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Consensus on regional affairs

The summit of premiers presents a minimal pact to Spain and the rest of the European Union

In the midst of speculation over whether or not the government will request a bailout for the Spanish economy (its imminence was denied by Mariano Rajoy), and of repeated doses of bad news on soaring unemployment rates, on Tuesday the Fifth Regional Premiers Conference steered clear of confrontation, and opted for a message of unity, aimed at the Spanish public and the EU authorities. After discussing the ills of regional government financing, which is as much as to say the shortcomings in some of the principal public services, there was a unanimous commitment to fight to bring down the deficit, and to resume debate on the sharing of the resulting burden between the central administration and the regions. The Catalan premier, Artur Mas, called for this redistribution to be implemented as early as 2013 (José Antonio Griñán of Andalusia seconded this). But for the moment, the summit is sending out the message that the regions will close this year with a deficit of 1.5 percent of GDP, and of 0.7 percent next year. The redistribution would not enter into effect before 2014.

Previously, Rajoy had succeeded in quelling attempted rebellions by regional “barons” from his party concerning the 2013 budget. And the Socialists approached the conference in such a way that, in exchange for certain modifications in the government’s text — promotion of growth-oriented policies, less stress on spending reduction, and seeking more revenue — they could subscribe to the image of unity and relative consensus demanded by the prime minister. They ought to have done this earlier. A conference such as this one, in a situation such as the one our country is going through, calls for more political homework to be done in advance and a precise working agenda. It is also high time for clarification on whether or not these conferences are mere flim-flam aimed at putting off the necessary reforms of the Senate, or whether the time has come to turn the latter into a chamber of genuine regional representation, where the regions would play a role in the governance of Spain. It is all very well to stage the usual display of regional banners, the red carpets and the group photo; but what the country needs is that the constitutional institutions be functional: and in this sense, the Senate does not perform any clear function.

“Part of the solution”

Tuesday’s consensus tends to dampen the glee, not to say the irresponsibility, with which the regional government system had been blamed for the economic crisis. The Socialist Patxi López and some PP premiers agreed on the message: “The regional governments are not the problem; we are part of the solution.” Recognition of this fact is indispensable in addressing reforms to the financing system, and in rationalizing the division of public services between the central and the regional governments, avoiding costly duplication. The door is open to a reform of the regional autonomy system. On Tuesday, no one brought up discussions on the structure of the Spanish state, or on calls for sovereignty for certain regions — even if these things are very much in the air.

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