Esperanza Aguirre, the President of the Community of Madrid, has attempted to ignite the whole of Spain with her call to rebellion against the rise in the VAT rates from July 1st. Critics of this measure say that is unfair to burden the citizens with this tax rise and that it won’t help the economic recovery. The socialists see it as a good way of covering the deficit and explain that Spain has the lowest VAT rates in Europe. This post is not about the pros and cons of this measure. It’s about the meaning of the gesture by Aguirre, a politician who is either considered by the PP to be a heroic defender of their values or a loose cannon that damages the cohesion and unity of the party.
Aguirre’s capacity for audacious gestures is breathtaking. She is calling for rebellion whilst fees and taxes are being raised faster in Madrid than anywhere else in Spain. How can this happen? The answer lies within the system of Autonomous Communities itself, a system improvised during the Transition. The system has allowed for the growth in local oligarchies. National party politics are reproduced at a local level and are to a great extent more important than national politics because of the huge amount of power devolved to the Autonomous Communities. The Presidents are medieval barons of their individual fiefs, who have built up their own power structures in their local areas. Prime examples of this are Camps (who is still widely supported in Valencia despite the Gürtel scandal) and Aguirre (who regularly challenges Rajoy indirectly.) These barons then flex their muscles, pushing at the boundaries between the Autonomous Communities and the state: for example the censoring of a museum exhibition in Valencia and Telemadrid, which has become the PP’s vehicle for expounding their views.
Local agendas affect the perception of national politics and place the local oligarchies in the advantageous position of being able to manipulate the introduction of legislation within their region and blame the problems on national government. Where the party in opposition in the national parliament (currently the PP) is in power at Autonomous Community level, it can serve as a counterweight to the national government, vociferously complaining and dragging its heels with respect to the introduction of national laws within their fiefs. It is not right that social legislation (as national policy) should be implemented differently according to the region and local politics, to the detriment of the citizens. Consequently the implementation of laws varies widely between different Autonomous Communities. The system blocks the effective and efficient introduction of policy.
Where is the line between the Autonomous Communities and the state? I don’t think it has been clearly drawn yet. This means the wasting of millions of Euros, as responsibility is shifted between national government and local government (see, for example, the Law of Historical Memory. Both the Autonomous Communities and the government have declared its implementation to be the responsibility of the other) in addition to a large civil service: Spain has a big number of civil servants compared to other European countries.
There are plenty of problems with the present system, but that doesn’t mean it should be abolished. The system of Autonomous Communities is entirely workable, but it requires a clearer hierarchy with respect to responsibilities and less medieval oligarchies. The Presidents need to realise that they have a duty to their local citizens and to national government, not just to the maintenance of their personal fiefdoms. The line needs to be drawn urgently.