Spain: protests grow against EU-mandated austerity

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After only five months in office, the conservative and pro-austerity cabinet of Mariano Rajoy is struggling to sustain a government reliant on fragile alliances and hounded by corruption charges. The parliamentary projects of his People’s Party’s (PP) are dependent on agreements with the opportunistic right-wing party Ciudadanos, whose sporadic withdrawal of support has at times prompted Rajoy to threaten to call early elections. However, President Rajoy feels confident about obtaining parliamentary approval for the General Budget, which will put into effect European Union demands for more cuts and ‘labour flexibility’. The permanent compliance with these austerity policies has resulted in a severe decline in the living standards of the vast majority of people. As a result, protests by social movements are growing again, but fascist and neo-Nazi groups are also on the rise. Juanjo Rivas reports from Madrid.

Side effects of austerity

Spain is rapidly squandering national savings, welfare has deteriorated and the level of inequality has grown to one of the highest in the Eurozone. The last European report on social expenditure shows that between 2011 and 2014 social expenditure on housing was reduced by 65.2%, a pace faster than any other European country, in a period which saw an average of 60,000 evictions a year. Between 2012 and 2015 jobseekers’ benefits were cut by €12bn, while unemployment rose. On the other hand, the growth in the rate of employment since 2015 (3.2%), is based on part-time contracts, rock-bottom salaries and the rise of the underground economy. The ensuing fall in tax collection from workers, together with tax reductions to entrepreneurs, have tempted the government to empty the Social Security Reserve, and as a consequence it faces a predicted deficit for 2018 of €17bn. 40% of Spanish pensioners (2.6 million people) now have incomes below €600 a month.

The enforcement of EU policies has caused a dramatic deterioration in the conditions of the working class. A recent European directive encourages Spain to further privatise its harbours and docks. In the face of this ‘reform’ and facing worsening working conditions and up to a 60% slump in wages, over 6,000 dockers started protests, partial strikes and boycotts in February. The government was forced to negotiate and, on 13 March, withdrew the decree. The EU guideline is supposed to stimulate free competition, but interestingly, the largest licensed operator at Spanish seaports is JP Morgan Chase, sentenced to a $550m fine for fixing the currency market and $330m for taking part in a banking cartel which manipulated the Euribor (the daily reference rate based on the averaged interest rates at which Eurozone banks lend unsecured funds to other banks in the euro wholesale money market).

Trials, double standards and fascism

The opposition parties have managed to join forces to call for the repeal of the repressive laws enforced in recent years, known collectively as the ‘gag law’. Of course, there is always one law for the rich and quite another for the working class. Double standards are the rule and the ruling conservative party has ensured this by appointing a friendly attorney general and pressing for awkward judges to be replaced. The outcome can be sensed. After months of trial, Cristina, the king’s sister, has been found not guilty of charges of corruption and embezzlement, on the grounds that she was not aware of what she signed. Her husband got away with a fine and returned to Switzerland. Two bankers accused of corruption and the sale of fraudulent financial products that ruined thousands of people remain free on bail as they await sentence, as their ‘exemplary’ behaviour shows they are not a flight risk. Recently intelligence service recordings from 1990 have been released, exposing the luxurious treatment King Juan Carlos dispensed to his lovers, at public expense. Very different treatment is dished out to those now facing trials following their arrests during the 2012 general strikes; or to the Catalonian politicians banned from public service for two years as punishment for organising an unauthorised referendum on independence.

In contrast to the ongoing repression of left-wing and social activists, fascist groups seem to enjoy impunity for their attacks. The extreme right-wing is making itself more noticeable: hiding its traditional symbols, it has developed the tactic of squatting buildings for xenophobic projects and distributing food only to Spanish nationals. The groups proudly boast of their links with Casa Pound in Italy and profess admiration for  Golden Dawn in Greece. These fascist groups lie behind the nearly 500 attacks related to racial hatred registered in 2016, and the 178 violent attacks on LGBT people in Madrid between January and September 2016.

Anti-austerity resistance

On 8 March, women throughout the country stopped all work at midday, with gatherings and pickets at the town halls of most major towns, fulfilling successfully the International Women’s Strike called in over 50 countries. In the evening, a record number of people joined the Women’s Day demonstration in Madrid; tens of thousands of people blocked the traffic in the city centre for an hour before the march departed. Feminist ideas are rising, especially amongst youth, and there is a response from Catholic ultra-conservatives to discredit women’s struggle and promote homophobia. Meanwhile, vulnerability and social cuts are pushing up the rate of violence against women. On 9 February, a group of victims of sexist violence camped in a square in central Madrid and carried out a month-long hunger strike, until the government agreed to debate their 25 proposals on the topic.

People are increasingly articulating their anger through protests around areas which directly affect their lives. On 9 March, classrooms remained empty because of a general strike in the education sector. The whole community was protesting against systematic cuts in education; lack of provision and replacement for retired teachers, resulting in an increase in the ratio of students, and an old-fashioned system based on excessive load of homework. Meanwhile housing activists are putting pressure on the courts to fulfil EU directives about paying reparation to victims of so-called ‘abusive clauses’ in their mortgage agreements. On 25 February, thousands marched in Madrid to defend social rights and protect national pension schemes. All these causes and struggles are reactions to the same imperialist policies from Brussels. The pressure increases and on 1 April, another demonstration will take place in the avenues around the parliament to reject the government’s pro-austerity general budget.