CORONAVIRUS

Spanish PM considering lifting state of alarm in some regions before others

Speaking to regional premiers on Sunday, Pedro Sánchez said that the exceptional measures would begin to be lifted in the coming days “if nothing goes wrong”

Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez on Saturday.
Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez on Saturday.Borja Puig de la Bellacasa / EFE

The Spanish government is working toward a scenario where the state of alarm will be lifted in some regions before others, as part of the current deescalation of the exceptional measures that were first implemented on March 14 in a bid to combat the spread of the coronavirus.

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Sources from the coalition government, which is headed up by the Socialist Party (PSOE) with junior partner Unidas Podemos, have said that “legally it is possible” for some territories to exit the conditions of the state of alarm – the lowest of the three emergency states under Spanish law. On Monday, the majority of the country will be in Phase 2 of the government’s deescalation plan, which runs from Phase 0 to Phase 3. After Phase 3, regions and other territorial units will enter what the government has dubbed “the new normality,” where social distancing will still be required but full freedom of movement will return.

According to Sánchez, the entire country should be out from the state of alarm by late June or early July

Without going into detail, Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez told Spain’s regional leaders on Sunday that “if nothing goes wrong,” the state of alarm will be lifted in many regions “over the coming days.” According to the PSOE chief, who was speaking at a weekly video-conference meeting with the country’s regional premiers, the entire country should be out from the state of alarm by late June or early July. Some regions, such as Madrid, have taken longer to leave Phase 0 due to not meeting the government’s requirements for doing so. As such, the deescalation process is being played out asymmetrically across the country.

After requests on Sunday from the premiers of Aragón and Castilla y León, Sánchez also committed to studying whether some of the deescalation measures included under Phase 3 could be applied to rural areas that are in Phase 2.

During a press conference, Sánchez said on Saturday that the government was studying whether or not to request a sixth extension to the state of alarm, which has been given the backing by lawmakers in the Congress of Deputies on a two-weekly basis until now. The prime minister has, however, found it increasingly difficult to secure the support needed among deputies to renew the measures. The coalition is governing in a minority, and as such needs votes in favor or abstentions from other parties in order to pass this legislation.

“We are studying a sixth extension because it is our duty,” he said on Saturday. “We will have to look at the epidemiological progression, but we will do so listening to the experts and the regions.”

Opposition parties such as the conservative Popular Party (PP) and far-right Vox have been calling for an end to the exceptional measures since early May, and have either abstained or voted against further extensions, arguing that there are measures under existing laws that could be used during the deescalation process. Legal experts, meanwhile, have claimed that there is no way of confining citizens to their homes without the state of alarm.

Political row

Also discussed at the video conference meeting on Sunday was the unease among the Basque Nationalist Party (PNV) over a deal signed between the PSOE, Unidas Podemos and EH Bildu ahead of the vote in Congress on extending the state of alarm on Wednesday. The deal, which the government said was signed in exchange for EH Bildu’s abstention, in order to guarantee the extension was successful, committed to a series of measures, including overturning the entirety of a 2012 labor reform law that, among other things, made the cost of firing employees cheaper in Spain. In the end, however, a no vote from EH Bildu would not have scuppered the extension to the state of alarm.

News about the agreement, which was not made public until after the vote passed, caused a political firestorm, not least given that EH Bildu, a pro-Basque independence party, is a controversial group given its reluctance to condemn the bloody campaign of the now-disbanded Basque terrorist group ETA.

“We have been bewildered by the agreements this week,” said Basque premier Iñigo Urkullu, of the PNV, during today’s video call.

The government is aware of the upset that the incident has caused among parties such as the PNV, a factor that is also adding to the uncertainty as to whether another extension to the state of alarm is to be requested. Many of the parties that supported Sánchez’s investiture as prime minister and the creation of the coalition government, including the Catalan Republican Left (ERC) and leftist Valencian party Compromís, voted against extending the state of alarm this week in Congress.

The PNV leader also called on the government to “boost co-governance” between the central government and the regions during the deescalation process, a regular request that has been made from regions that have traditionally sought independence from Spain. There was particular unease, for example, over the central government assuming powers over the interior departments of regions such as the Basque Country. Under the current state of alarm, however, Madrid only has control of the regions health departments.

There were also calls, not for the first time, for Sánchez to change the order in which he does things – regional chiefs have complained about hearing the government’s plans at the prime minister’s press conferences on Saturdays, only for them to be discussed on Sundays with the regions once the decisions have already been made.

Catalan stance

The Catalan regional premier, Quim Torra, told Prime Minister Sánchez on Sunday that his party, Together for Catalonia, would support the state of alarm if his region regains all the powers that were recentralized under the exceptional circumstances, above all control over healthcare. The party abstained at the first two votes in Congress, and voted against at the following.

English version by Simon Hunter.

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