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After 10 boom years, Spain slumping like the rest of Europe

Maybe Spain ought to be elated, having in one year hosted the summer Olympics and a world's fair. But after nearly a decade of revival, it has fallen into a funk about the future of the economy and its place in Europe.

Here as elsewhere, the economic indicators have turned downward. After a decade of boom, growth has nearly stalled. The trade deficit, the budget deficit, inflation and unemployment are all rising. The stock market index is down by nearly 25 percent this year.

Finally, Spain, too, has been badly hit by the financial crisis provoked by the uncertainty over ratification of the treaty that is supposed to transform the 12-nation European Community into an economic and political union.

The government was forced to devalue the peseta and bring in an austerity budget, the toughest in a generation, that runs against the grain of its Socialist principles. Talk about a two-speed Europe that could leave Spain in the slow lane has only deepened its concern.

As a result, an important international rating agency is considering downgrading Spanish government bonds. All this on the year when Spain is celebrating the 500th anniversary of Columbus' discovery of America.

"The responsibility is ours," Spanish Prime Minister Felipe Gonzalez bluntly told Parliament last week, taking the blame for himself and his Socialist government for the economic crisis, and in a forthright way that it's hard to imagine coming from George Bush or any other recent American president.

Everyone wanted to claim success, Gonzalez added, but it was a golden rule of politics that one person took the blame for failure.

"It appears that we Spaniards have been living beyond our means," he told a group of Western Hemisphere editors later. "Our problem is not saving enough and because of that we have to make severe economic and budgetary adjustments."

Hubert Humphrey must have been the last American politician to talk so bluntly, and it was probably why he never made president.

Gonzalez doesn't have to call elections for another year, but if they were held today his Socialist Party would lose its parliamentary majority.

At 50, Gonzalez has been in office for 10 years, and those years have taken their toll just as they have on Europe's two other long-serving leaders, French President Francois Mitterrand and German Chancellor Helmut Kohl.

Spain was the near economic miracle of the 1980s. It won membership in the EC in 1986, and its per capita income has more than doubled since to well over $13,000 this year with help from the equalization funds received by EC members whose incomes fall below the median. Spain's national income, for example, is still only 79 percent of that. This year it will be getting $2-billion more from the EC than it contributes.

The EC contributions would grow under the political and economic union once the treaty signed last year in the Dutch city of Maastricht is ratified.

The big question would then become whether Spain would be able to bring its deficits and inflation into line with the stiff conditions needed to join in a single European currency. The Maastricht treaty calls for this by the end of the century at the latest, but that goal now appears to be more than optimistic.

Gonzalez and others say they are determined that Spain will not be left in the slower lane of any two-speed Europe. Thus, the increased taxes and the austerity budget that brought the resignation of the Spanish secretary of state for defense last week.

At his insistence, the Spanish Parliament last week easily brushed aside several amendments to the bill ratifying the Maastricht treaty. One would have required a national referendum. Instead Parliament itself will complete ratification when the bill comes up again on Oct. 29.

In short, Spain is no longer only the land of bullfights, flamenco dancing and dictatorship. After nearly 40 years of right-wing authoritarian rule under Generalissimo Francisco Franco, democracy has flowered since his death in 1975, greatly helped by King Juan Carlos and a new generation of politicians who dragged their country of 40-million into both this century and Europe.

All this is in living memory. Flamenco and bullfights remain but are overshadowed by the hectic life, deafening traffic and pollution of everywhere. Gonzalez has bet the farm in his gamble Spain can again join the first rank in a united Europe. But there is still a way to go, and Spaniards now know it won't be easy.