As jobs, workers return to Spain and Portugal, so does a sense of self-worth

After years of going abroad to find employment, the Iberian Peninsula is experiencing a resurgence in both economy and popularity. And that is bolstering Portuguese and Spanish psyches as well as wallets.

Juan Ignacio Llana Ugalde/Special to The Christian Science Monitor
Eztizen Andrés (r.) and Álvaro López moved to Berlin in 2012 as part of the wave of Spaniards escaping economic crisis in Spain. With the economy in its third year of recovery, they were able to move back this spring. They recently spent a weekend in their hometown, Bilbao, where they often go for the weekend from Madrid.

At the peak of the economic crisis in Spain, Raul Gil readily found a job at an association in Berlin that helped bewildered young Spaniards newly arrived in Germany navigate a new language, cultural mores, and workplace etiquette.

By the time he decided to return home in 2016, ultimately to this seaside town in Cantabria where he was born and raised, he realized he could put his skills to use in reverse: for other Spaniards also now wishing to come back.

He and two friends created “Volvemos” – literally “We Return” – a nonprofit organization dedicated to the return migration of Spaniards who sought economic refuge in Britain, Germany, and beyond.

“For many years we’ve talked about those who have left, but we are now focusing on those who want to return,” says Mr. Gil in Santoña, a fishing port famous for its anchovy production.

Juan Ignacio Llana Ugalde/Special to The Christian Science Monitor
Raúl Gil once worked in Berlin to help Spanish emigrants navigate their new homes, but now he's returned home and wants to help other Spaniards do the same. He started the organization Volvemos to connect Spaniards abroad to new jobs at home. He's now living in his birthplace, Santona, where he tries to promote local culture like the anchovy industry that is based here.

His organization – and its aims – are but one sign of a country in the middle of an economic recovery. And in neighboring Portugal, the shift in fortunes feels even more dramatic.

The country needed a bailout in 2011 amid the European Union's sovereign debt crisis, and Portugal's then-prime minister, Pedro Passos Coelho, publicly told young citizens their best hope was to go elsewhere. Not only are officials now seeking to lure emigrants back home, but Lisbon, the country’s capital, has become one of the hottest destinations in Europe, helping to change the narrative of the crisis-racked Iberian Peninsula.

The economic boost in both Spain and Portugal is just part of the greater rebound they are experiencing, however. As important, perhaps more so, is the accompanying boost in morale for each after years of job contraction and population loss. Instead of being forced to go far from home to find a tenable life, Iberians are finding their homeland is becoming an attractive place to be – not just for them, but for Europeans more broadly.

“International newspapers only talked about Portugal because of its poor economic performance. Now the narrative around Portugal is really positive,” says Marina Costa Lobo of the University of Lisbon’s Institute of Social Sciences. “This positive image is unprecedented in the 21th century, and the country is taking advantage of it.”

Spain climbs back

Spain’s population increased in 2016 for the first time in five years, the most recent census figures showed this summer. It was a modest increase at 0.19 percent, but underlines a broader turn, where immigration rates have rebounded while emigration has slowed. Population growth traces Spain’s three-year economic recovery. Some 480,000 new full-time posts were created in the past year, according to government figures released this summer, although political instability is Catalonia could drag on overall growth.

Jobs are being created across the spectrum, says Javier Díaz Giménez, professor of economics at IESE Business School in Madrid. Some traditional sectors like tourism are booming, but even construction workers, the hardest hit amid the real estate bubble that popped, have become a symbol of new hope. “Even they are finding jobs again in Spain,” he says.

Ivan Jimenez, the managing director of Bizkaia Talent, travels to Britain and Germany, among other places, to attract talent to the Basque city of Bilbao. He says his job is much easier today. After years of job destruction in the region, the Basque Country has created 15,000 jobs in last three years, 45 percent of them highly qualified. “I started in 2011 in the middle of the crisis. It was not a good time to talk about attraction of talent,” he says.

Eztizen Andres knows this all too well. When she obtained her degree in architecture from the University of Navarra in 2012, she graduated right into “Generacion Crisis,” a class of university degree-holders with few prospects at home. Of her 15 closest colleagues at school, almost all packed their suitcases: for Germany, Chile, Mexico, and Ghana.

So Ms. Andres and her boyfriend left their home in Bilbao for Berlin, where they met Gil and the network of Spaniards abroad. They both landed jobs, she becoming fluent in German, and today recognize the perspectives they gained from leaving their homes and comfort zones. “But we started to miss home, and our families. Every time we went to Bilbao, we found it harder to leave,” she says.

Through the Volvemos network, she was able to land a job in her field in Madrid, and the two returned to Spain at the end of the spring – something she says more of her peers aspire to do. “It’s true Spaniards don’t want to leave. We have a Spanish saying: ‘why would we leave when we live so well here?’ Spaniards don’t even want to leave Spain for vacation.”

‘An oasis of stability’

As Spaniards return home, Portugal – particularly its two main cities Lisbon and Porto – is seeing its own revival. It's a far cry from just a few years ago, when amid an $83 billion EU bailout, young people were advised they should leave.

Now the storyline has changed – and not just due to economic recovery, with GDP growing above the eurozone average and unemployment below 10 percent for the first time since the crisis flared in 2010. Bright news is all over: the national soccer team won the Euro 2016 soccer tournament, Portugal won the Eurovision Song Contest for the first time this year, and former Prime Minister António Guterres was nominated as secretary-general of the United Nations. The country also has been spared the terrorism that has hit Europe elsewhere, as well as the rise of the far right.

Further, CNN deemed Lisbon the “coolest city” in Europe. Forbes chose Porto as “the place” to visit this year. Politico called Portugal “an oasis of stability” in Europe.

Europeans are paying attention. Laurine Montresor, a human resources manager originally from the French overseas region Guadeloupe, relocated to Lisbon from Barcelona over the summer and says Portugal is all the buzz. “So many people in France talk about coming to Portugal now. Life is better, there’s more joy, more sun,” she says. “And you don’t need to speak Portuguese to work and live here since everyone speaks English.”

It's a reverse migration of sorts. Cecilia Cardoso’s grandparents were among the almost half million Portuguese who emigrated to France in the 1960s and '70s escaping poverty. Born and raised in France, Ms. Cardoso embraced her Portuguese identity and decided in the summer of 2015 to relocate and open a pastry shop in Leiria, north of Lisbon. The terrorist attacks at the Bataclan theater and elsewhere in Paris a few months later convinced her that leaving France was the right call.

“I remember taking the subway to work a few days after and everyone looked suspiciously at you. No one trusted anyone. It felt awful. I cannot live like that,” she says. “My friends keep telling me they’ll gladly take a pay cut and move here so their kids can experience some freedom growing up.”

More work needed

Some Portuguese economists remain skeptical about the government failing to implement structural reforms to create long-term, high-quality jobs. Portugal’s debt, at 130 percent of GDP, is the eurozone’s third highest. Spain's unemployment, meanwhile, stands at 17.22 percent – and for youths it is 38.7 percent.

Much needs to change in the Spanish labor market, Gil says. While recovery in southern Europe makes the notion of Volvemos possible, he concedes, “most aren’t returning because of the marvelous working conditions in Spain,” he says. There is still a dearth of high-paid, secure work for the 7,000 Spaniards in the Volvemos database.

Volvemos tries to ensure that all the jobs advertised on its website are in demand, and when they are low quality, they are removed. The organization also works with companies and public administration offices to actively recruit Spaniards abroad, after years of unofficial policy of easing the unemployment crisis by simply letting them leave. “Spanish administrations realize they need these kinds of people to help continue to invigorate the economy,” Gil says.

Emigrants tend to have language skills, different cultural perspectives, and above all, grit, he says. “They now realize they can’t lose this talent.”

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