Frozen for a season the dogma of austerity in Europe, the Government had no difficulties this Monday to receive the endorsement of the Congress of Deputies in what is the first step towards the preparation of the Budgets for next year. The suspension of fiscal rules, the corset imposed by the European Union and incorporated into the Spanish Constitution in the frenzy of adjustments that followed the Great Recession, received more than ample support from the House. Citizens joined the usual allies of the Government, the left and the nationalists on this occasion to clear the way for expansive public accounts in line with the new discourse imposed in Europe. They signed it 198 of the 350 deputies of Congress.
Nobody, not even the right wing, argued that, after the brutal shock of the pandemic, the compulsive saving recipe has become obsolete and that now it’s time to spend. But the toughest and noisiest nucleus of government opponents, who spends the day leaving the Cabinet for dead and demanding elections, is not willing to give it the slightest concession. So, after recognizing that, indeed, now is the time to forget the rigors of austerity, PP and Vox denied their support for the Executive. The popular ones stayed in the refuge of abstention. The extreme right stopped half measures, returned to chant the favorite slogan of its spokesman, Iván Espinosa de los Monteros – “there is only Vox left” – and voted against.
It was the first plenary session after the summer break and the president of the Congress, Meritxell Batet, opened the new session with a short speech in which she reiterated her umpteenth appeal to the need for political dialogue. Reaching agreements is “very difficult,” admitted Batet, but refusing them, he added immediately, is “a clear breach of our duties as deputies.” The ritual of good wishes that usually follows the holidays was later added by the Minister of Finance, María Jesús Montero: “Let the strategy of confrontation be put aside.” More realistic, a colleague of his, the PSOE deputy Guillermo Meijón, had already expressed before his group that he has given up any hope of reaching agreements with the PP for some time. And the vote on the abolition of fiscal rules fully confirmed this.
Montero defended the proposal invoking the need to address the social emergencies created by the pandemic and to reinforce the budding economic recovery with strong public investment. An effort, fed with the torrent of millions of recovery funds that arrive from Brussels, to shape in Spain “an economy more typical of the 21st century”. There is no waiver of fiscal responsibility, said the minister, nor is there any intention that “the public deficit is gradually reduced.” But the deficit target of 3%, a sacrosanct goal before the pandemic, is postponed until 2024 or even 2025, said the head of the Treasury.
The suspension of the fiscal rules was essential to put in motion the machinery of the Budgets of the next year. Montero made this known to the Chamber, to which he promised a special effort to dialogue with all groups to try to ensure that the accounts receive the greatest possible political support, given the urgencies of the moment. “Not supporting public accounts would be like denying bread and salt to society that wants to leave the pandemic behind,” he said.
The right wing did not take long to reiterate that it will not be there in any case for the work. The PP removed one of its spokesmen with a less vocal style, Elvira Rodríguez, former minister of Mariano Rajoy. Rodríguez defended that the suspension of fiscal regulations would require to be compensated with a plan to balance public accounts, which the Government has not done so far. He denounced the “shame” that the Executive fails to comply with the obligation to go to the Chamber every three months to report on budget execution. And he announced his abstention after deploring the “irresponsibility” of the left-wing coalition, which runs the country “without rules or commitments.”
Espinosa de los Monteros recalled that, a year ago, before a similar vote, his group abstained because it understood that extraordinary measures were necessary in an extraordinary situation. That need persists, admitted the Vox spokesperson, but not enough to give Pedro Sánchez “a blank check” that allows him to “spend without control.” So this time Vox went to the negative vote in the face of what it understands as a “directly suicidal” measure. Apart from the right, at the other end of the political arc some more abstentions were harvested, those of Junts, CUP and BNG.
Ciudadanos supported the suspension of the regulations, although they also demanded that it be accompanied by a balance plan for public accounts. Among the most common partners of the Government, the wish was repeatedly heard that the end of austerity not remain in a mere parenthesis and the EU decides to relax its fiscal rules. Left-wing formations such as United Podemos, ERC or EH Bildu requested it, but also, very clearly, the PNV through the mouth of its deputy Idoia Sagastizabal.
Lunges for the light
The Government also managed to overcome the first process of one of the projects with which it tries to lower the price of electricity: the creation of the National Fund for Energy Sustainability. With it, the aim is to remove from the electricity bill the premiums for renewables, which would be distributed among the operators of all energy sources. The Government estimates that in five years the electricity bill would be reduced by 13%.
Among the voices that disagreed with the project there was a curious coincidence of the two ends of the parliamentary arch: the amendments to the entirety were presented by Vox and the BNG. Both, as well as the CUP, brandished some similar arguments, such as the fear that the costs that are withdrawn from the electricity bill will later be endorsed by the companies to other energy sources. The Galician nationalist Néstor Rego and the deputy of Vox Mireia Borrás even resorted to the same example: the electric car, they argued, is right now a luxury “only for the rich.” There is a stark distance between the positions on climate change of the groups furthest to the left and the denialism cultivated by the extreme right. But both agree to warn that the costs of the energy transition cannot fall on “the popular classes”, as Albert Botran of the CUP put it. The PP, in turn, made it clear that the Government cannot expect their support in this either.
The debate brought another downpour due to the price of electricity on the Minister of Ecological Transition, Teresa Ribera, who went to the Chamber to defend the creation of the Fund. The criticisms were copious from the left groups, who urged the socialists to act once “against the oligopoly.” “Our patience has run out,” warned Oskar Matute, from EH Bildu, while Gabriel Rufián, from ERC, attributed the PSOE’s position to the presence of former party leaders on the boards of energy companies. The Minister of the Presidency, Félix Bolaños, had to hear something similar before, who defended the decree that extends the so-called “social shield” until October 31, with the limitation of evictions and the prohibition of power cuts . In this case, at least, the Government did obtain the support of the PP.