CORONAVIRUS CRISIS

Despite opposition calls, Spanish government leaves coronavirus crisis in hands of the regions

The Popular Party in Madrid wants the Socialist Party-Unidas Podemos administration to take charge of issues such as the reopening of schools, but the administration points out that the group demanded its powers be returned under the state of alarm

Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez earlier this month in Palma de Mallorca.
Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez earlier this month in Palma de Mallorca.Fernando Calvo / AP

The Spanish government has taken a political decision when it comes to the ongoing coronavirus crisis, and will not change course unless the situation gets completely out of control: the country’s regional governments have all the powers to deal with the epidemic and will be taking the main decisions. That was what opposition parties in charge of these administrations were calling for in June, after more than three months under a state of alarm that saw the Socialist Party-Unidas Podemos government centralize control. Now, however, there are calls from Popular Party (PP)-run regional governments – such as that in Madrid – that the administration of Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez should take over once more. But the government is holding fast.

The Spanish government is responsible for the pandemic, independently of the powers set out by the state of regions
Ana Pastor, Popular Party’s vice-secretary for social policy

Spanish politics has had an enormous influence over the management of the Covid-19 crisis in Spain. For weeks, the debate was focused on the ongoing state of alarm. The coalition administration is governing with a minority in the Congress of Deputies, and as such needs the support of other groups to pass legislation. At the outset of the epidemic, the state of alarm was supported by other parties, but political tensions grew as the crisis deepened and groups such as the PP and far-right Vox became increasingly critical of the government’s handling of the situation.

The conservative PP rejected the last extension of the emergency situation in a vote in Congress, while Madrid regional premier Isabel Díaz Ayuso insisted at the end of May that the state of alarm was no longer necessary and that “normality needed to return” as soon as possible. Coronavirus infections in the region have continued to rise, however, and Madrid is once again the epicenter of the epidemic in Spain.

In contrast to its initial plans, and aware that it risked defeat in parliament should the PP and other groups in Congress withdraw their support altogether for the ongoing state of alarm, the government brought the emergency situation to an end earlier than planned and transferred the responsibility for the management of the pandemic to the regions.

But the regions are now in a worse situation than at the end of the state of alarm, in particular in areas such as Madrid, and groups such as the PP are calling on the government to take control once more.

The government’s response is that the decree for the so-called “new normality” – which was agreed by all the regions and supported by the PP – was that the regional administrations take control and that the government has no way to oblige them to do anything. Cabinet sources argue that they are limited to simply coordinating decisions at meetings of regional chiefs, as was done 10 days ago when measures to close nightclubs and restrict smoking in public were agreed on.

Now the debate has moved on to the reopening of schools. The PP is insisting that the central government should determine policy, while the executive is responding that it can only give guidelines, but that the regions must make the final decisions. Government sources point out that the regions have received €2 billion to shore up their education systems ahead of the new school year, and cite the example of the Valencia region, which has hired 4,000 teachers and 3,000 monitors.

The government has said that the opposition cannot demand for weeks on end that control be returned to the regions, only to now start clamoring for it to take all the decisions

“The Spanish government is responsible for the pandemic, independently of the powers set out by the state of regions,” said the PP’s vice-secretary for social policy Ana Pastor on Friday, accusing Health Minister Salvador Illa of signing the new normality decree before the summer so that from that moment on “the regions could be blamed for anything that happens.” The government has responded by saying that the opposition cannot demand for weeks on end that control be returned to the regions, only to now start clamoring for it to take all the decisions.

In other countries with similar situations, such as Italy, these issues have been dealt with differently: at the end of July, parliament approved the extension of the state of alarm until October 15 – albeit with the opposition of the right and the far right. The prime minister, Giuseppe Conte, promised that the new limitations would only be applied if they were strictly necessary and that the objective is to be prepared for new outbreaks.

The Spanish government has also put on hold legal reforms that it promised weeks ago for a new legal mechanism that would allow for it to implement measures aimed at controlling the coronavirus without having to impose another state of alarm. Sources from the government have indicated that these reforms have no support in Congress, and that the most efficient approach is to agree such decisions with regional chiefs, as was done regarding the nightlife restrictions and as is likely to be done with the reopening of schools.

But the government is not budging for the moment: unless the situation gets completely out of control, all of the important decisions will remain in the hands of the regions.

English version by Simon Hunter.

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