Hands down the biggest story out of Europe in 2012 was the eurozone economic crisis. There was much talk of the future of the euro currency, of the financial viability of the union itself, of giant bail-outs to struggling governments and of capital flight from banks as risk-averse investors began moving their money to safer havens.
We covered it all.
But for me the most interesting stories of 2012 weren’t about the movement of money but the movement of people, whether it was physical, mental or even, bare with me, astrological.
A mass exodus of people continued in Europe in 2012, flowing mostly from south to north. Where I live in Spain, emigration jumped 20 percent from 2011 to 2012, continuing a trend that began with the bursting of Spain’s housing bubble in 2007.
Unlike other exoduses from Spain in the 20th century, this one does not involve principally unskilled laborers in search of jobs in construction or other low paying sectors. Today’s flight is of the country’s most educated, and frustrated, young people. People who have spent years getting masters and doctoral degrees in medicine, science, engineering. People who’ve sent out a hundred resumes to Spanish companies and haven’t gotten a single response. People, like a couple of engineers I met in Munich in 2012, who sent out resumes to German firms and got multiple job offers.
I’ll never forget accompanying Juan Alberto and Jose, two engineers from Malaga, Spain, as they got off the bus for the first time in freezing cold Munich and dragged their suitcases across town in search of a youth hostel where they planned to live for six months, whiled they learned German. Language was the only thing keeping them from several great job offers. Their plight highlighted the economic divide that’s grown between Northern and Southern Europe.
As southern Europeans headed north in search of work, a couple of other huge groups of people began seeking similar, fundamental changes for themselves – but precisely by not leaving home. I’m talking about the Scots and the Catalans. The Scots successfully negotiated the right to vote on seceding from Great Britain. The Catalans say they’ll do the same, even though the Spanish central government has warned them any such vote would be unconstitutional. The economic crisis has helped fuel both independence movements. More might follow.
Group movements get a lot of attention, but sometimes individual moves do as well. Case in point: Gerard Depardieu. In another sign of that overarching story battering Europe, the economic crisis, France’s most beloved actor has begun moving, permanently, to a tiny village in Belgium – to escape a 75 percent wealth tax that was to go into effect today in France. Depardieu’s decision has been a front-page debate in France for weeks, but he may have packed his bags too soon. France’s highest court has just struck down the wealth tax, saying its unfair.
Ah, Bugarach. The story of the millennium that lasted the entire year. It began with a cry for help from a tiny village in the southwest of France. The mayor of Bugarach, population 400, warned the world that tens of thousands of doomsday disciples were planning to descend on the town to escape the end of the world. He had only one hotel, and no public toilets. He needed money, investment, helping hands.
The end the doomsday sayers talked about was December 21, 2012. It was based on a misreading of the Mayan calendar. I went to Bugarach to talk to the end-of-the-worlders. I found only a couple. They made me climb Bugarach Peak, the mountain that would supposedly be saved by aliens on the Winter Solstice, before they would talk to me. Four sweaty hours later, they told me about UFO’s and the lights and how anyone sage enough to be on the mountain would not be killed in the coming catastrophe.
But when the date arrived there was just one doomsday believer in the village. And more than a hundred reporters from around the world. They practically stormed the mayor’s office demanding an interview, and an explanation. On my visit, townsfolk had pooh-poohed the mayor’s message to the world. They’d told me he was the one looking for attention. Boy did he get it. The world didn’t end, but his political career may now be doomed.
So what’s in store for 2013 on the continent? I don’t make predictions. But the economic crisis isn’t over – far from it – so we’ll no doubt see more demographic shifting, and fanciful attempts to dodge hardship (read, taxes) until Europe can turn the corner.