Why I hope to stay in Barcelona…

Chené Koscielny

South African journalist

Chené Koscielny, Director of the Barcelona Global 2021 International Talent Monitor, sponsored by Banco Sabadell, reflects on the sentiments and challenges of internationals living in Barcelona.

I hope this time my love affair will last and that I have finally found a place I can call home.

On face value Barcelona has it all – the beauty, the sun, the smiles, the food, the wine, the culture and the opportunities.  Of course, like any other city, Barcelona has some problems too, some of which also have an impact on the lives of internationals living and working here, but how serious are they and what is being done to resolve them? 

This year I was fortunate enough to have been asked to direct Barcelona Global’s 5th International Talent Monitor. It is biannual survey and report, which has become an important barometer of the sentiments and needs of the internationals who choose to live and work in this city.

Further, it was an amazing and eye-opening experience, and I was inspired by just how many talented, creative, professional people – both locals and foreigners – dedicated their time to discuss concerns and suggestions for a city they all care about very deeply.

International community in love about the city.

As in previous years, the International Talent Monitor, which gauges satisfaction levels on a scale of 1 to 7, with 4 being neutral, highlights some great positives. Internationals rating the city’s quality of life, access to sport and the outdoors, international connection to other world cities, transport services and public and private health systems highly. I’m not the only one who loves the city – in many ways it is the perfect place to live. 

In other words, for many of us who choose to live in Barcelona, even those who arrived during COVID, it is love at first sight. I’m not easy to impress either – after having lived in some of the world’s most beautiful and popular cities – such as London, Geneva, Paris and Cape Town. It takes more than tapas, Sangria and a few balmy sunsets to make me fall in love. 

Even in lockdown, the city’s subdued vibrancy, culture and the warmth of the people was enough to make me want to unpack my cardboard boxes for good. 

What drives some internationals away?

International Talent Monitor 2021 taught me, though, is that Barcelona, like other cities, has faults – and some serious challenges for internationals. This, unfortunately, affects the city’s competitiveness and eventually drives some internationals away.

  • One of the biggest problems, identified in the report, is a non-sensical tax system, which on the one hand entices highly qualified internationals to settle here through the controversial Beckham Tax Law, offering them reduced taxes for 5 years. But not only is the application of the law quite narrow, but when it ends, the tax system also hits the same professionals with a hefty wealth tax on their global assets. This may make staying in Barcelona difficult and could be seen as financial suicide by some.  
  • Whether this applies to you or not, the reality is Barcelona sorely needs senior international professionals in many fields for the city to prosper and losing them to more forward-thinking cities such as Madrid or Lisbon, seems avoidable and a real pity at best, and very shortsighted at worst.

  • What’s more, the income tax levels for everyone, even freelancers, is seen as unacceptably high – which combined with uncompetitive salaries compared to other European cities, eat into the net income of professionals who want to settle here for good – particularly those with families. 
  • Whilst the cost of living may be relatively low compared to some other cities, such as London; house prices and rents are astronomical, and international school fees are well out of reach of many professionals.  

  • Public schools are an option if you’re happy to learn Catalan. However, many internationals feel that if you’re not going to spend the rest of your days in Catalunya, it is not worth spending a lot of time learning or letting your children learn the language. 
  • On the other hand, the satisfaction level with the level of English spoken is not bad and 80% of internationals surveyed said they can cope with Catalan. Some people bemoaned petty crime in the central city, but as a South African, and for most internationals, this is not enough to scare us off or send us packing. 

Administrative burden

Above all, another big headache for internationals is the difficulty in getting a NIE or driver’s license. Those basic documents take months to process and operate through a parallel system of minions who are paid to take you through the official system. Many appointments are in person, with long delays made worse by COVID. This is disappointing for a city that fancies itself as one of the world´s digital hubs. 

Entrepreneurs keen to start businesses and employ locals told us they are frustrated about having to jump through hoops and being cold-shouldered by city bureaucrats, who indirectly tell them to take their money elsewhere.  

And guess what, they do! To Madrid, Lisbon, Amsterdam, Berlin, Tel Aviv or San Francisco. Is this good for Barcelona? Me thinks not. 

Barcelona’s vision for the future matters

What became clear to me during the focus groups is that many internationals and some locals, particularly in the business environment, are frustrated with the politics of the city. They want the city to be more open to internationals and international investments. They want the city leaders to work with them and to let go of policies that sometimes seem to strangle future development and alienate internationals. They plead for strong leadership that will unite locals and foreigners behind one strategic vision: to make Barcelona the best city in the world!

What cities such as Madrid have been quicker to grasp, it seems, is that if you make your city attractive for internationals, locals benefit too.  Sustainable, quality tourism and an influx of qualified, senior professionals will create opportunities in many industries and bring economic benefits for all. Equally important, of course, is the control of runaway property prices potentially pushed up by wealthy foreigners and to work towards better salaries and a fairer tax system for all.  

Love conquers all

ITM has made me more aware of my rose-tinted glasses, but does that mean I love the city any less? Not at all. Barcelona is still one of the best places I’ve lived.  

I’ve also seen enough optimism, positive energy and passion among locals and internationals to believe that the challenges internationals face will have to be addressed and that Barcelona will be my home for a long time to come. 

READ the full 5th International Talent Monitor report and let us know what you think in the comments below.

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