CORONAVIRUS

PM to hold a Cabinet meeting to declare state of alarm in Madrid

The move comes after Pedro Sánchez gave premier Isabel Díaz Ayuso an ultimatum: if she does not implement coronavirus measures, the government will act unilaterally

Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez on Thursday.
Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez on Thursday.Pool

Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez has called an extraordinary Cabinet meeting for this Friday at which a state of alarm will be declared for the Madrid region for the next 15 days, the maximum time permitted by the Constitution before parliamentary approval has to be secured. The drastic step will be taken should the Madrid regional government not opt to take decisions beforehand to reestablish the restrictions the central government had already implemented on a nationwide basis in a bid to slow the spread of the coronavirus, but that were struck down yesterday by the Madrid regional High Court.

The new measures were agreed on last week by a majority of the country’s regions, and involved a perimetral confinement for municipalities with more than 100,000 residents should a series of criteria be met, as well as other rules such as early closing for establishments and limited capacity in bars and restaurants. Last Friday, amid the opposition of the regional government, 10 cities in Madrid – including the Spanish capital – saw the measures introduced.

The Madrid court only ruled against ratifying the confinement of cities, meaning that the 4,786,948 Madrileños who have been subject to the lockdowns in their municipalities are free to move around once more and cannot be fined for doing so. In any event, the regional government had opted not to issue penalties for those breaking the rules and the authorities have been simply informing citizens of the situation this last week. The Madrid administration also appealed against the central government’s restrictions at the national High Court, the Audienca Nacional, on the basis that they encroached on its powers.

A legal and political battle over how to contain the virus while protecting the economy has been openly playing out in recent weeks between the central government, headed by a center-left coalition of the Socialist Party (PSOE) and Unidas Podemos, and the Madrid regional government, run by a center-right alliance of the Popular Party (PP) and Ciudadanos (Citizens), propped up by the far-right Vox.

According to La Moncloa prime ministerial palace, after returning late last night from a visit to Algeria, PSOE leader Pedro Sánchez called the regional premier of Madrid, Isabel Díaz Ayuso of the PP, to offer her three possible ways out. Her administration can either implement restrictions based on a 1986 public health law; it can request the declaration of a state of alarm, so that the central and regional governments implement it on a joint basis; or the Spanish government will unilaterally declare the state of alarm, without the need for the regional authorities to previously file a request to do so.

Article 116 of the Spanish Constitution describes three legal categories for emergency situations: a state of alarm, state of emergency and state of siege (in Spanish: estado de alarma, estado de excepción and estado de sitio). It was the first of these scenarios that was implemented by the central government on a nationwide basis in March, at the outset of the pandemic, and that was used to lock down residents of Spain in their homes to flatten the curve of the coronavirus. In this case, the restrictions will not be as severe and will just be applied to Madrid, and will involve the aforementioned perimetral confinement of municipalities, along with other measures aimed at reducing social contact.

According to Sánchez’s team, during a second conversation last night Díaz Ayuso “said to the prime minister that she needs time.” La Moncloa made clear in a statement that the deadline for a response would be Friday morning, with the Cabinet meeting set to take place at 12pm.

The regional premier responded last night via Twitter. “At 10.15pm, I have arranged with Pedro Sánchez to speak tomorrow,” she wrote. “First thing in the morning we will meet in the Madrid region to look at alternatives. Our basic areas were working and could be the best thing. We hope to reach a solution that benefits citizens and creates clarity.”

In her tweet, Ayuso was referring to the restrictions based on basic health areas that her government had implemented prior to the central administration’s intervention. These are administrative divisions smaller than a city district and which may contain one or more healthcare centers. The Madrid government introduced restrictions on 45 basic health areas in the region, but these restrictions were later superseded by the newer restrictions introduced by the central government.

The decision to approve a state of alarm on a unilateral basis will allow the government to rescue the measures that were rejected by the courts, but without going so far as to confine people to their homes as was the case between March and June. If the government considers it necessary to extend the emergency situation beyond 15 days, it will have to request to do so in the lower house of parliament, the Congress of Deputies, and receive the support of a majority of deputies. The coalition government lacks a working majority in Congress and so will require the backing of other parties to do this.

There is an urgency to take measures in Madrid given that Monday is a national holiday, and this weekend thousands of Madrileños would usually travel to their second residences in other parts of the country, or to the countryside or the beach, to enjoy the first break after the summer vacation.

The central government spent the entire day yesterday seeking an agreement with the Madrid region to apply the state of alarm or another solution, but the government of Díaz Ayuso would not meet with the health minister, Salvador Illa. A number of attempts were made for a meeting during the afternoon, but once the regional government had postponed the meeting to Friday, the executive opted for a solution that it had ruled out dozens of times since July: applying a state of alarm without the agreement of the Madrid region – the worst possible scenario. Despite the rebuffs, Sánchez called Díaz Ayuso to give her one last opportunity to implement the measures herself, but he made clear that they needed to be those that were agreed by the regions last week and that were struck down on Thursday by the Madrid High Court.

“The government can do whatever it wants,” sources from the Madrid regional administration said last night. The same sources confirmed that Madrid would continue with its plans on Friday and would issue an order with its own healthcare measures, Manuel Viejo reports. The mayor of Madrid, José Luis Martínez-Almeida, said last night during an interview on state broadcaster TVE that if Sánchez were to declare a state of alarm, “he would be breaking his word once more because this has not been agreed with the Madrid government.”

Despite their opposition to the central government’s coronavirus restrictions, both the mayor and Díaz Ayuso called on Madrileños yesterday not to leave the region and the latter announced that “sensible, fair and balanced” measures would be introduced. Health Minister Salvador Illa, for his part, also said on Thursday in Congress that the government was studying “the legal decisions that best protect the health” of citizens, but he did not specify what these were.

The prime minister pointed out on Thursday that he wanted to keep the state of alarm in place in June at least two weeks more, but could not find the support among other parties to do so. As such, the powers to control the pandemic were returned to the regions, something that has had mixed results from area to area.

If the PP continues to oppose the government’s plans, as it did earlier this year, the situation will become extremely complex from a political and juridical point of view. “The state of alarm is a constitutional instrument,” Sánchez said yesterday. “But it doesn’t just depend on the government. Its extension must be authorized by Congress. It’s clear that in June there was no support to do so. But that is the past. If the justice system says that this is not the path, we will speak to Madrid and seek another situation.”

According to legal experts consulted by EL PAÍS, there are not many other options to get out of this situation. Elviro Aranda, a professor in Constitutional Law at the Carlos III University, agrees with the Madrid High Court’s ruling on the basis that “it doesn’t have the sufficient reach to limit rights.” He says that the only options are “a basic law, but that has its processes and would take time, or the declaration of a state of alarm.”

The experts accept that, until now, the regional authorities have turned to ordinary courts in order to implement small-scale perimetral confinements. But they say that this is not the most adequate solution. “At the end of the day you are placing the issue in the hands of a judge who must deliberate over rights, among the severity of the pandemic and the rights that are being restricted,” Aranda says. “The criteria is the specific case. Closing a town with few inhabitants is not the same as shutting down a region.”

English version by Simon Hunter.