Why do Spaniards have a lower opinion of their country than foreigners?

Why do Spaniards have a lower opinion of their country than foreigners?.Inside Spain.
Inside Spain. Photo: Elcano Royal Institute
Why do Spaniards have a lower opinion of their country than foreigners?.Inside Spain.
Inside Spain. Photo: Elcano Royal Institute

Spain is once again perceived better abroad than by its own citizens, according to a report by the Elcano Royal Institute and the RepTrak Company (see Figures 1 and 2). In 2020 it was the other way round for the first time since the annual study began in 2014, despite the initial impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Figure 1. External perception of selected countries

Country Score 0 to 100
Canada 79.0
Australia 78.7
Sweden 78.0
Japan 74.4
Netherlands 74.1
Belgium 73.7
Spain 73.1
Italy 73.1
Germany 71.2
UK 69.8

Source: Elcano Royal Institute and RepTrak Company.

Figure 2. Internal perception of selected countries

Country Score 0 to 100
Canada 81.7
UK 79.2
Germany 77.2
Italy 74.0
France 73.3
Spain 71.9
Japan 68.7
US 66.2
Mexico 65.4
Argentina 56.4

Source: Elcano Royal Institute and RepTrak Company.

Twenty-four countries were surveyed for perceptions of their own and other nations. In almost all of them the internal perception was higher than the outside one, with the exception, as well as Spain, of Argentina, Japan, South Africa and Brazil. The two Latin American countries and Spain share one thing in common: they have all been dictatorships (so has South Africa if one counts apartheid as a form of dictatorship), but whether this is one of the causes of the low self-esteem is impossible to know.

The three ‘proudest’ countries (ie, those that most overvalued themselves, compared with the external perception of them) are Russia, Turkey and –not surprisingly– my own country, Britain (a positive difference of more than 9 points between the internal and external perception).

The UK has long managed to punch above its weight internationally and seeks to do so after Brexit with the meaningless ‘Global Britain’ mantra repeated endlessly by the government, ignoring the paradox between Brexiters pushing an internationally engaged UK and the fact that Brexit has meant disengagement with the EU, the world’s largest trading block.

The survey’s scores are based on 17 attributes including lifestyle, quality of products and services, culture, education system and the economic environment. Among the largest European countries, Spain is externally viewed the most positively, ahead of Germany, Italy, France and the UK. Spain moved up the ranking in features such as the most attractive countries to visit (9th as opposed to 14th in the previous survey) and in culture (6th, up from 9th) and was the 10th most recommended country to live in (17th for working and investing in).

But when it comes to Spaniards’ self-assessment in matters such as ‘ethics and transparency’, ‘efficient use of resources’ and the ‘institutional and/or political environment’ there is a difference of between 15 and 20 points with the scores that other countries assign to these same features.

The wave of corruption cases, however, has not damaged Spain’s image abroad significantly, but at home it does influence people’s view of their country much more. ‘What’s very important to us is experienced with great intensity and drama at home, while it gets very limited attention beyond our borders’, says my colleague, Carmen Enriquez González, who runs Elcano’s Image of Spain Observatory.

In my experience of having lived in Spain for the last 35 years, Spaniards tend to over-dramatise their problems and also veer from excessive pessimism to excessive optimism.

The country continued to be hard hit by the pandemic this year, but this was probably only a small contributory factor to Spaniards’ negative view of their country. Spain has coped with COVID much better than countries such as the US and the UK, whose deaths per 100,000 people at the end of October were respectively 226 and 210 compared with Spain’s 185. And the percentage of Spain’s population doubly vaccinated is one of the highest in the world (around 80% compared with 67% in UK and 57% in US). But this success does not seem to have resonated among the population.

Spain’s public health system has taken a beating, but it is in much better shape than Britain’s, based on the standard international parameters (for example, 7th in the World Health Organisation’s ranking compared with 18th for the UK). Most Spaniards, however, do not know this. Spain also outflanks the UK in average life expectancy: 83.5 years as against 81.2 in 2019 before the pandemic, which lowered life expectancy in both countries. Fifty years ago, Spain’s life expectancy was 71.6 years and the UK’s 72.3.

Spain can and should be proud of the more than 40 years of democracy and the economic, social and cultural achievements, even though there is always room for improvement. Spain is one of the very few countries that has transitioned from middle to high income status. But it sells itself short and does not exude the confidence it warrants. Nobody is harder on Spaniards than Spaniards themselves, and they are also particularly sensitive and thin-skinned about what foreigners say about them. Few countries are more self-critical. It is as if Spaniards have created a kind of modern day leyenda negra (‘black legend’) about themselves.

This low self-esteem/inferiority complex dates back, simplistically, to the decline of the vast Spanish empire, a bloody history of 53 coups, seven constitutions and three Carlist civil wars between 1812 and 1935, followed by the 1936-39 Civil War and Franco’s 36-year dictatorship until 1975. Parts of the past are idealised by both extremes of the political spectrum, the hard-right VOX and the hard left Unidas Podemos, for their own particular interests.

Feria, the bestselling autobiographical novel by Ana Iris Simón, taps into the nostalgia for a recent past that is romanticised. ‘I’m envious of my parents’ lives at my age’, says the opening line by the 30-year-old author.

The Franco regime with its National Catholicism and exclusive anti-España (‘anti Spain’) discourse (all those contrary to a particular idea of Spain) distorted the natural patriotism that all countries display. As a result, shows of patriotism have become associated with that regime. Generally speaking, Spaniards, unless supporters of far-right nationalism, are reluctant to speak openly about the patria (‘homeland’) or wave the national flag, although the flag belongs to everyone.

How can the low self-esteem be overcome? Earlier this year, the Foreign Ministry launched a second instalment of the campaign ‘Spain for Sure’ to boost the country’s reputation abroad and the self-confidence of Spaniards. Unlike in the first campaign, which involved well known Spaniards such as tennis champion Rafa Nadal and star chef José Andrés, the second instalment included foreign personalities who live and work in Spain such as the Danish wine producer Peter Sisseck, who has taken Spanish wine to the top of the world, the Cuban singer Lucrecia Pérez and the Argentine football trainer of Atlético de Madrid.

This effort, however, had little impact. Famous people saying nice things about a country against a backdrop of emblematic locations for a few seconds is not going to change people’s perceptions, at home or abroad.

In my view there are two fundamental factors that need to change: an education system (up to the age of 16) that assigns little time to explaining the country’s progress since the end of the Franco dictatorship and putting it in an international context, which has left those under 30 largely ignorant of the achievements, and a political class permanently at war and hence unable to forge consensus and long-lasting multiannual commitments on key issues.

These issues include education (high rates of early school-leaving and grade repetition), pensions (an unsustainable structural deficit), the labour market (dysfunctional) and asymmetric federalism. And when reforms are approved, they are too often undone when a new government of a different political colour takes office.

The short-termism of successive governments since 2015, when the essentially two-party system of Popular Party or Socialist governments was broken with the arrival in parliament of two new parties –Podemos and the would-be centrist Ciudadanos (compounded in 2019 with the entry of VOX)– has left the country standing still.

Spanish society, with the exception of Catalonia, has not radicalised in the way the political class has. It is prepared to make sacrifices, as it did during the 2008-14 Great Recession, if convinced they are in most people’s best (and long-term) interests. But what they see is the depressing spectacle of MPs bellowing at one another.

Manuel Valls, the former French Prime Minister who also has Spanish nationality, says Spaniards need to ask themselves what it means to be Spanish in order to forge a common project as a nation.

In today’s polarised and fragmented political climate, that is well-nigh impossible, but, as the Spanish expression says, ‘hope is the last thing to lose’.