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Spain is now accommodating its dissident regions and making rapid economic strides

Spain, Western Europe's second largest country, is dominated by the Meseta, the vast and often barren central plain that covers more than two-fifths of the territory. Most of the people who live on the Meseta are in its centre, in Madrid, which was established there for political reasons. Otherwise, the most densely populated areas are those that encircle the plain.

This dispersal of population contributes to strong regional identities. Though Spain is racially fairly homogenous, it has major groups, such as the two million Basques in the north and the six million Catalans in the north-east, who are determined to defend their distinctive language and culture.

In future, however, there are likely to be fewer Spaniards of any kind. The average fertility rate is only 1.4 children per woman of childbearing age, and after around 2010 the population will start to fall.

Spain used to be a country of emigration. But now the flow is in the other direction. By 2007, Spain had attracted 5.2 million official immigrants (11% of the population) along with thousands more unauthorized immigrants. Most come from other EU countries, though the largest single group is from Morocco from where many people risk a dangerous clandestine journey across the Straits of Gibraltar.

Only 5% of the workforce are engaged in farming, but the country is a major exporter of wine, fruit, vegetables, and also of olive oil of which Spain is the world's largest producer. The rural population is shrinking fast, in some regions by 5% per year, and much of the land is turning to desert—left untended and subject to droughts and forest fires.

Rural communities on the coast also have the option of fishing—Spain's 17,000 or more boats are the largest fleet in Europe—but fishing too seems to be in decline. Of these boats, the 2,000 deep sea vessels that fish in foreign waters take the bulk of the catch.

Spain exports 80% of its car production

Rather more healthy is Spanish industry. The Basque country has long been a centre of heavy industry and machine tools. And Catalonia has thousands of small companies thriving in sectors such as textiles and shoes. But the most striking success in recent years has been the car industry, the third largest in Europe, turning out around three million cars per year of which 80% are exported. All the companies are owned by foreign transnationals.

Agriculture and industry are now eclipsed by services, which now account for more than 60% of GDP. Of these, tourism is one of the most important. Around 50 million people arrive each year, making this the world's second most popular destination, after France. Most visitors head for the Mediterranean beaches of the Costa Brava and the Costa del Sol. However, the industry may now be in decline, faced with competition from Eastern Europe at the cheap end of the market and Asia at the top end.

Despite Spain's economic advance, major problems persist. Much of the country's progress depended on a property bubble which burst in 2008. Unemployment had been falling but by 2009 was back up to 20%.


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