España Vaciada struggles against growing emptiness in rural Spain – Democracy and Society

The rural idyll is booming as a lifestyle idea. But hardly anyone wants to live in the country permanently. The trend is the same in many parts of Europe: whole swaths of the countryside are being bled dry. Politicians face similar challenges, as they react to declining population by reducing infrastructure, leading to even more emigration.

Especially in the Nordic countries such as Finland and Sweden, but also in eastern Germany, regions are at risk and are struggling with population decline. Overall, the EU is faced with the problem of demographic changes, in particular with the increasing aging of the population. But remote rural areas could be caught in a ‘vicious circle of decline‘, as the European Parliament said in a briefing.

Luis Tudanca, candidate of the Socialist Workers’ Party, spoke of the “nation made invisible”.

The Spanish movement Spain Vaciada (“emptied Spain”) no longer wants to accept this trend. With its success, for example in the autonomous community of Castile and León, it could become a model for the rest of Europe. In this region almost as vast as the former GDR, nearly two and a half million Spaniards were called to the polls in February to elect a regional parliament. Apart from the horror of the far-right Vox party, which for the first time was brought into a coalition by the conservatives People’s Party after his electoral success, it is above all the Spain Vaciada movement that shaped the election campaign. His approach could well change politics in Spain.

Spain Vaciada drew lists in five of the nine provinces of Castile and León and even became the strongest party in the province of Soria. On the left as on the right, the parties react to the new competition and try to appropriate its themes. Luis Tudanca, candidate of the Socialist Workers’ Party, spoke of the “nation made invisible”.

The plan to combat burnout in rural Spain

What does the movement want and where does it come from? In 2016, the book SpainVacia (Empty Spain) by local journalist Sergio del Molino was published. He wrote then: “There is an urban and European Spain, in all its characteristics indistinguishable from any European urban society, and an interior and uninhabited Spain, which I call Spain empty. According to Sergio de Molina, more than half of the Spanish territory falls into this category. There are 7.3 million people living there, or 16% of the population.

The term “empty Spain” refers to areas that suffered massive emigration during the rural exodus of the 1950s and 1960s. Regressive Spain was only able to set out on the path to democracy by 1976 after the death of the dictator Franco, in power since 1939; it experienced an unprecedented wave of emigration in the 1950s and 1960s. “We want to work, we don’t want to emigrate”, was a cry of protest often heard at the time.

The name of the platform not only refers to the process of depopulation, but also implies a critique of the relocation of infrastructure resulting from the chronic neglect of rural areas by the central government of Madrid.

Spain Vaciada is a political platform and a social movement made up of a large number of groups and associations of citizens. Some of them have been around for two decades and they compete under different names in many provinces. The movement is trying to represent the interests of increasingly empty rural Spain – with growing success.

For the province of Teruel, a representative of Teruel exists even entered Spain’s national parliament in 2019 and tipped the scales in the vote of no confidence against Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez, which he won with a slim majority. The name of the Teruel platform expresses a certain gallows humor; roughly translated, it means: ‘Teruel really exists!’ It recalls ‘Ainielle exists’, the first sentence of the preface to the 1988 novel yellow rain by Julio Llamazares, which tells the story of the last inhabitant of a village in the Pyrenees.

In its program, the platform emphasizes that it wants to correct the defective, unjust and asymmetrical territorial development model. Its objective is to place the rural exodus, the dismantling of infrastructures and the resulting risk of desertification on the political agenda. The name of the platform not only refers to the process of depopulation, but also implies a critique of the relocation of infrastructure resulting from the chronic neglect of rural areas by the central government of Madrid.

The example of Soria

One of the most depopulated provinces – in Castile and León and in all of Spain – is Soria. In an area four times larger than Saarland, a total of 90,717 people live in 183 municipalities. That’s 8,116 fewer than in 1987, a drop of more than eight percent. It means that population density has fallen below the limit of nine people per square kilometer (“demographic vulnerability”), which the EU describes as dangerous. By way of comparison: in Saarland, there are 383 inhabitants per square kilometer and therefore 42 times more than in Soria.

The local department/division of Spain Vaciadacomplains that hospital patients sometimes have to travel two and a half hours by ambulance to reach the hospital in Valladolid or Salamanca (three and a half hours) for medical treatment.

The consequences of depopulation are visible in Soria. The provincial capital of the same name has 39,000 inhabitants. It is connected to the next major city, Valladolid, by national road 122, which has only been partially extended to four lanes and is a notorious accident black spot. Soria¡YA!the local department/division of Spain Vaciadacomplains that hospital patients sometimes have to travel two and a half hours by ambulance to reach the hospital in Valladolid or Salamanca (three and a half hours) for medical treatment.

In the Soria region, the platform has carried out an impressive result in the elections: it became the strongest party with 42% of the vote and entered the regional parliament with three representatives. Its success is due to its long history and its local roots. In 2011, it was founded by private individuals under the rather awkward name of “Against the oblivion of institutions”. Today, it has become the “most mature platform” in the Spain Vaciadaas commented by Narciso Michavila, director of the demoscopic society GAD3.

Ensuring connectivity and mobility

Spain Vaciadais called ‘100/30/30’. The 100 corresponds to an Internet connection of at least 100 megabits per second for the entire area. Basic public services and connections to national transport routes should be a maximum of 30 minutes or 30 kilometers away.

The fact that connectivity to the digital world is the absolute priority, even before physical accessibility to services of general interest, shows that reliable Internet access has become as fundamental as electricity, water and heating, even in areas still dominated by agriculture. The development of public infrastructure such as health centers, schools and police stations is also part of the platform requests. It proposes to expand and modernize rural and urban clinics. He advocates the introduction of employment, economic and housing incentives to encourage teachers to move to rural areas. Spain Vaciada also supports a policy of subsistence energy in the regions and the development of renewable energy sources. She pleads in favor of extensive and organic agriculture rather than industrial agriculture because it “keeps the population in rural areas and contributes to the preservation of biodiversity”.

This orientation – even though the movement, like many regional and nationalist parties in Spain, tends to be culturally conservative – makes Spain Vaciada an interesting alliance partner for the left. As the expansion of public infrastructure and an ecological orientation of energy and agricultural policy are also on the agenda of the left parties.

Guaranteeing a voice for empty Spain

As a rather densely populated area, countries like Germany certainly have other problems. But it is also confronted with a restructuring of rural areas. The model of urban sprawl of the pendulum republic of Germany, where the automobile guarantees access to urban centres, is reaching its limits, and not only ecological ones. Sociologist Andreas Knie, for example, calls for a digital-ecological traffic transport revolution with a revaluation of rural areas, a proposal that certainly shows parallels with Spain Vaciada100/30/30 program.

Their demands for state investment in infrastructure and ecological agriculture make their positions compatible with left-wing conceptions of the state as the guarantor of services of general interest.

The advance of Empty Spain in Spanish politics has so far varied widely from region to region and is highly dependent on local circumstances. Given the difficult multi-party constellations that have replaced the traditional two-party dominance model in Spain in recent years, their importance is likely to increase. In the Spain-wide legislative elections scheduled for 2023, local movements have a good chance of winning one or two seats in parliament.

Their demands for state investment in infrastructure and ecological agriculture make their positions compatible with left-wing conceptions of the state as the guarantor of services of general interest. In any case, one thing is clear: empty Spain has a voice and it will not remain silent in the future.

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