«When it comes to doing poorly, we are a power of the first order», wrote Juan Valera, the 19th-century Spanish diplomat, politician, writer and literary critic, whom Santos Juliá admired and often quoted. The diagnosis could not be more on target than in the times we are now seeing. Spain is the leader in the number of cases and deaths in the new wave of the COVID-19 pandemic sweeping over Europe, and it is also the country with the worst economic outlook in the Eurozone.
But our political class is involved in another war. As Fernando Vallespín put it so well in his column in El País last weekend, it is hard to be a columnist these days. One tends to repeat oneself because national politics are stuck in their small and miserable battles and unconcerned with the big ones. And faced with the enormous challenges that have been thrown at us, to comment on low politics is depressing. Everything today is politics, in small letters, in the absence of true Politics, in capital letters, the ones that try to be of use in solving citizens’ real problems.
Confronted with a colossal crisis which may bring a decade’s worth of regression in national wealth (be it the 11.2% in the GNP as foreseen by the Government or the 12.8% figure the Bank of Spain is working with), the Government’s plan for recovery ought to aim to take advantage to the utmost of the shower of thousands of millions of euros that we receive from Europe. To do so requires the oversight and tabling of proposals by the opposition, or the need to reach the broadest possible consensus to agree a new budget. Yet both these questions continue today to be a secondary issue beside the Cainite confrontation that has taken over national politics. Just look at how the Dina case stole the show on the very same day that the abovementioned plan was presented last Wednesday. Who knows how that went down with the man who was supposed to be the hero of the day, the speechifying Pedro Sánchez, or the author of the Government’s whole mise-en scène, Iván Redondo.
Everyone talks about unity, but the truth is that some foment division in order to keep their pro-independence and anti-system partners happy and to secure their support in order to last through the term of the legislature, without measuring the consequences. And others hope that the economic disaster will produce the desired political burnout and turn them into an alternative for government. Nothing is being built and in the absence of agreements, which the Bank of Spain has been advising be undertaken from the beginning of the crisis, we are headed for an unprecedented deterioration of the economy and social fabric which it will take us years to get over. With grave consequences for public indedebtedness; already there is talk that the debt will go as high as 120% of the GNP, if not higher, and that this will condemn future generations to its repayment. There is also talk is that this will erode a vital social cohesion, the greatest asset for progress in any advanced society that prides itself as such: such cohesion is absolutely necessary to beat the populist movements on the right and the left which are spreading across Europe today and threaten the survival of liberal democracies and the individual rights these represent.
We are about to be hit by the gravest crisis in the history of our democracy and politics today is an obstacle to our dealing with so great a challenge. Because in the midst of the hot tempers and the confusion, political action today boils down to taking the measures needed to dope the patient up, although, to be sure, this is done at the expense of the public coffers, as agreed by the heads of Economy, Labour, and Social Security and social actors, unions and management. The ageement between the latter two, as representatives of civil society, indicates perhaps that it is their turn to mobilize and seek the necessary consensus that the politicians in charge have let languish.
That said, they are agreements that keep the economy going on a respirator, be they the ERTE (Temporary Regulation of Employment Action), which have prevented workers without work from swelling the ranks of the unemployed, or the decree approved in May, in the middle of lockdown, which defers bankruptcy settlements by firms which are today without income and strangled by debt. Once the ERTE and the deferral of bankruptcy of those thousands of small and middle-sized businesses have expired, the first months of 2021 will be definitive in clarifying the social panorama. As one of the union representatives commented, on hearing the Government’s plans for recovery: if the Government promises the creation of 800, 000 jobs and the crisis ends up destroying many more jobs than that, the objective does not seem to be very ambitious.
And most definitely, if what the Government of the PSOE and UP would like is for everyone involved to move the economy forward and to seek a consensus, it doesn´t make sense that Sánchez proposes to link the approval of the general Budget —which was negotiated only with his partners, be they ERC or Bildu, not to mention Junts x Cat, whose interests are manifestly their own and far from the general interest—, to the possibility of receiving the first disbursal of aid from the European Union, amounting to 27,000 million euros. Not when he has disdained the offer of help from Ciudadanos and systematically run down the main party in the opposition. This is about vital income for the survival of the national economy. It cannot be the object of political gaming. That would be blackmail in full dress.
In any case, the Executive branch has to present its Budget to Brussels in the coming days as well as its plan for recovery. There we will see if the balancing of interests and political calculations change. Political action cannot be reduced to confrontation, to the frustration and despair of the citizenry. Nor can control of the pandemic be left in the hands of the courts, as has been the case in the Community of Madrid after its clash with the central Government. It is the failure of politics, all over again.
I am going to close with Valera. These pretty things are what the great enlightened Spaniard had to say: «At the age of twelve or thirteen I had read Voltaire, although I was afraid when it was dark and I thought the devil would get me. Romanticism, the legends of Zorrilla, and all of the wonders, specters, witches and ghosts in Shakespeare, Hoffman and Scott waged a heated war in my soul with the word of Voltaire, the classics, and my fondness for gentlemanly heroes». Nostalgia for a government of cultivated and reasonable men, not prey to the evils of sectarianism, witches, and specters, and who can definitively correct the singular anomaly of Spain at this crucial time. But, where are the true liberals and Romantics like Valera?