Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Has Barcelona Lost Its Shine?

There is an evident sensation of crisis surrounding Cataluña this summer, and particularly Barcelona. The city that seemed to have entered a bright new era with the holding of the Olympics in 1992 now seems threatened by imminent collapse if we believe all that we read in the press. The electricity supply to whole areas of the city is kept going by a series of temporary generators following the collapse of a badly placed cable in a substation. The commuter trains are not working well, with passengers being left stranded by repeated train failures. The airport seems to be close to collapse, and there are tremendous traffic jams stretching along the Mediterranean. Couple this with a view that Madrid has overtaken it as the centre of economic power and it might seem that the city is passing through hard times

Well, not quite. It does appear that the electricity supply for the region is held together by sticky tape, paper clips and strategically placed chunks of chewing gum; but that’s not a new situation and nor is it unique to Barcelona. In my first job in Madrid I worked in an office where we had some servers with uninterruptible power supplies, notionally because they were going to be used in Asia. In reality, this feature became much more useful in Spain in a summer when virtually every major thunderstorm seemed to bring a power cut as an inevitable by-product. The companies responsible, Endesa and Red Electrica de España engage in mutual finger pointing whilst admitting that there are serious problems with the network.

The AVE arrives in Barcelona....

The airport is clearly operating at full capacity, but that is because air travel has increased enormously, we are in peak season and the construction of new terminals can hardly keep pace. When a new runway was opened to increase capacity at Madrid airport a few years back they said that it was operating at full capacity from the first minute it came into operation. A new terminal is due to open in Barcelona in 2009, but surely we are reaching the stage where continual airport expansion has to be seen as undesirable. The same applies to the roads, building new roads just encourages more and more people to take their cars everywhere they go. Madrid is surrounded by relatively new stretches of road, but I don’t hear many people talking about how quickly they get to work in the mornings, nor does the road going to Valencia and the Mediterranean become any easier to negotiate in summer.

Which brings us to the trains. The regional commuter system in Cataluña does have problems and seems to lack investment, and is an area where action should be taken because it relieves pressure on the road system. At the same time, some of the delays and problems are being caused by the arrival in Barcelona of the long awaited high speed train connection (the AVE), which will make Barcelona-Madrid by train seem like a good idea.

The nationalist parties in the region have predictably attempted to suggest that all of these problems occur because Cataluña is discriminated against when it comes to investment. Creating a sensation of victimisation is a key part of their political practice, indeed without it there would be little basis for much of what they preach. Yet, apart from the issue of the commuter trains, there is no real sign that this is the case. The electricity companies are private organisations who hate having to invest if they can avoid it, preferring to spend their money on promoting takeover bids and making sure that their senior executives want for nothing. They need to be forced to maintain the network instead of just dreaming about their share price. Real or not, the sensation of crisis will worry the government as Cataluña remains a key source of votes for them. So ministers are being despatched to Barcelona, and holidays are interrupted as damage control operations commence. Summer can be a dangerous time for a government with a general election just around the corner.


Tom said...

My two centimos: Barcelona's fine. But there most certainly has been a failure to invest in infrastructure by the Madrid government... it's unfair to suggest that ERC or CiU are merely crying crocodile tears in order to pursue their political agenda. The PSC won't blame Madrid for problems because they're in power and it would be an admission of failure: never going to happen. The PP will naturally never agree that Catalonia is under-funded because one of their key domestic policies is the fomentation of hatred and aggression against Catalonia and the Catalans.

Under the PP, the Spanish state invested 10 times more money in Madrid than in Barcelona. Even with Generalitat investment and accounting for the difference in size of the two cities, this still represents a significant level of under-investment in Barcelona. But why would the PP want to spend here anyway? They'll never get any votes in BCN so there's no point.

Graeme said...

Maybe there is a difference between investment in Madrid and Barcelona Tom, but the problems that have occurred this summer are not because of that - with the possible exception of the trains. In any case, the investment problems that Barcelona or Madrid could have are nothing compared to those of Teruel, or many other forgotten regions. The problem is that the nationalist parties will never recognise that simple reality - it's not so easy to be a victim when there are places where the trains don't even reach.

Tom said...

Yeah that's true. But one could argue that the problems with Renfe are due to the Madrid government's moves toward privatising the company, or that Fecsa Endesa should have been kept at least partially under state control. I guess that this then becomes a problem with Brussels rather than Madrid.

Anonymous said...

This is my first visit... There is an old name for 'Catalunya' in English: Catalonia. You are free to choose the Spanish name "Cataluña", but it is a rather strange choice when you are writing in English. Imagine a Spanish blog referring to England as 'Anglaterre' (French). If you don't like the word Catalonia, you should then prefer the orignal, Catalan name: Catalunya. You know it, but you prefer the Spanish Cataluña. Well, isn't this a bias?

Graeme said...

No, it's not a bias, it's just a by product of living in Madrid for 10 years. I call Seville Sevilla too, not because I have a hidden agenda - just because I have got used to using the Spanish names for these places. Nothing else, I write in English but I live in Spain.