EU imposes wage cuts on Spanish “Protectorate”, calls for budget primacy over sovereign parliaments
Spain has followed Ireland and Greece in imposing 1930s-era wage cuts to slash the budget deficit, complying with EU demands for further austerity in exchange for the €720bn `shock and awe’ rescue for eurzone debtors.
By Ambrose Evans-Pritchard
Premier Jose Luis Zapatero told a stunned nation that public sector pay will be reduced by 5pc this year and frozen in 2011. “We must make an extraordinary effort,” he said.
Pension rises will be shelved. The country’s €2,500 baby bonus will be cancelled. Aid to the regions will be slashed and infrastructure projects will be put on ice. Mr Zapatero’s own monthly pay will fall 15pc to €6,515.
Mariano Rajoy, the conservative opposition leader, said years of ostrich-like denial by the Zapatero team had reduced the country to an EU “protectorate”.
Commission president Jose Barroso unveiled plans for EU control over national budgets, including an incendiary demand that Brussels should vet budgets before their first reading in Westminster, the Bundestag, and other parliaments. Current account deficits and credit growth will be monitored. Brussels can imposing sanctions on states that let booms run out of control. “We must get to the root of the problems,” he said.
Such a plan would greatly improve the working of the EMU system, but it would also entail a drastic erosion of sovereignty. The intrusive surveillance is a wake-up call for states that have tended to view the euro as a free lunch.
Mr Zapatero – who long prided himself on being an “anthropological optimist” – plans to cut the deficit from 11.2pc to 6pc of GDP this year, with further cuts next year. The fresh move is to placate bond vigilantes and to calm German fears that eurozone discipline is breaking. He has already raised income taxes and lifted VAT from 16pc to 18pc.
US President Barack Obama played a key role behind the scenes, pleading with Mr Zapatero for “resolute action”. The telephone call from the White House is a clear indication that contagion from Greece and Portugal to the much larger debt markets of Spain had become a global systemic threat by late last week.
“The markets were going in for the kill: the eurozone itself was on the brink of collapse,” said Jose Garcia Zarate from 4Cast. The austerity package has gained time but investors are eyeing the response of the Spanish people.
“Just months ago the government said it would never cut wages, so this is a very humiliating U-turn. There will be protests, but we don’t know yet whether there will be a general strike,” he said.
Spain’s UGT union federation warned of “social conflict” and vowed to inflict “maximum punishment” on the government. However, the nation as a whole has so far handled a property slump and a rise in unemployment to 20pc with stoicism, befitting the tradition of the Spanish-born Stoic philosopher Seneca.
Javier Perez de Azpillaga from Goldman Sachs said Spain has climbed rapidly up the technology ladder. Its exports have grown faster than those of Italy or France. It has a low public debt of 53pc of GDP, but a “highly leveraged” private sector. Real estate companies have debts of €445bn, or 45pc of GDP. “Banks may not be able to recoup large parts of these loans. These losses will have to be recognized eventually, bringing down many institutions and forcing the government to recapitalize them,” he said.
The `Cajas’ — public sector banks — have assets of €1.3 trillion and account for most mortgage debt. Many are struggling. The saving grace is that the two giants, Santander and BBVA, have global portfolios and are in “excellent shape”.
Caixa Catalunya said the stock of unsold homes in Spain reached 926.000 at the end of last year, equivalent to 6.5m in the US. It expects the market to touch bottom this year with real falls of 20pc to 25pc from the peak. Spanish households have been able to draw on a very high savings rate of 17.9pc to absorb the shock .
Spain’s wage cuts amount to an “internal devaluation” within EMU. Stephen Lewis from Monument Securities said the EU is pushing a clutch of countries into contractionary policies at the same time. These will feed on each other, creating a deflation bias across the region akin to the ‘Gold Bloc’ in the 1930s.
“It is not a viable policy. Weakening demand will cause the tax base to shrink. If the population could see light at the end of the tunnel, they might put up with it, but there is no light: it is a long dark passage leading nowhere,” he said.
The EU cites the Irish austerity plan as a model, but Ireland has an open economy with a dynamic export sector, and may be sui generis. In any case, Ireland’s nominal GDP has fallen 18.6pc, without a commensurate fall in debt. Ireland is not yet safely out of its debt-deflation trap.