Spain's powerful world empire of the 16th and 17th centuries ultimately yielded command of the seas to England. Subsequent failure to embrace the mercantile and industrial revolutions caused the country to fall behind Britain, France, and Germany in economic and political power. Spain remained neutral in World Wars I and II but suffered through a devastating civil war (1936-39). A peaceful transition to democracy following the death of dictator Francisco FRANCO in 1975, and rapid economic modernization (Spain joined the EU in 1986) gave Spain a dynamic and rapidly growing economy and made it a global champion of freedom and human rights. More recently the government has had to focus on measures to reverse a severe economic recession that began in mid-2008. Austerity measures implemented to reduce a large budget deficit and reassure foreign investors have led to one of the highest unemployment rates in Europe.
After almost 15 years of above average GDP growth, the Spanish economy began to slow in late 2007 and entered into a recession in the second quarter of 2008. GDP contracted by 3.7% in 2009, ending a 16-year growth trend, and by another 0.3% in 2010; GDP expanded 0.4% in 2011, before contracting 1.4% in 2012. The economy has once again fallen into recession as deleveraging in the private sector, fiscal consolidation, and continued high unemployment weigh on domestic demand and investment, even as exports have shown signs of resiliency. The unemployment rate rose from a low of about 8% in 2007 to 26.0% in 2012. The economic downturn has also hurt Spain's public finances. The government budget deficit peaked at 11.2% of GDP in 2010 and the process to reduce this imbalance has been slow despite the central government's efforts to raise new tax revenue and cut spending. Spain reduced its budget deficit to 9.4% of GDP in 2011, and roughly 7.4% of GDP in 2012, above the 6.3% target negotiated between Spain and the EU. Although Spain''s large budget deficit and poor economic growth prospects remain a source of concern for foreign investors, the government''s ongoing efforts to cut spending and introduce flexibility into the labor markets are intended to assuage these concerns. The government is also taking steps to shore up the banking system, namely by using up to $130 billion in EU funds to recapitalize struggling banks exposed to the collapsed domestic construction and real estate sectors.