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A little more respect

Under fire from populist peers, Rajoy will be hoping for a victory for Hollande in France

With wearying regularity, the leaders of EU countries like to exploit the populist vein. The French president and the Italian prime minister do the EU few favors by chiming in with criticism of the Spanish government. And our prime minister does himself no favors by avoiding the media and losing the respect of citizens, who are uneasy about the sacrifices that appear to lie ahead. It is sad to see how the Spanish political class is incapable of producing a few calm voices that might convey information and authority - a balm that society badly needs.

In lieu of such voices, it would be nice if Rajoy could at least produce a single economic spokesman - who, as Sáenz de Santamaría does on the political side - could clear up inconsistencies and tensions. True, the economic situation is volatile; but the present option, the prime minister's silence and the contradiction between ministers, is unsustainable. Someone should be sending clear messages.

Among sources near to the prime minister it is clear that the man who calls the shots in the government's economic sector is the finance minister, Cristóbal Montoro, who has Rajoy's confidence. The economy minister, Luis de Guindos, is seen as a technician, incapable of gainsaying the political views of his colleague. The "visible face" ought to be the person presiding the Economic Affairs Commission; but, in what seems an unfortunate decision, Rajoy reserved this role for himself, short-circuiting the role of the spokesman.

No one who knows him expects Rajoy to change his personal style, or his firm conviction that his predecessor, Zapatero, suffered from "excessive exposure." But even the prime minister himself must be aware that his recent skulking exit via a back door of the Senate was a bad move.

Investors and speculators move fast, and seem capable of upsetting in just a hundred days the government's part-known, part-hidden schedule for reforms and cutbacks. Rajoy had already decided on the cutbacks in health and education but had not included them in the budget, in order to hold back spare "ammunition." But as the dummy hare leading the speculative greyhounds speeded up, he had to reveal them. Strategic errors such as this one bring frowns in Brussels.

Two hectic months now lie ahead. We must first see whether the Eurogroup says something about the delayed Spanish budget for 2012. It is not obliged to say anything, but there are precedents. Some clear support would certainly be welcome.

Eurostat will soon have to validate the 2011 deficit and debt figures of all the EU countries, including the 8.5-percent figure submitted by Madrid. Next the governments have to present their stability plans and their macroeconomic forecasts from 2013 to 2015, with the corresponding array of measures. The Commission will inspect these plans and in June propose a set of recommendations to the European Council.

Spain needs to extend the deadline for compliance with the three-percent deficit objective; and, say what you will, Rajoy will probably be holding his breath in the second round of the French elections, and rooting for Hollande rather than Sarkozy. Just now a Socialist victory would be better for his interests, for his refusal to ratify the Stability Treaty and his demand for more time on the deficit. Many Spanish concerns depend on Hollande's possible victory, and on his subsequent relations with Merkel. Meanwhile it is important to speak softly while the fuss caused by Rajoy's unfortunate EU performances blows over, so as to move more easily at the upcoming meeting of the IMF in Washington, a good occasion for receiving blessings.

Just this would almost be enough. Just show the indispensable minimum of internal leadership - and keep your fingers crossed.

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