King’s return signals fightback

Original photo: Estonian Foreign Ministry, cropped version: Boroduntalk

King Juan Carlos (photo: Estonian Foreign Ministry)

The King of Spain, Juan Carlos, will today come out fighting as the Spanish Monarchy continues its efforts to recover from a series of highly damaging scandals and controversies.

Juan Carlos, who has been out of the public eye for a month and a half due to a double hernia operation, will today recommence his public duties from the Zarzuela Palace – a month earlier than he had been expected. Together with Queen Sofia, the King will hold an audience with award-winning writer Jose Manuel Caballero Bonald. Later, the monarch will meet with Slovakian Prime Minister Robert Fico.

After six weeks working away from the media spotlight, King Juan Carlos’ early return to public duty can be interpreted as an attempt to put an end to the annus horribilis which the Royal Family have endured since last April, when the King fell and broke his hip whilst elephant hunting in Botswana.

Since then, the Royal Family has been engulfed with controversies, culminating earlier this month in the formal naming of Princess Christina – the King’s youngest daughter – as a suspect in the corruption and tax fraud case known as Caso Nóos.

In recent weeks, more and more critics have begun to call for the King to abdicate in favour of Crown Prince Felipe in an effort to draw a line under recent controversies and prevent the Monarchy from suffering fatal damage.

The King’s earlier than expected return to a public schedule is a clear answer to such critics.

PP and PSOE square up for battle over health reforms

The Next Battleground: Ministry of Health (photo by Miolo)

Undeterred by the blips and wobbles of the markets last week, the Spanish Government is pressing ahead with their economic reforms – today outlining their plans for reform of the health service.

The spokesman for health issues within the Partido Popular, José Ignacio Echániz, went to great lengths to insist that “there will not be cuts” to the health budget. The Government are conscious that being seen to mess with the highly valued state-supported health system would cost them dearly in electoral terms.

Instead, Echániz insisted that spending “adjustments” will have to be made to recover some of health service’s €15 billion debt built up by the last Government, but that “the Spanish people will continue to have the service they have known up until now”.

The Ministry of Health, headed up by Ana Mato, has revealed that it is “already doing its homework to maintain the essence of the Spanish Health Service: that it is in universal, fair and free for all Spaniards.”

“For this reason,” added Echániz, “we need to make some reforms, which will be set out for the Autonomous Communities in the next weeks”.

To be certain to express his party’s support for the health system, Echániz continued, saying that the intention behind the reforms is that the health service remains “the crown jewel of the Welfare State”.

However, Echániz was less than candid about whether the reforms would attempt to include the controversial issue of copayment – whereby patients would be required to contribute a fee to received medical treatment.

The opposition PSOE seized on this point to issue a “head-on rejection” of any reforms which include the idea of copayment. Trinidad Jiménez, the Socialist spokesman on Health and Social Security issues, gave a press conference at PSOE headquarters today in which she warned that the issue of copayment was not off the table.

Any inclusion of copayment in the health reforms, she argued, would be “unfair” becacuase citizens “already pay with their taxes and would have to pay again on top of that”. Furthermore, it would mean patients would be forced to choose “whether to go or not” depending on their ability to pay.

She had one further warning: “When we look at what other EU countries have done, we see that with copayment the cost of health services have risen, whereas in Spain it is relatively cheap – two points under the average”.

Over coming weeks, as the Government begin to set out their reforms to the health service and social security, the skirmishes between the two main parties will undoubtedly escalate over such emotive, and electorally sensitive, issues.

PSOE add pressure on Rajoy over Sarkozy

President Sarkozy’s earlier comments are still causing a headache for the Government which it could do without. This time, the main opposition party, the PSOE are calling on the Partido Popular to reject the French premier’s words and to call him to task.

Soraya Rodríguez, PSOE spokesman in the Congress of Deputies, called on Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy to defend Spain and its economy on an international level.

Rodríguez has been quick to capitalise on the discomfort that Rajoy and his colleagues must be feeling about Sarkozy’s blunt turn of phrase. Although public ally they contain to insist the French president means to draw comparisons with the poor economic policies of the previous socialist government, in private many will be wondering why their Conservative cousins and allies in the European Parliament have chosen this difficult time to knock the Spanish economy even further. Many will also be asking why Sarkozy did not chose to air his views on the failure of the previous government ahead of the last election.

Debate rages over sentences for pyromaniacs

Is the punishment for starting devastating forest fires tough enough? (photo: Dave Hogg)

As firefighters manage to totally extinguish the flames of a forest fire in the National Park of Fragas del Eume in Galicia, fresh questions are being asked about whether the punishment for arson and pyromania in Spain is sufficiently strong.

Residents and firemen in the area battled for several days to control the flames which threatened to destroy large swathes of the most important ecological area on the Atlantic Coast. The Xunta – Galicia’s regional parliament – revealed today that 750 hectares were destroyed by the flames, a total of 3% of the National Park’s areas of special ecological importance.

The Partido Popular’s president of the Xunta, Alberto Núñez Feijóo, has demanded a revision of the penal code with regard to arsonists, which he fears is currently too lenient and not enough of a deterrent.

Newspaper ABC reveals today that only 17 people are behind bars for similar attacks in the whole of Spain, with the norm being a caution or fine rather than incarceration. Although the penal code allows for one to five years incarceration for starting forest fires (and between ten to twenty if lives are considered to be at risk) statistics show that the number of perpetrators actually sent to prison is low. In 2009, for example, out of over 2000 forest fires only 85 custodial sentences were handed out.

Although, according to the newspaper, the real problem is the process by which such cases are tried. Currently, the majority of criminal cases such as these are done by trial by jury, and by the nature of the crime there is often not much more than circumstantial evidence to convict an offender. Juries are on the whole less likely to condemn a defendant based on such evidence, and so rather than increasing the maximum penalty, some are arguing instead for trials to take place before magistrates of judges.

With most of Europe in severe drought after two winters of low rainfall, all the Autonomous Communities of Spain will be bracing themselves for a summer of similar events. With every intentional fire that flares up, so too will the debate over sentencing for arsonists.

Sarkozy strikes again

French President Nicolas Sarkozy renews his attack on the Spanish Economy (photo: Downing Street)

French President Nicolas Sarkozy has this morning renewed his negative comments about the state of the Spanish economy. Fresh from yesterday’s attack on the socialist policies which brought Spain to its knees, Sarkozy this morning said on French Radio: “Do you think the French people want to follow the fortunes of Greece and Spain?”

The comments, although hardly extensive, have hit the headlines in the Spanish media once again. Yesterday’s comments were easily played down by Spain’s Economy Minister Luis de Guindos, as part of an electoral campaign to warn of the dangers of socialism. However, renewing the attack in less than 24 hours is starting to look like the French premier is talking the Spanish economy down – something which Spain’s Government are desperate to avoid as the market views their economy with suspicion.

If yesterday’s comments were unhelpful, then today’s will be downright irritating to Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy and his colleagues, as they try desperately to restore market confidence in their reforms and economic policies.

De Guindos insists bailout not an option

Luis de Guindos - Economy Minister (photo: lamoncloa.es)

A busy day of fire-fighting for Economy Minister Luis de Guindos, who has given a radio interview this evening in which he ruled out the possibility of Spain needing a bailout. After more wobbles for the Spanish economy today, de Guindos said this evening:

“We have not asked for [a bailout] – it is not on the table.”

He later added that a bailout would be the “worst outcome possible” and that it would be “a last resort”.

“Spain cannot lose it autonomy with regard to economic matters,” he concluded.

He also reiterated his earlier claim that Spain’s biggest problem is the uncertainty about the finances of the heavily indebted Autonomous Communities.

With regard to today’s news on the risk premium, de Guindos was quick to point out that Spain is not alone, and that other eurozone countries, notably Italy, also saw their risk premium rise today.

He also downplayed President Sarkoy’s earlier comments on Spain and Greece, saying that they were clearly meant as a critique of the social-democrat politicians which until recently governed in both countries.

The full interview can be listened to here (in Spanish)

Alonso invokes Thatcher’s “bitter medicine”

Spain's economic reforms - A bitter pill to swallow? (photo: li-la-lutz)

With the Spanish economy on the ropes and back in the main pages of Europe’s newspapers today, the ruling Partido Popular has come out fighting in defence of their economic strategy. Earlier Economy Minister Luis de Guindos claimed the problem was more a case of nervousness about Spain’s ability to recover.

Now the party’s spokesman in the Congress of Deputies, Alfonso Alonso, has used the news of the increased risk premium as proof that the Government’s tough General Budget, although a “bitter medicine”, is vital if Spain’s economy is going to recover.

Alonso assured that the Government is not taking these measures “gratuitously”, but rather in response to “an extremely serious” situation. “The austerity drive and the containment of the deficit continue to be essential”, he said to EFE news agency. “This is the bitter medicine that Spain needs to win back confidence”.

Students of British politics might be reminded by Alonso’s last comment of the words of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher who, at the height of her own austerity drive in the 1980s famously said: “Yes, the medicine is harsh but the patient requires it!”

At the time Thatcher’s reforms were deeply divisive and were met with great hostility. It was not for years after that her Government began to be widely credited with restoring credibility to the British economy. So far, the PP have only witnessed the hostility – they will be hoping recognition and vindication will not be too far down the track.

Sarkozy stokes the flames

President Nicolas Sarkozy of France (photo: UMP)

As Government ministers in Spain try desperately to combat the pessimism about their country’s economic future, they will no doubt be none too pleased that President Sarkozy of France has today highlighted the Spanish economic crisis as a failure to be avoided.

Sarkozy, who faces the first round of the French Presidential elections in just two weeks, used live television broadcast to attack his political rival, the Socialist Francois Hollande. Sarkozy claimed Hollande would drive France to an economic situation “worthy of Spain, or above all Greece”.

The denigration of the Spanish economy at a time when Government ministers are desperately trying to hold back the tide of market jitters will have not been appreciated in  Madrid. Sarkozy will argue his attack was directed at the socialist model, although his timing will not be viewed as helpful by his fellow conservative and ally Mariano Rajoy.

Onwards and Downwards

Economy Minister Luis de Guindos, defending the Government's economic strategy (photo: by mercedesalonso)

Another shaky day for the Spanish economy, as Spain’s risk premium continues to rise – reaching the highest point since December, and since the Partido Popular took power at the end of last year.

Economy Minister Luis de Guindos claimed today that the rising risk premium is down to the markets’ worries about the ability of Spain to recover from the economic crisis. He went out of his way, though, to highlight that this was not a problem confined to Spain.

“What this shows,” he said, ” is that there has been an increase in market nervousness, but it has not been only about Spain. It has affected all the countries of the eurozone. It has been evident in the rest of the eurozone countries which are vulnerable in one way or another.

“It is a problem which is all about the negative perception of economic growth in Spain, Portugal and Italy,” de Guindos added. He went on to defend the measures the Government is taking, especially with regard to the proposed national budget for 2012.

The only slight silver lining today was that the Spanish stock exchange held steady, despite the storm clouds gathering overhead. The Ibex 35 closed down just 0.2%.

Unemployment in Spain – Reuters

Reuters has today posted a useful video highlighting the rising unemployment in Spain, with a brief summary of the proposed Government budget for 2012.