It was planned to be one of the final parliamentary appearances by José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero as Spanish prime minister, and we knew in advance that yesterday's session was likely to include some new economic measures. What we got was a mini bombshell. The decision, announced by Zapatero, to change the Spanish constitution to include a budget deficit cap was a well kept secret, or perhaps that should be well kept from the Spanish people. It's going to be an express change, pushed through parliament in a matter of days using the combined might of the PSOE and the Partido Popular.
Others were in on the secret in advance, we know that opposition leader Mariano Rajoy was told previously by Zapatero. The constitution cannot be changed by a simple parliamentary majority, which Zapatero doesn't possess anyway; the votes of the PP are essential to get the change through. So what was going on? The general consensus is that the measure forms part of a secret deal with Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy, in return for the European Central Bank intervening in the markets on behalf of Spain. We don't know whether this deal has been documented and nothing has been admitted by the government, but little else can be found to explain the apparent urgency of a measure which we are told won't even take effect before 2018.
This is no trivial measure, although it is in many ways a bizarre one. Enshrining deficit limits in the constitution is simply stupid, it's not the place for such a measure and almost more than anything else that has been done so far it represents beautifully the dogmatic, senseless policies that have already taken Europe back to the brink of another recession. The irony is that the lunatic policies of the Tea Party are having more success in Europe so far than they are in the USA. One country after another is being pushed into depression all so that a bought out political class can forget all the promises they made 3 or 4 years ago not to let it happen again. I used to wonder a bit how Europe stumbled into depression and war in the 1930's, the mystery has now been solved for me.
Countries need deficits, not all the time but they need them. The idea that a budget deficit should be legally banned is the dogma of idiot ideologues unable to learn anything from history. Unable to learn from failure either, as things get worse the only solution they offer is more of the same. The medicine isn't working, it must be because we haven't cut the other leg off. Pushing secret deals through parliament without any proper explanation and with half the country on holiday typifies the distance between the political class and the people they occasionally still claim to represent. A movement has already started to demand a referendum on the change, a logical and perfectly practical step with elections coming in November. 10% of the parliamentary representatives can force this to happen, but that seems unlikely to happen in the world of closed lists where dissent can mean no future.
But let's leave that aside and examine how the measure might work. Taking into account the recent history of Spain's Tribunal Constitucional let's ask what happens if the constitution is changed and the country exceeds the budget cap? Unless they're going to change the procedure too the next step is that someone (the opposition?) has to present a case to the Tribunal. Based on past experience they then sit on this for a couple of years, perhaps with a bit of inter-party wrangling over court membership involved to pass the time, before issuing a decision. By this time the deficit may be smaller or bigger, so what effect does it all have? None. That's why it's a pointless, ideological trophy. Of course changing the constitution back to stop wasting the time of the judges becomes incredibly difficult without PSOE and PP agreement to do so. There are some perfectly sensible constitutional changes which have been gathering dust for years because the PP refused to touch a document that they originally opposed but now regard as sacred.
One success of the announcement has been that the constitution issue completely overshadows quite a dramatic reduction in the already precarious rights of young workers in Spain. Employers are now going to be allowed to indefinitely string together temporary job contracts. Meaning of course that the contract is not really temporary at all, except as far as the protection of the employee is concerned. At the same time a "training" contract previously designed for employees aged 21 or under is now extended to those aged 30. I'm waiting to hear the loud cries from those who constantly bemoan the two-tier labour market as this is a significant widening of the gap. I'll wait in vain, because we know what the solution proposed for that problem will be.