Rajoy assails policy of “discord” as PM speaks up for the “real Spain”

Spats over immigration and regional reform dominate State of Nation debate

Prime Minister Zapatero during the State of the Nation debate.
Prime Minister Zapatero during the State of the Nation debate. EFE

Social policies and the economy made up the brunt of Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero's State of the Nation address Tuesday, spurring opposition political parties to describe his speech as "conformist" and overly focused on the positive while avoiding the shortcomings of his first two years in power.

Responding to Zapatero, Popular Party (PP) leader Mariano Rajoy ran through a gamut of issues - immigration, crime, foreign policy and constitutional reform - in a sweeping tirade against the Socialist government during day one of the debate, which will continue in Congress on Wednesday.

In a fierce attack that acknowledged no achievement other than economic growth in the period since 2004, Rajoy accused Zapatero of vacillation and indecision. His policies, said Rajoy, have had two main effects: sowing uncertainty and creating discord among Spaniards. "You've been spending two years trying to destroy the Constitution," said Rajoy, in reference to controversial reforms to regional powers that began with a new Catalan statute.

"Your problem is that you have no clue what the real Spain is like. All you do is make prophecies that are never fulfilled. You have failed as the opposition," replied Zapatero, whose 75-minute speech focused on "the real Spain as experienced daily by citizens."

Neither Zapatero nor Rajoy, however, broached in any depth one of the year's most controversial issues: the ceasefire declared on March 22 by Basque terrorist group ETA and the ensuing peace talks, which the government hopes to begin shortly. Both leaders had agreed to leave this matter aside so as not to bog down the landmark annual debate.

But that proved the only concession made by the PP to the Socialist government during the debate, which grew ever more caustic during the period of replies and counter-replies granted the prime minister and the head of the opposition.

"The main problem with Spain right now is that Spaniards don't know what to expect anymore. There is uncertainty at all levels: socially, economically, politically. The government has no clear course of action. It is only interested in remaining in power," said Rajoy, who ended the debate with an argument with Congress president Manuel Marín over the duration of his speaking periods, which he considered too short.

In his opening address, Zapatero said the government’s goal is to create more wellbeing, give youngsters more opportunities, extend civil and social rights, maintain safe and peaceful coexistence in a diverse Spain, and defend an international order based on peace and cooperation. The premier drew an optimistic map of the economy, drawing on statistics to highlight annual economic growth of 3.5 percent, some 900,000 jobs created last year, and record levels of registrations with Social Security. The economy was the only point where Rajoy conceded that things are going “well or very well,” though he claimed that the Socialist government is still riding on the wave of “ten years of sustained and stable growth whose impulse still drives our economy.”

On foreign policy, Zapatero said that the government’s goal is to achieve peace through multilateralism and stronger relations with countries in the Mediterranean and Latin America. Rajoy described Spain’s foreign policy as weak and erratic, saying that “Spain is no longer on the map.”

The prime minister also dedicated time to a dozen social policies aimed at Spain’s young, including a doubling of student scholarships next year, and tax breaks for homeowners who rent out to tenants under 35 years old, in an effort to generate more affordable housing.

Zapatero also highlighted recent socially progressive legislation like the divorce, gay marriage and domestic violence laws. The prime minister touched on crime, highlighting a 3.2 percent drop in the crime rate from the same period last year — before a recent wave of violent burglaries in Catalonia. He said that Spain has one of the lowest crime rates in the EU, and announced a reform of the Penal Code, a deployment of 36,000 new police and Civil Guard officers, and anti-mafia units in areas where crime rings operate.

Rajoy talked about a new kind of “savage and imported” crime, which he linked to illegal immigration. The government, he said, is “objectively overwhelmed” by illegal immigrants, which he estimated number 1.3 million people. “While we are seeing the victims of mafias arriving on our southern border, we are seeing mafias and criminals calmly walk in through our northern border,” he said, referring to organized gangs from Eastern Europe that the police hold responsible for many of the recent violent burglaries in northeastern Spain.

The prime minister insisted that illegal immigration is being tackled, but acknowledged that unilateral border control is not enough and that further cooperation with EU and African countries is necessary. “Everyone must be aware that one can only reside in Spain legally,” he said, alluding to last year’s legalization drive, which the opposition claims is behind the current massive arrival of migrants to the Canary Islands — over 8,000 so far this year.

Regional reform was another sticking point, with Rajoy contending that government policy is at the heart of a new division in Spain. “Now there are good guys and bad guys: Catalans and anti-Catalans, Basques and anti-Basques,” said Rajoy. Zapatero replied that diversity is a source of prosperity, not confusion. Zapatero briefly talked about the ETA ceasefire at the end of his address, asking society for “generosity” and reaffirming his “determination to put an end to violence.” Rajoy said his party will back the government in its talks as long as the terrorists lay down their weapons.