PM Mariano Rajoy is fighting to get the budget approved. File photo: Oscar del Pozo / AFP
The Catalan crisis is putting the adoption of Spain's 2018 budget, and possibly even Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy's rule, in jeopardy as Basque nationalists threaten to withhold their crucial support unless Madrid lifts direct rule on Catalonia.
For the moment, Rajoy does not appear willing to give Catalonia back its autonomy after the region's new president Quim Torra created a new government that includes jailed and exiled former ministers who backed last year's secession bid, a move the prime minister rejected.
If Madrid does not ratify Torra's administration, the new regional Catalan government cannot assume office and thereby end the central government's direct rule of the region, which it imposed on October 27th after a failed declaration of independence.
As such, all eyes are now turned to the Basque Nationalist Party (PNV), whose five lawmakers are crucial for Rajoy's minority government in a parliamentary vote planned Wednesday on the 2018 budget.
The PNV, which rules the northern Basque Country region and treasures its autonomy, is not in favour of another region's autonomy being taken away and has conditioned its support on Madrid lifting direct rule on Catalonia.
It has said it will wait until "the last minute" to reveal its position.
"We are all for institutional stability, but we also believe that institutions should be able to govern themselves and decide," tweeted Josu Erkoreka, spokesman for the Basque government and a member of the PNV.
Rajoy's Popular Party (PP) does not have an absolute majority in parliament since elections in 2016, and has been forced into a difficult balancing act to obtain the support of centre-right party Ciudadanos, the PNV and other regional groupings.
On Monday, Rajoy said he "hoped and was confident that the responsibility of other political forces will allow" approval of the budget.
"It's a good budget for Spain," he said, adding it would allow the country to reduce its deficit below the level stipulated by the European Union — or three percent of GDP.
But for now, the situation is highly uncertain.
Fernando Vallespin, a politics professor at the Autonomous University of Madrid, says Wednesday's vote is "decisive" for Rajoy's future.
"It's very dangerous for Rajoy" as if the budget is rejected, it would be "a political failure… which would force him to shorten his term in office."
If the parliamentary vote comes in negative, the Spanish government would still in theory be able to extend the 2017 budget.
But that would undermine Rajoy and he may then find himself forced to extend it again in 2019, which would be "very difficult" politically, says Vallespin.
The opposition Socialists and far-left party Podemos would not hesitate to "attack Rajoy by arguing he is incapable of governing the country," says Antonio Barroso, deputy director of research at consultants Teneo Intelligence.
Rajoy's government has already made concessions to the PNV to secure its support.
It for instance accepted the party's demand to adjust pensions to the inflation rate after thousands protested in Spain — including in the Basque Country — for a better pension.
"The PNV wants to approve this budget as it is very beneficial for the Basque Country," says Vallespin.
Its current resistance is merely political "as its voters don't like" direct rule imposed on Catalonia.
"What we don't know is how flexible this principle is," adds Vallespin.
By AFP's Mathieu Gorse
Catalan regional election to be held on February 14, court confirms
Convicted leaders of the 2017 secession attempt in Catalonia who are serving time in regional prisons walked out on Friday after the Catalan government granted them a more open regime. Approval of the tercer grado, which allows prisoners to spend only nights in prison, coincided with the start of an election campaign in Spain’s northeastern region.
Also on Friday, the High Court of Catalonia (TSJC) confirmed that an upcoming regional election will take place on February 14, not on May 30, ending weeks of uncertainty over the date of the polls.
The Catalan government had sought to postpone the original date on the grounds that the coronavirus crisis would make it difficult for many people to vote while staying safe. Critics said the date change was politically motivated and unlawful.
The TSJC court had provisionally upheld an appeal against the change, and on Friday it confirmed this decision, which could still be challenged before the Supreme Court but would not alter the election date.
The separatist leaders on a more flexible regime will now be able to take part in their own parties’ campaign events if they wish to.
Dolors Bassa, who was a Cabinet member at the time of the unilateral independence declaration of October 2017, was the first of the group to walk out of prison on Friday. After leaving the women’s facility of Puig de les Basses in Figueres (Girona) at around 8.45am, she urged sympathizers to go vote on February 14 “to win again.”
At 10.30am, Lledoners prison in Barcelona released Jordi Sànchez and Jordi Cuixart, leaders of two civil society groups convicted of participating in the breakaway attempt, and the former Cabinet members Oriol Junqueras, Raül Romeva, Jordi Turull, Joaquim Forn and Josep Rull. The group emerged carrying a sign calling for “amnesty.” The only member of the group to remain in prison is former Catalan parliament speaker Carme Forcadell, who is still awaiting a decision.
All nine were convicted of sedition and misuse of public funds by Spain’s Supreme Court and are serving sentences ranging from nine to 13 years. The Catalan government granted them tercer grado status once before last year, but the move was struck down by the Supreme Court in December and the group returned to prison. However, eligibility for this regime undergoes review every six months, and the regional executive, which is headed by a separatist coalition, has again granted them this status.
Prosecutors are planning to appeal the decision, but the timing of legal procedures means that the separatist leaders will be on daytime prison leave for much of the election campaign, if not all of it. While none of them are running as candidates, their presence could help energize pro-independence voters. Inversely, if they were sent back to prison it would provide fuel to the movement’s claims of political repression.
Secessionists are also framing the legal tussle over the election date as further proof of alleged meddling in Catalonia’s political and institutional life.
In a rare agreement between separatist and conservative parties, the postponement to May had been backed by all political groups in the regional parliament except for the Catalan Socialists (PSC) – the Catalan branch of the Spanish Socialist Party (PSOE) – who had insisted on preserving the February date.
Salvador Illa, the Spanish health minister until this week, has stepped down to run for the regional premiership with the PSC, and a recent poll by the state-funded Center for Sociological Studies (CIS) research center suggested the possibility of a technical tie between the PSC and the Catalan Republican Left (ERC), one of the two partners in the Catalan government coalition.
Both ERC and its partner Together for Catalonia believe that the PSOE is behind the legal challenge to the May postponement, and that the real reason is a desire to make the most of the impact on public opinion from the news that the high-profile Illa will be the Socialist nominee to lead the region.
But a more recent poll by the Catalan government’s Center for Opinion Studies (CEO) shows ERC winning on February 14 with 34 to 35 seats in the regional parliament, followed by Together for Catalonia with 32 to 34. This would ensure the separatist bloc’s absolute majority in the 135-strong house with 51.2% of the vote.
The election will seek to bring stability to a government that’s been under an acting leader, Pere Aragonés, ever since September, when the Spanish Supreme Court upheld an 18-month ban from public office against Quim Torra in connection with violations of institutional neutrality during an earlier election campaign.
After Catalans go to the polls, Spaniards are expecting a two-year period of rest in a country that has been through four national elections, a European vote, regional and municipal polls, and two no-confidence motions in parliament since 2015.
Madrid, Basque Country, Valencia announce new coronavirus restrictions
The relentless advance of the coronavirus in Spain is leading some regional governments to introduce even more severe restrictions on mobility. Madrid, the Basque Country and the Valencia region on Friday announced new measures that will go into effect soon.
In Madrid, the deputy public health chief Antonio Zapatero announced more perimetral lockdowns, now affecting 56 basic health zones and 25 municipalities that are home to 24% of the region’s residents but account for 30% of all coronavirus cases.
The director general of the Public Health agency, Elena Andradas, said that nine basic health zones – administrative areas that do not necessarily coincide with neighborhoods or districts – and six municipalities have a 14-day cumulative number of cases per 100,000 inhabitants above 1,000 and will be subject “to special restrictions on mobility.” The decision expands on the list of health zones and municipalities that came under mobility restrictions last week.
The new affected municipalities are Cercedilla, Navacerrada, Collado Villalba, Rivas-Vaciamadrid, Los Molinos, Quijorna, Serranillos del Valle and Colmenar de Oreja. The new affected health zones are Las Ciudades, in Getafe; as well as La Rivota, Ramón y Cajal, Doctor Trueta and Pedro Laín Entralgo, in Alcorcón.
Additionally, the overnight curfew will begin at 10pm and businesses must close by 9pm, including food and drink establishments. Authorities are also banning meetings inside homes with members of other households, while the upper limit on the number of people from different households who may gather outside the home in food or drink establishments is now four, down from six.
These measures will be adopted starting on Monday, January 25 and last at least two weeks.
On a day when the number of new reported cases nationwide set a record high for the second day in a row, authorities in the Basque Country said they will seal off all of the region’s 252 municipalities beginning on Monday. Social gatherings will be reduced to four people.
The 14-day cumulative number of cases per 100,000 inhabitants in the region was above 500 cases on Friday, twice the figure considered an extreme risk scenario (which also takes into account other variables such as pressure on hospitals). Right now over 70% of Spain’s territory is in the extreme risk category.
The Basque city of Bilbao and 50 other locations came under a perimetral lockdown in the early hours of Friday because of their high incidence rate. After the weekend, every other city, town and village in this region of 2.2 million people will be sealed off as well. Only essential trips that can be justified will be allowed across municipal lines. This is on top of the provincial and regional lockdowns that are already in effect.
The Basque health chief, Gotzone Sagardui, said the decision was a response to the worsening epidemiological figures. “This is not the time to relax, but to act with utmost anticipation on preventive action,” she said.
The curfew starting time has not been altered, despite the Basque government’s wishes to bring it forward to 8pm from the current 10pm. The move was debated on Wednesday at a meeting of central and regional health officials but did not gain support from the central government.
Food and drink establishments must close at 8pm except in locations with an incidence rate of over 500, where they must close altogether. This is currently the case in Bilbao.
The measures will be in effect for 20 days, subject to review.
The Valencian government is preparing an “imminent” decree to forbid members of different households from meeting inside homes. Exceptions will be made for people who need to provide care, couples who don’t live under the same roof and elderly people who live by themselves and may stay with family members.
Deputy premier Mónica Oltra made the announcement on Friday following a meeting of regional government officials. Earlier this week, Valencian authorities ordered all food and drink establishments to shut down for 14 days and told retail stores to close at 6pm as the virus continues to expand in the region at “an extraordinary rate,” in the words of regional premier Ximo Puig.
The Valencia health department has started to contact neighborhood associations to get the word out that people should self-confine due to the severity of the situation, the regional daily Diario Información reported.
Rafael Ruiz, president of Alicante’s Provincial Federation of Neighborhood Associations, told this newspaper that he received a call from the district’s healthcare center: “They are asking for people to stay at home. They are scared because the situation is getting out of hand.”
All three provinces in the region – Castellón, Valencia and Alicante – are in the extreme risk scenario. The 14-day cumulative number of cases per 100,000 inhabitants has been climbing almost vertically since the end of the Christmas period, and on Friday stood above 1,000. Some Covid-19 patients are already being transferred to field hospitals as healthcare facilities struggle to deal with a tremendous surge in infections.
A home confinement cannot be legally imposed in Spain under the current emergency state approved by parliament in late October and due to expire in May. But the string of increasingly strict restrictions imposed by regional governments is coming close to a de facto lockdown.
Storm Filomena: Spain sees ‘exceptional’ snowfall
Storm Filomena has blanketed parts of Spain in heavy snow, with half of the country on red alert for more on Saturday.
Road, rail and air travel has been disrupted and interior minister Fernando Grande-Marlaska said the country was facing “the most intense storm in the last 50 years”.
Madrid, one of the worst affected areas, is set to see up to 20cm (eight inches) of snow in the next 24 hours.
Further south the storm caused rivers to burst their banks.
Four deaths have been reported so far as a result of Filomena. Officials said two people had been found frozen to death – one in the town of Zarzalejo, north-west of Madrid, and the other in the eastern city of Calatayud. Two people travelling in a car were swept away by floods near the southern city of Malaga.
As snow fell on Madrid on Friday evening, a number of vehicles became stranded on a motorway near the capital.
The city’s Barajas airport has closed, along with a number of roads, and all trains to and from Madrid have been cancelled.
Firefighters were called in to assist drivers who had become stuck. In some areas the military were called in to help clear roads.
Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez urged people to stay at home and to follow the instructions of emergency services. King Felipe and Queen Letizia took to Twitter to urge “extreme caution against the risks of accumulation of ice and snow”.
The country’s AEMET weather agency said the snowfall was “exceptional and most likely historic”.
A number of people were seen making the most of the snowy scenery, walking through Madrid’s Puerta del Sol square.
Large parks in Madrid have since been closed as a precaution, AFP news agency reports.
One man was pictured skiing along the Gran Via, the capital’s famous shopping street.
In Cañada Real, the largest shanty town in western Europe, residents were seen creating a bonfire to keep warm.
The cold weather is set to continue beyond the weekend with temperatures in Madrid predicted to hit -12C on Thursday.
Read from source: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-55586751
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