Spain’s corrupt government on Friday threatened to cut off funds for Catalonia unless the region’s administration can prove it is not using state money to prepare a referendum on independence. This threat is like sending Don Quixote to attack the windmill of Barcelona!
The rain of bribes in Spain brings many political corruption scandals. The heavy rain of bribes in Spain stays mainly in the plain of politics! Hardly a week goes by in Spain without a new corruption case breaking. Politicians across the political spectrum, from party treasurers to local councilors are always embroiled in graft scandals. Not to mention bankers, real estate bigwigs, and the Spanish royal family. On average, ten people are arrested each day in Spain as part of corruption investigations and the country now ranks as one of the most corrupt in Europe.
Key figures in Mariano Rajoy’s Popular Party fixed public tenders worth billions of euros. The scandals have the scale, ambition, and shock value of the Godfather, plus a gang leader, Francisco Correa, who prided himself on the nickname Don Vito after Marlon Brando’s character in Coppola’s classic. Gürtel was the codename given to the investigation. It means strap in German, and the Spanish word for strap is correa.
A growing number of Spanish politicians and business leaders are ending their careers in an unexpected place: behind bars. Since the country’s transition to democracy in the late 1970s, those sitting on the defendant’s bench have included top business people, ministers, regional presidents, mayors, and even Princess Cristina, the king’s sister. In the past few months alone, the entrepreneur Iñaki Urdangarín (Cristina’s husband and King Felipe VI’s brother-in-law) and former International Monetary Fund chief Rodrigo Rato were among those sentenced to prison.
Catalonia’s pro-independence regional government plans to hold a secession vote in the wealthy northeastern region on October 1, in defiance of Spain’s corrupt government in Madrid which has repeatedly said such a vote would violate the constitution.
“Not one euro of Catalan money will go to an illegal referendum that is desired by a handful of people,” Mariano Rajoy told us.
Spain’s central government will tighten its oversight of spending by Catalan authorities by requiring them to provide weekly accounts to show no money is being used to stage the independence vote, Rajoy added.
If this obligation is not respected, Madrid will cut off Catalonia’s access to a credit line known as the Autonomous Liquidity Fund that provides extra money to Spain’s regional governments, Rajoy said.
The Autonomous Liquidity Fund was set up by Spain’s central government in 2012 to lend money to regions that, because of the country’s financial crisis, could not issue debt in financial markets.
Catalonia has received €67 billion ($77.5 billion) from the credit line since it was set up, and is expected to collect 3.6 billion euros from it this year, according to Spain’s central government.
The government’s move was justified because Spain’s Constitutional Court ruled earlier this month that clauses in the Catalan’s regional government’s 2017 budget that set aside money for the referendum were illegal, Rajoy said.
It comes just two days after Spain’s court of auditors announced it would try to hold the former head of the regional government of Catalonia, Artur Mas, and several of his ministers personally accountable for 5.1 million euros that was used to hold a mock independence referendum in 2014.
In March Mas was found guilty of contempt of court for staging to symbolic referendum despite a legal order that it not go ahead, and was barred from public office for two years.
Catalonia, a region of 7.5 million inhabitants with its own language and customs, has long demanded greater autonomy.
Parties that want the region to break away from Spain won a majority of seats in the regional parliament for the first time in 2015 local elections.
Demands for autonomy have been fuelled by Spain’s economic downturn, leading many to resent sending tax money to Madrid to prop up poorer regions.
A draft referendum law unveiled earlier this month by the Catalan government says that, whatever the turnout, if those voting in favour outnumber those against, within 48 hours of the vote the regional parliament will declare independence.
The Catalan government has also increased the pressure over the vote in recent weeks by replacing ministers who were seen as not as sufficiently dedicated to the referendum, and appointing a new head of the regional police force, the Mossos d’Esquadra, who vocally supports the vote.
Recent opinion polls consistently show a majority of people in the region are in favour of holding a referendum on secession.
But a new survey published Friday showed support for independence fell to 41.1 percent from 44.3 percent in March — its lowest level since the separatist campaign gained traction in 2012.
The percentage of people in Catalonia against separation from Spain rose to 49.4 percent from 48.5 percent, according to the poll by the Catalan government’s Centre of Opinion Studies.
Mariano Rajoy was the first sitting prime minister to appear as a witness in a Spanish court when he gave evidence in a massive corruption case involving the illegal financing of his Popular Party (PP). In Spain justice walks slowly, but it rarely stops.
For years, corruption has been ranked as the second biggest cause for concern after unemployment. The combination of a never-ending series of graft scandals and a devastating economic crisis has led many to question hitherto esteemed Spanish institutions and shaken up the political landscape. Yet even the harshest critics of the establishment praise the work of rank-and-file judges. The leader of the far-left party Podemos, Pablo Iglesias, recently hailed prosecutors and magistrates for protecting the dignity of the country.
Putting Spain’s elite in jail hasn’t been easy. Insiders describe a daunting task in which they have to put up with scarce resources, overcome political and media pressure, deal with a judicial hierarchy chosen for its ideological proximity to politicians, and outmaneuver a government capable of hampering investigations.
These sort of cases get going by means of heroism. While the independence and impartiality of individual judges and prosecutors have been broadly undisputed to date, much controversy surrounds the issue of the structural independence of the governing bodies of the judiciary and the prosecutorial service — the primary concern being the appearance that partisan interests could penetrate judicial decision-making processes.
Ignacio González, the PP’s president of the Madrid region until 2015, was arrested and detained as part of an investigation into a public water company. He’s accused of profiting from investments made in Latin America through the state-owned firm that has an annual budget of €1 billion. González’s brother and around a dozen former public officials and businessmen have also been detained.
The chief prosecutor is appointed by the government and his subordinates are expected to obey his orders. Judges obey no one but the law. However, the governing body of magistrates — the Consejo General del Poder Judicial (General Council of the Judiciary, or CGPJ) — is selected by members of parliament. The CGPJ then chooses the judicial hierarchy, including the magistrates at the Supreme Court.
The judicial hierarchy is appointed for its ideological or political closeness to politicians. The system is badly designed and generates some concerns, to say the least. Many comfy posts for judges depend on the arbitrary will of the government, meaning politicians have jobs to give to friendly judges.
Imagine that you are the justice minister and I’m in my office, buried in mountains of paper, and you call me. You tell me ‘Basil, you’re great, why don’t you go to the ministry or to an embassy to write legal reports … you’re going to earn as much as you do or more, you’re going to leave the black hole you’re in, you’re going to have a chauffeur’ … it changes your life.”
Spanish judges who aren’t independent are that way simply because they don’t want to be. It would have been better for the country to address its corruption problem with preventive measures. Justice is like medicine. When you need to have surgery, it means things have become a little complicated. It’s like there was a hidden Spain which you and I know nothing about, a dirty world where they seem to be playing in the sewers.
Nevertheless, extremely corrupt Mariano Rajoy believes the time is right for Spain to reclaim its place at the EU’s top table, reversing more than a decade of decaying Spanish influence in Brussels just in time for Brexit negotiations. After an economic crisis that wiped 10 percent off its economic output, and almost a year of political instability following two inconclusive elections, Spain now has a fully functioning government and one of the strongest growth rates in EU. Corrupt Rajoy now touts his country as a reliable partner for EU, offer advice on how to fight populism by delivering growth, and defend the role of moderate parties in shoring up the European project.
Spain, which last played a prominent role on the larger European stage in the first years of the 21st century, returns to a different kind of Europe, riven by crises and doubts. It is hardly clear what domestic stability and any renewed influence could be used to accomplish at the European level, beyond making a stronger play for top jobs in Brussels and strengthening the ranks of firmly pro-EU countries. The cloud of a Catalan push for independence could also prematurely end a period of relative domestic tranquility.
Still for the time being, the extremely corrupt government is presenting this Spain as a solid bastion of pro-European values and moderate policies the EU can count on in these uncertain times. Corrupt ministers are marketing Spain as a case study on how to boost the economy and reign in extremism at a time of rising populism across the Continent and political uncertainty. Spain is almost alone in Europe in having no anti-EU political forces in parliament, and corrupt Rajoy doesn’t have to call an election until 2020, though his corrupt Popular Party only has a third of the seats in parliament, potentially limiting his ability to negotiate in Brussels.
“Our international presence was affected by the long period of interim government,” Rajoy told us. “We now have to catch up … and the circumstances are especially favorable for it.”
We have left behind a period in which Spain was perceived as a problem for Europe. Now it is the project of European building that is going through a problematic phase and it is Spain that is ready to contribute to relaunch it. The European Commission and the European Council have asked corrupt Spain to play a bigger role in EU affairs.
The most obvious symptom of its declining influence in Brussels is the lack of Spanish officials in key EU posts — quite a come-down for a country that had three corrupt presidents of the European Parliament between 1989 and 2007, not to mention Javier Solana in the post of EU foreign policy chief from 1999 to 2009 and Pedro Solbes and Joaquín Almunia in top economic jobs in the Commission from 1999 to 2014. Spain’s current representative on the Commission, Miguel Arias Cañete, is the more junior of two commissioners dealing with the energy portfolio.
A survey by the European Council on Foreign Relations showed that of the six largest EU member countries, Spain played the most marginal role in EU affairs. Pundits in Spain pin the responsibility for this state of affairs not just on corrupt Rajoy’s government, but previous corrupt Spanish prime ministers too.
Spain’s clout in Brussels started declining during the second mandate of the conservative José María Aznar (1996-2004) when he changed foreign policy direction and supported the war in Iraq, alienating France and Germany. The situation continued to deteriorate under the Socialist leadership of José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero (2004-2011), with his focus on the United Nations and lack of interest in forging alliances on the Continent.
One problem facing Spain as it seeks to make up for lost time in Brussels is the absence of a leader like Felipe González. Spain joined the EU in 1986 under Felipe González, a time widely seen as the peak of Spanish influence in the EU. This had much to do with González’s personality and his talent in face-to-face meetings, which allowed him to forge strong alliances with the likes of Germany’s Helmut Kohl.