Madrid view: Letter to Zapatero

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 At last there was light, and we saw the letter that the president of the European Central Bank sent to Spanish Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero on August 5, 2011. Its tardy publication in the former prime minister’s memoirs offers several lessons on the weakness of democracy, both here and in the EU. As far as contents are concerned, the ECB oversteps its mandate and, to “restore the credibility of Spain in the eyes of the capital markets” calls on the Zapatero government to reduce wages, make firing easier, weaken the unions, limit public spending by law and — taking the opportunity to slip another measure into the package — liberalize the rental market. So much for the stick; as for the carrot, starting on August 8, the ECB would purchase up to 36 billion euros in Spanish and Italian debt on the secondary markets; purchases which, indeed, many considered also overstepped the ECB’s powers.  

Procedure-wise, things were also on the messy side. At the Congress session on August 23, 2011, in which the members were asked to endorse the decree of August 19 that adopted most of the measures demanded by the ECB and announced an imminent modification to the Constitution, introducing a ceiling on public spending, Zapatero celebrated the fact that the recent ECB purchases had alleviated the pressure on the risk premium, but refused to answer two direct questions from Mariano Rajoy on the existence of the letter — that is, refused to admit there had been any sort of conditionality between one thing and the other. If we learned at the time that there was such a link between the adoption of the measures and the purchase of debt, it was because someone in Italy had the decency to leak to the Corriere della Sera a practically identical letter from the ECB to the Italian government, dated on the same day, August 5.  

But at this point a Spanish lawyer, Isaac Ibáñez, had the happy idea of going to the European ombudsman and demanding that the ECB publish the letter. The ECB admitted the existence of the letter, but refused to publish it, alleging that this would “be prejudicial to the protection of the public interest in relation to the monetary policy of the Union.” The unsatisfied complainant persevered, in vain, saying that “in a system based on democratic legitimacy, the public authorities both of the EU and the nation must be responsible to the public for their actions.”  

Our fellow citizen Ibáñez, though he was entirely in the right, lost the battle, as did the rest of the citizens. So, though we are now glad to know, at last, the content of the letter, we regret our not having known it by legitimate right, but by the supposed magnanimity of a former prime minister who concealed its existence from the Congress and from the public, but on leaving office to take up a comfortable seat on the State Council, took it home with him, in order to use it for his own political benefit when he saw fit. Mr Zapatero: would you please be kind enough to put the original in an envelope and send it off to Mr Ibáñez, who deserves to have it, so that he can frame it and put it on his wall. Or light a cigar with it, if he should so wish.

The article first appeared in El Pais.

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