Col·lectiu Emma - Explaining Catalonia

Sunday, 1 january 2012 | New York Times


Some interesting notes on the New York Times article from Edward Hugh

Col·lectiu Emma's good friend, Edward Hugh, has also comented the NYT's article "As Spain Acts to Cut Deficit, Regional Debts Add to Woe" in his Facebook wall. We reproduce his interesting remarks here.


I'm not really sure that Suzanne Daly of the New York Times may not have been been inadvertently taken for a ride with the article she wrote yesterday, which was purportedly on regional extravagance in Spain. Not that examples of such extravagance don't abound, its just that the example she choses to highlight in her article - the prison at Puig de Les Bases, Figueres (which just happens to be only a few kilometres from where I live) - is NOT an example of something that isn't needed, like a phantom airport, or a golf course where no one will ever play golf. The problem with Puig de Les Bases is not that there aren't prisoners waiting to be moved there from two outdated prisons which are scheduled to close, but that there isn't enough money to run the place if it opens. In fact Suzanne Daly notices this, but seems to get carried away with the force of her own rhetoric, and doesn't seem to catch the significance of the point.

"Evidence of the regional profligacy dots the countryside. On the top of a hill here in the birthplace of Salvador Dalí, in northeastern Spain sits a giant, empty penitentiary. But even without a single prisoner in residence, the prison is costing Spain’s heavily indebted regional government of Catalonia $1.3 million a month, largely in interest payments. If prisoners were actually moved in, it would cost an additional $2.6 million a month. So it sits empty, an object of ridicule around here, often referred to as the “spa.” "

So the question is, is this an example of regional profligacy, or an example of cuts which are biting? The issue goes deeper. Catalonia is a region which is seriously underfunded by the central government - indeed as was suggested by the regional minister of economics, Andreu Mas Colell, it looks suspiciously like the central government were not paying funds owing to some key regional governments to make the regional deficit look worse, and the central deficit look better. This point is picked up on by a group called Collectiu Emma, which spends it time correcting factual inaccuracies in the international press when it comes to Catalonia. As they say:

"One key point that is overlooked in your otherwise informative article on Spain's economic difficulties (As Spain Acts to Cut Deficit, Regional Debts Add to Woe, December 30, 2011) is that Spain is not a federal State. Under the country's fiscal arrangement taxes are collected by the central government, which will keep part of the proceeds for itself and distribute the rest among the regions to pay for the services that have been devolved. There is no correspondence between what the regions get to spend and the wealth they have generated."

"For the last year Catalonia, one of the most productive and most heavily taxed communities, has been undergoing painful cuts in services. And yet, the share of tax money that it contributes to the State and never comes back is estimated today at a staggering 8-9 per cent of its annual GDP. If Catalonia could use even part of those funds to finance essential services for its own population, it would have no deficit and no debt, and could even afford one or two extravagant schemes like those that other regions -and the central government itself- can enjoy as long as they are paid for with somebody else's money. Catalans would not mind a serious revision of the regional setup, but only if it envisages fiscal responsibility on the recipients' part, better control over their own money by those who have earned it and more transparent procedures by the central government".

Now one of the points Collectiu Emma didn't make, but could have, is that Catalonia is one of the few regional governments (and maybe the only one) which has responsibility for administering the prison service. Catalonia also received so little money from central government that it ran out in December (not because it is "extravagant" but because it is seriously underfunded) to such an extent that it was not able to pay all public servant salaries for December before the end of the year, so in fact one of the reasons the prison is lying idle is that the central government is not forwarding money it has a legal responsibility to transfer, and the reason it is doing this is to massage its own deficit, and encourage people like Susanne Daly to write the article she wrote.

It gets worse, since some of the "misinformation" about the situation in Catalonia has a deliberate political intent - to recentralise Spain. This is certainly the objective of tax minister Cristobal Montoro, since many in the Partido Popular are already very fed up with the fact we insist on using our own language, and doing things our own way (like banning bull fighting).

"And while Spain’s overall fiscal status is nowhere near as dire as Italy’s, it has another problem all its own, as the new budget minister, Cristóbal Montoro, made clear Friday: serious budget shortfalls in its 17 autonomous regions, which have spent recklessly in the past decade".

It is also striking how the article also draws attention to spending issues in the community of Andalusia (which is the only community the PSOE really controls now, and which the PP hope to win in elections in the spring) while there is no real mention of communities like Valencia, or Galicia, which are controlled by the PP and where there are plenty of examples which could be mentioned, like the phantom airport in Castellon, built under the eager eyes of former Valencian President Francisco Camps, who had to resign and is now facing corruption charges in a trial which is currently attracting a lot of media attention.

I am sure as Collectiu Emma point out, there are many examples here in Catalonia of projects which were not needed (the Alguaire airport in Lleida would be one), but the key difference here is that Catalans overspent using their own money, while many regional governments (some of them ruled by the PP) did so using Catalan money. So it is curious, to say the least, that the article kicks off with a big picture of a prison in Catalonia as the stylised example to epitomise the problem.

But there is more, since it is not clear whether all the attention which is being focused on the Figueres prison is not - in some warped way - a by-product of protests by prison staff unions against the spending cutbacks. Searching around for background information, I discovered a most interesting article in El Pais (sympthetic to the Spanish socialist party PSOE) entitled "locos por ir a la carcel" (desparate to go to prison):

The gist of this article is the plight of a number of unemployed people who have passed the exams to have places in the prison service, but can't be offered work since the prison is not open. What we have here is the view of a heartless Catalan government making swinging cutbacks on important social projects. Far from putting the blame on the outgoing socialist lead catalan government who built the prison in the first place, the article blames the new justice department head, Pilar Fernández Bozal, who hasn't opened becuase she hasn't been able to obtain the funding needed to open the place.

The lesson I would advise Suzanne Daly to learn from this whole affair is that nothing in Spain is as it appears to be, and that few of the arguments politicians and so called "experts" advance are innocent, mostly information in Spain is highly politicised. Really "independent" analysts are virtually unknown. Crickey, I even saw outgoing Minister in the Zapatero government Alfredo Rubalcaba on TV today, criticising Mariano Rajoy's government for all the cutbacks he has just announced and for having no policy to come out of the crisis, without mentioning that the cuts were so big because his government overspent - or tolerated overspending - or that the policies the government were following were basically identical with those his own government had been following).

Far from suggesting that the prison project was extravagant, El Pais implies it is badly needed (since space in the Catalan prison system is extremely scarce), and my feeling is that with crime on the rise after 4 years of continuous crisis, El Pais is probably more right about this than the New York Times is.

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Col·lectiu Emma - Explaining Catalonia

Col·lectiu Emma is a network of Catalans and non-Catalans living in different countries who have made it their job to track and review news reports about Catalonia in the international media. Our goal is to ensure that the world's public opinion gets a fair picture of the country's reality today and in history.

We aim to be recognized as a trustworthy source of information and ideas about Catalonia from a Catalan point of view.
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Col·lectiu Emma - Explaining Catalonia