CORONAVIRUS

Regional chiefs temper criticism of government during weekly video conference

But premiers of Madrid, Andalusia and Valencia had complaints for Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez after being excluded from moving to Phase 1 of the deescalation process

Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez (third from right) during Sunday’s video call with Spain’s regional chiefs.
Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez (third from right) during Sunday’s video call with Spain’s regional chiefs.Jose Maria Cuadrado Jimenez / EFE

Closer collaboration between the central administration in Madrid and the regional governments of Spain has served to dilute the criticism of premiers regarding the deescalation of coronavirus confinement measures. There was a notable fall in rebukes from the regional chiefs today during the ninth video conference meeting held by Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez since the state of alarm was implemented on March 14, in a bid to combat the spread of the virus.

The unease expressed at previous meetings by Iñigo Urkullo and Quim Torra, the regional premiers of the Basque Country and Catalonia, respectively, was not on display during Sunday’s meeting. But the regions who will not be moving on to Phase 1 of the government’s deescalation plan on Monday, such as Madrid, Andalusia and Valencia, questioned the government’s decisions during the virtual meeting with Sánchez. “I have never put the economy ahead of health,” the prime minister responded. “If there is a new outbreak, it will be detrimental to sectors of the economy.”

During the meeting, Urkullo, of the Basque Nationalist Party (PNV), expressed his appreciation of a deal reached earlier this week to improve what is being called “co-governance” between Madrid and the regions during the deescalation process.

The Catalan premier on Sunday expressed his concern over the ‘general sensation of relaxation’ among the public with regard to the ongoing coronavirus crisis

The coalition government – led by Sánchez’s Socialist Party (PSOE) with the support of junior partner Unidas Podemos – secured the support of the PNV at a key vote in Congress this week to extend the state of alarm, something that must be done every two weeks by deputies in Spain’s lower house of parliament. Sánchez leads a minority administration, and as such votes from other parties are essential if he is to pass legislation.

According to sources present at today’s meeting, Urkullo called for “statewide consensus” during the deescalation process, and added that it was necessary to clarify deficit limits going forward.

Unlike the regional premier of Madrid, Quim Torra did not request Phase 1 for the entire territory of Catalonia this week, and parts of the region will remain in Phase 0 for now, including the city of Barcelona. The Catalan premier on Sunday expressed his concern over the “general sensation of relaxation” among the public with regard to the ongoing coronavirus crisis, and suggested the obligatory use of face masks in any public space.

Torra estimated that €12 billion would have to be spent in order to shore up the Catalan economy. “We have three months to save the economy and jobs,” he said. “Maintaining a job is cheaper than losing it.” Torra, who is a hardline supporter of Catalan independence, also underscored that the most vulnerable families should be supported with subsidies similar to those that already exist in Canada and Norway.

The regional premier of Galicia, Alberto Núñez Feijóo of the conservative Popular Party (PP), today suggested that there should be a new agreement regarding a different way of governing during the deescalation process rather than the state of alarm, which has recentralized a number of powers that fall to the regions back to Madrid. Feijóo is calling for a health emergency system that would allow for control over healthcare issues.

The regional premier of Madrid, Isabel Díaz Ayuso, defended her management of the health crisis, and argued that the region should move to Phase 1

Sánchez committed to pushing for a “formula for governing” alongside the regions that will he will propose in Congress. The aim will be to pass reforms once the health crisis is over and the state of alarm has been lifted.

Feijóo also called on the government to provide information in advance about the criteria that will be required for areas of Spain to move to Phase 2 of the deescalation process. He also requested a deal with Portugal that would permit the movement of 70,000 cross-border employees.

The regional premier of Madrid, Isabel Díaz Ayuso, defended her management of the health crisis, and argued that the region should move to Phase 1. The general director of Public Health for Madrid, Yolanda Fuentes, resigned on Thursday given her opposition to the change of phase, which was requested in an unsigned report that was filed late with the central government.

“I have received excessive and unfair attacks,” complained Ayuso during today’s meeting. “I do not agree with the campaign that has been aimed at me by the party that you lead,” she told Sánchez, according to sources present at the meeting. “Madrid needs to take a step forward, we cannot stay at home forever.”

She added that “we have to live with Covid-19 for the long term and that involves self-protection and living with social distancing rules.”

The regional premier of Andalusia, Juan Manuel Moreno of the PP, also complained that Málaga and Granada would not be moving to Phase 1. His government had called for the application of phases in these provinces according to healthcare areas. “These are difficult decisions, but it is difficult to understand why in other regions the criteria of health areas has been observed and here it has not been possible,” he said at today’s meeting.

The regional premier of Valencia, Ximo Puig of the PSOE, also had the same complaint, after parts of his region were not permitted to move to Phase 1 on Monday. “Co-governance has not worked so well here,” he said, calling for more “rigor” when it comes to decision-making.

Economic measures

The prime minister shared more details today at the meeting about a €16 billion fund that will be distributed to the regions in four tranches. In July, €6 billion will be paid out for health costs. Another €4 billion will be allocated according to health costs in October and will be paid out in November. In November, €1 billion will be distributed for social costs, while the remaining €5 billion will be used to compensate the fall in economic activity. This money will not have to be paid back by the regions.

The regional chiefs welcomed the news today that temporary suspension of employment schemes, known in Spain as ERTEs, would continue until June 30. Under such schemes, employees do not lose their jobs and are paid benefits by the state while they are either furloughed or work a reduced timetable.

“We are spending more than €4.5 billion a month on these ERTEs,” Sánchez explained today.

Companies that have implemented ERTEs due to force majeure during the coronavirus crisis will not be able to pay out dividends during this tax year unless they pay back the corresponding amount they saved during the process. “This is a very relevant message that companies will have to take on in terms of public opinion during this critical moment,” the prime minister said during the meeting today. Companies that are headquartered in tax havens are not able to apply for ERTEs.

English version by Simon Hunter.

More information