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What About Treating Europe’s Economic Crisis as a Legal Problem?

• March 26, 2013 • 11:29 AM

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A 100-foot, $400,000 bust of Spanish politician Carlos Fabra sits in front of Castellon airport’s empty terminal.

With Europe’s crisis exploding in Cyprus this week, could its courts succeed where its economists and politicians have failed?

This week marks the second anniversary since the inauguration of Castellon, Spain’s ghost airport, a story we first reported in 2011 and continue to follow with morbid interest. Set in a rural, orange-growing region half an hour from Valencia, Castellon’s never-used airport has become a symbol of Spain’s 2003-2008 real estate bubble, a major cause of the ongoing European financial crisis.

This week, the airport’s powerful founder, local politician Carlos Fabra, resigned from his position running the (empty) airport to face corruption charges connected to a festering, nationwide wave of pay-for-play scandals. The web of cases has started to take on Watergate-esque tones in Spain.

Fabra had been thought untouchable despite cinematic levels of brashness. At least four different deals for the $300 million airport have been announced and then quietly quashed within just the past 18 months. More than 15 years into the project, it’s rare to find anyone in Spain who believes the facility was ever anything more than an excuse to grant construction contracts. Deadlines have passed as recently as January for the airport to start operations. Most recently, local reports claimed interest in buying the airport — though the buyers were never identified beyond the piquant descriptor “Hispano-Libyan investment consortium.” Shockingly, the sale failed to materialize.

About the same time, a local opposition political party released a fuzzy video of a race car zooming around the abandoned airstrip, provoking an official investigation into what precisely the airport was being used for, if not air traffic. The airport’s administration, Aerocas, coincidentally headed by self-same Carlos Fabra, explained they had rented the idle airstrip to a German automaker to test race cars, and just hadn’t gotten around to mentioning the deal to the local government — which indirectly owns a 99% stake in the facility.

Fabra himself had run that local government for decades before retiring under corruption charges, related to the charges revived last week. Most of his fame had come from his family’s generations of control of the 500,000-person region, and Carlos’ particular love of the local, million-dollar state lottery, which he has mysteriously won five times. Though they consistently held power over Castellon’s local legislature, the family’s profile had been taking a series of hits in the press. Last summer, Fabra’s daughter Andrea, a back-bencher in Spain’s national parliament, met remarks on families suffering from crisis-era foreclosures with the shout que se jodan (“Fuck ‘em”). The outburst, which occurred during a legislative session and interrupted a speech by Spanish President Mariano Rajoy, put the Fabra family back in the headlines.

Still none of that had made a dent in Carlos Fabra—until last week, after Spanish courts re-opened corruption and influence peddling charges against him, and Fabra suddenly resigned from the airport board and formally retired from public life. Brusque, bullish and fond of wearing dark sunglasses indoors (Fabra lost an eye as a child by, yes, running with scissors), the Mediterranean don’s fall from grace has played like a gangster movie at times, and a Keystone Kops episode at others. This time though, it seems like he really is finished.

Elsewhere in Europe, the collapse of the island tax haven of Cyprus and ongoing political chaos in Italy has made Europe’s problems a tough nut to crack for researchers. Spain’s sudden burst of judicial aggression, however, suggests a way of talking about the economic crisis that’s closer to legal studies than politics or high finance. At least, after five long years of disaster, the show of spirit among a segment of the maligned public service—the white-collar prosecutions corps—has been eye-catching here.

The airport is unlikely to see a flight land any time soon, if ever. However Fabra, in his seventies, faces as much as thirty years in jail if convicted in the new graft investigation.

Marc Herman

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