Toni Strubell, Núria Bassa – EU COVID funds for Spain: will they never learn?

The Next Generation EU programme seems to be doomed by the EU’s endemic corruption, for example Spain.

Toni Strubell  is a former MP in the Catalan Parliament, journalist, and author of What Catalans Want

Núria Bassa Camps is a Catalan writer and photographer

Puede leer este artículo en catalan aqui

File:Pedro Sánchez y Angela Merkel 07.jpg - Wikimedia Commons

The Coronavirus crisis has highlighted the limitations and risks of the capitalist system not only in the human and social sphere but also in that of the economy. A system based on systemic inequality is now becoming even more visible with increasing poverty and social exclusion. The plan that the EU has launched for the recovery of its state members from the effects of COVID19 will allow Spain to receive an astronomical 140 billion euros in the following years. But if the money is not invested well – something quite predictable with Spain’s track record – the economy might be permanently devastated and the pandemic might leave Spain’s future generations with an unsurmountable debt to pay. While the COVID19 crisis gives new proof of Ursula von der Leyen’s “angel-making” incompetence and corruption, Sánchez’s Spain must on all counts take the biscuit. He has even had the nerve to bundle off his health minister – deemed to be one of the most incompetent in the world – to stand for the Catalan presidency when surely the justice courts were a more fitting destination.

But it is to the protocols for the allocation of these funds by Sánchez that most attention must be paid. The operation ominously kicked off with controversy as the decree defining the process was published in the official State bulletin (BOE) on the last day of the year 2020. That festive day is generally the one chosen by Spanish governments to publish spurious decrees unnoticed. With no debate, consultation, or in depth agreement between political parties, the decree laid down that President Sánchez would be the sole manager of the funds. If we take into account that the decree was finally approved in the Spanish parliament (28/1/2021) thanks to the abstention of far right VOX, we may get an idea of the poor democratic quality the whole affair reeks of.

To start with, and in contrast with other member states, the decree rules out regional or municipal institutions from the adjudication process. There is little doubt that the all-powerful IBEX35 lobby will be having the final say, a fact that president Sánchez has more than insinuated. In what is surely to be the EU’s most centralized selection process, Sánchez will be in the driving seat from day one. With pitifully few specifications, the decree speaks of an operation based on “informal participatory circles” that will meet to discuss proposals and projects. Yes, it’s that vague. There is therefore every chance that the process will not be based on technical criteria but on arbitrary decisions that will once again leave Spain the victim of the speculative economic model that has done so much harm in recent times. The local subspecies of USA’s “crony capitalism”, known in Spain as “capitalismo de amiguetes” (chum capitalism) will doubtless have full access to the €140,000M and find all kinds of facilities to bypass requirements for transparency and competition that will probably only be observed in less corrupt EU Scandinavian states. Not so in Spain. What could go wrong?

As pointed out by the Globalization Debt Observatory and critical media such as El Salto or Octuvre, Sánchez’s decree puts funds well away from the democratic control and socio-ecological transformation requirements that the current situation demands. For instance, the interests of small and medium-sized companies are systematically overlooked despite their capacity for generating employment, promoting innovation, and improving the productive fabric. Some observers insist that Spain will thus miss the last chance to put people first and create the “short-circuit economy” it so urgently needs. Support for local trade, cooperatives, and the empowerment of sovereignty are not contemplated at all in the decree drawn up by the “most progressive government in Spanish history”, as Spain’s PSOE-Unidas Podemos government likes to refer to itself. With a left wing like this, who needs conservatives?

Europe’s right to the left of Spain’s left?

Indeed, the most mind-boggling thing about the decree is that it was drafted by a government considered left-wing. It’s not hard to find right-wing governments – such as Greece, Germany or Belgium – with clearly more progressive and “democratic” plans for these funds. In Portugal, where the government is on the left, conservative economists such as João Duque are complaining that the fund allocation plans are too partial to the public sector. No fear that such a complaint will be made in Spain! Parallel to this, Portugal’s leading public prosecutor recently announced the creation of a “think tank” to “develop strategies to combat fraud with European funds”, a measure unimaginable in his Spanish counterpart whom Sánchez recently bragged about having control over. When asked if the Spanish government would take similar measures, Sánchez categorically ruled this out, alleging that in Spain “fraud is prosecuted per se“. Wow, really? With Spain’s impressive track record for corruption, it’s hard to imagine a more cynical statement. Even in this, there seems to be no limit to Spain’s arrogance.

A shocking track record

The fact that surveys regularly place Spain as the EU country with the worst governance control (as well as significant deficits in accountability and transparency) leads us to be most pessimistic about a situation in which Sánchez will be sole and plenipotentiary manager. The habit of wasting European funds for the benefit of a privileged few is likely to continue in Spain, EU permitting. Indeed, Spain has changed very little in character since the picaresque novel “Lazarillo de Tormes” came out in the 16th century. Reading it, we understand why it is Spain that pays most EU fines for community breaches. An incredible 7 (seven) out of every 10 (ten) euros that the European Commission receives in the form of sanctions, come from Spain. Mischievous inclinations along with an incurable lust for power are today the great vices of Spanish politicians, including the ill-fated “left-wing” politicians in power today. How else may we explain that Izquierda Unida (Podemos) has dared to violate European Parliament rules by irregularly using €640,000 of MEP and EU assistants’ salaries (between 2014 and 2019) to finance the party?

But it’s not just that. In absolute terms, Spain has been the largest beneficiary of regional policy funds since it became a member state. Indeed, it has received more money from the EU than the whole of Europe under the Marshall Plan! During the 90s and early 2000s, Spain had a massive influx of public and private funds, especially from trusting EU countries that had no idea about the real intentions of its new partner. Over the years, all these funds were seen to be very poorly invested in sectors with little innovative capacity such as the building trade. There was also a lot of inefficiency in terms of regulating operations and subsidies. As a result, productivity in Spain slumped while vital investment in research fell in contrast with what was happening in leading European countries.

On the other hand, it is also known that between 2014 and 2018, Spain was the EU state with the worst record for irregularities as regards European cohesion and agricultural funds, a significant portion of which go to speculative landowners such as the decadent Duchy of Alba. According to the latest report from the EU Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF), Spain registered almost 11,000 cases of fraudulent anomalies related to European funding, a figure that contrasts significantly with the number in other EU countries, where the second worst offender – Poland – registered half as many cases. How long will the EU continue to treat Spain as if it were a normal and decent country, pampering it with massive funds that it knows will be squandered?

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