés, a movie director who has made a name for himself in Hollywood with films such as the 2010 thriller Buried.

“Spaniards are above all hung-up people who are best at underrating themselves,” he continued. “We are constantly using the term ‘third-world’ to talk about conditions here; that is, until we go abroad and see what a hospital in England looks like.”

Moisés Naím, a political analyst, said that part of the problem is that people are not getting involved in politics. “Parties are viewed as the natural habitat of opportunists and the corrupt,” he noted. “This needs to be reversed. Politics needs to go back to being the place for those who want to change the world. Democracy is not possible without reinforcing political parties.”

Naím added that “Spaniards have suffered from weak, divided governments, political fragmentation and not enough power to get traction: Spain is an inhibited power without an important role.”

The España 40-40 debate series is being sponsored by BBVA, Iberdrola, Iberia, Repsol, Santander and Telefónica. The next debates will be held in Brussels on December 18 and London in January.

English version by Susana Urra.

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