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Analysis: Does Spain need to reform its constitution?

Would constitutional reform help solve the Catalan crisis? And how likely is it? Political scientist Edu Bayón analyses the current state of play.

Analysis: Does Spain need to reform its constitution?
Should Spain embark on constitutional reform? Photo: AFP

Key figures from Spain’s political class, including the Socialist Party, are calling for constitutional reform in Spain. What type of reform could be enacted? How? And for what purpose?

Spain is at a key moment where a constitutional reform is needed to update the magna carta and renew the basic rules of coexistence. Spain has experienced a crisis – a crisis that has been socio-economic as well as political-institutional and territorial – and has seen consensus eroded.

The reform is needed to perfect a constitutional text that is showing signs of fatigue. One of the key functions of a constitution must be to adapt to the needs of the political community that it orders.

We must bear in mind that times have changed; decisions taken 39-years ago may have been right and correct then but may not remain so today

We need a deep reform of the parliament, and especially of the Senate, so that it can finally become a truly representative body for all of Spain.

Likewise, it is necessary to establish a popular legislative initiative. At the moment a petition can be presented to Congress if it collects at least 500,000 signatures ( but with no guarantee that it will be accepted) a figure that seems excessive when compared to systems in Switzerland or Italy, or with the European Commission itself.  We need to introduce referendum mechanisms that will involve the citizen even more in political participation.

In addition, we must do more to ring-fence the Welfare State, especially to ensure that rights related to education and health are not cut by the governments of the day. That we enshrine them as true fundamental rights, and not just principles to be interpreted by the legislator. I’m taking about principles contained in the articles related to social rights such as the right to protection of unemployment (article 41), the right to public health (article 43), decent housing (article 47) and pensions (article 50).

And of course, we need to tackle the autonomous system (that governs the regions), its financing and its division of powers, given that the Catalan situation has left it in question. This issue becomes essential in forming a federal State that is acceptable to all.

Constitutional reform can only happen by going through the difficult process established in article 168 of the 1978 Constitution. It would need very strong majority support, the dissolution of the Cortes and then a referendum to approve it. It’s a complex process but one that forces consensus to be reached between the different political actors. The role of society, on the other hand, must be as protagonist.

Several key figures of Catalan politics remain in prison as campaigning starts for the regional elections on December 21st. Do you think any of the imprisoned leaders could be released before the elections?

Since the release of the six ousted politicans after they made bail, and with Junqueras, the “jordis” and Forn continuing behind bars, it seems unlikely that we will see more changes to the situation before December 21st.

Is the Catalan independence movement likely to grow weaker after the regional elections or grow even stronger?

The force of the Catalan independence movement will depend on the parliamentary majority in the Catalan Parliament after December 21st and the make-up of the government formed after the election. If from the outset, we see a majority of separatists,  then clearly the movement will be strengthened and that it will demonstrate a triumph over the application of Article 155 and what happened in these last weeks. On the other hand, if the independence parties lose its parliamentary majority, the movement will likely take a backward step.

The electoral polls published so far show both blocs neck-and-neck and also reveal an important rise in support for Junts per Catalunya, the party led by Carles Puigdemont, whose strategy and tactics from Brussels seems to be reporting electoral benefits.

In any case, I stress that the evolution of the independence movement will depend on the result that comes out of the polls on December 21st.


Photo: AFP

To what extent does Rajoy's Popular Party use the Catalan crisis to divert attention from other national issues, such as corruption and constitutional reform?

In dealing with the Catalan issue the Popular Party government has at times been gripped by paralysis and at others acted simultaneously with conflicting and polarized positions.

The question of Catalonia has not only served to see issues such as corruption and constitutional reform swept aside, but more pressing issues such as unemployment and other social issues that dominated the political agenda a few years ago have disappeared from the headlines of the press and the daily political agenda.

It seems clear that the Popular Party is more comfortable when the political discussion and frame of reference focuses on Catalonia and the territorial issue, rather than on social issues that favour the left.

In the future, what do you see as the great challenges for Spain and Catalonia, especially in the economic sphere?

The territorial crisis gripping Spain is one of the main challenges facing the Spanish State after the Catalan independence process.

In terms of the economy, improving the prospects for growth that have fallen in recent months will be another issue. On the other hand, the problem of high unemployment, especially among young people, as well as low wages and precarious state of the jobs created will be the major challenges to face.

Lets not forget the pensions, whose financing system needs to be reviewed, and whose funds the governments of the PP have squandered since 2011.

Catalonia should seek to recover certain normalcy, provide political stability and offer tranquility and confidence to certain sectors, not only the financial sector, but also tourism, whose role in the economy is fundamental and which has been affected in recent months by the independence drive and its consequences.

On the other hand, it seems unlikely that the companies that changed their headquarters will return to Catalonia in the short term.

ENERGY

Air-con, ties and lights: How Europe plans to save energy and get through winter without blackouts

In the face of possible energy shortages due to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, countries around Europe are taking action to cut their energy use and ensure that the lights remain on this winter. Here's a look at some of the rules and recommendations that governments are introducing.

Air-con, ties and lights: How Europe plans to save energy and get through winter without blackouts

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and ensuing sanctions has seen energy prices soar, while the Russian leader is also threatening to cut off gas supplies to the west in retaliation for the sanctions.

All this means that countries around Europe face a difficult winter and the prospect of energy shortages – so many are already taking action to stockpile gas and cut energy usage.

Here’s a roundup of what actions are being taken. 

Germany

Heavily dependant on Russian gas, Germany is already feeling the effects of the energy squeeze, with many households and businesses turning down the thermostat or dimming the lights as gas storage facilities are being filled at a slower pace.

RulesEarly in July, Germany’s lower house of parliament or Bundestag passed a plan to turn off the hot water in its offices and keep the air temperature no higher than 20C in the winter. This limit is merely recommended for households.

However homeowners will not be allowed to heat private pools with gas “this winter”, according to government plans, while a regulation requiring minimum temperatures in rented homes is expected to be suspended “so that tenants who want to save energy and turn down the heating are allowed to do so”.

As well as national rules, many German cities have also adopted their own energy-savings plans.

The Bavarian city of Augsburg, for example, has turned off its fountains, dimmed the facades of public buildings at night and is debating switching off some under-used traffic lights – and a housing cooperative in Dresden made national headlines when it announced it would limit hot water to certain times of day.

With certain exceptions, public buildings in Berlin will not have heating from April to the end of September each year, with room temperatures limited to a maximum of 20C for the rest of the year. In areas such as warehouses, technical rooms, corridors, the maximum will range from 10 to 15C.

Private enterprise has been getting in on the act too – Vonovia, Germany’s largest property group, plans to limit the temperature in its 350,000 homes to a maximum of 17C at night.

The head of consumer chemicals group Henkel has said that work-from-home practices may be reintroduced, while chemicals giant BASF has raised the possibility of putting its employees on furlough.

Recommendations – Economy Minister Robert Habeck has made headlines for extolling the virtues of shorter, colder showers.

France

France has an ambitious plan to cut its energy usage by 10 percent within two years and a government plan for sobriété énergétique (energy sobriety) is expected by September.

In the meantime, some rules have already been put in place while there are also some official recommendations. The general principle is that changes will be obligatory for government buildings and businesses, but voluntary for private households. 

Rules – In 2013, a law obliging businesses to switch off outside lights by 1am came into force. That deadline may be brought forward and towns and villages may have to switch off streetlights earlier – some areas have already taken this decision.

Shops that have air conditioning may not leave their doors open, so that less energy is lost.

Limits have been suggested for heating and air conditioning – keep heating to a maximum of 19C and air con to a minimum of 26C at the height of summer. The Prime Minister says she ‘expects’ government buildings to show an example and adhere to these, but they are voluntary for households.

Meanwhile, the heads of large supermarket chains in France have made a voluntary agreement for all stores to employ energy-saving techniques, such as turning off electric signs at closing times, reducing light usage, and managing store temperatures, from October 15th this year. They will also cut lighting by half before opening time, and by 30 percent during “critical consumption periods”.

Additionally, they will “cut off air renewal at night” and “lower the temperature in outlets to 17C this autumn and winter, if requested by a regulatory authority”.

Recommendations – The government has urged individuals to adopt energy-saving practices – by switching off wifi routers when on holiday, turning off lights, unplugging electric appliances when not in use, and lowering the air-con.

France’s energy transition minister Agnes Pannier-Runacher has urged people to keep heating to a maximum of 19C and air con to a minimum of 26C at the height of summer.

Spain

Spain has introduced perhaps the most wide-ranging set of rules in its new energy-saving bill, which comes into force on August 10th.

Public buildings as well as shops, restaurants, cafés, supermarkets, transport hubs and cultural spaces must:

  • Set heating and cooling temperatures to limits of 19C and 27C respectively;
  • Install doors that automatically close by September 30th to prevent energy waste, as can happen with regular doors that are left open;
  • Lights in shop windows must be turned off by 10pm;
  • Posters must be put up to explain the energy saving measures in every building or establishment, and thermometers must be displayed to show the temperature and humidity of the room.

READ ALSO: Is it realistic for Spain to set the air con limit at 27C during summer?

Recommendations – the above rules do not apply to private homes, but it is recommended to follow the heating and cooling limits.

Meanwhile, working from home is recommended for large companies and public administration buildings to help “save on the displacement and thermal consumption of buildings”, Spain’s Minister for Ecological Transition Teresa Ribera said.

And have you thought about your outfit? Here’s Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez explaining why he’s ditching his tie to stay a little bit cooler.

Italy

Back in April the Italian government approved limits on the use of air conditioning in public offices and schools from May 1st, to save energy and wean itself off reliance on Russian gas imports.

At the time Ministers said that Italy would be able to end its reliance on Russian gas within 18 months, after previously giving a timeframe of at least two years.

Rules – In public buildings, energy use will be measured in individual rooms of each building – the temperature must not exceed 19C in winter and cannot be any lower than 27C in summer, with a margin of tolerance of two degrees – meaning the lowest allowed temperature is actually 25C.

Fines for non-compliance with the rules are said to range from €500 to €3,000. The measure does not currently apply to clinics, hospitals and nursing homes.

Italy has long had rules in place limiting the usage of heating in homes and public buildings during winter. Northern and mountainous areas are allowed to switch on the heat in October, while some parts of the south can’t turn up the dial until December.

Even then, there are limits on how long you’re allowed to keep the central heating on each day, ranging from six hours in the warmest parts of the country to 14 hours in chillier regions.

And there are rules on maximum temperatures – private homes, offices and schools should not be heated to more than 20C, with a 2C tolerance. Meanwhile factories and workshops should generally be kept at 18C.

Austria

The Austrian government has said it will work on measures to encourage energy saving among households and businesses while putting a cap on electricity prices.

The aim is to “support the Austrian population to ensure unaffordable energy supply for a certain basic need”, according to a government statement. 

The government didn’t give details on the price cap but said that conditions would be developed by the end of August.

Sweden

Sweden has announced no new measures in response to the energy crisis, but already has certain limits in place. 

Many Swedish apartment buildings and housing cooperatives have a strict maximum heating limit of 21C indoors and in some buildings radiators have a limiter on them so they cannot be turned too high.

In Denmark, too, the government has introduced no specific new measures.

Switzerland

In common with other countries, Switzerland is at risk of a gas shortage this winter and the government has warned that restrictions on consumption during the coldest months cannot be excluded.

Nearly half of its annual supply is of Russian origin. “We are not an island, so the war in Ukraine and the global energy crisis also affect Switzerland,” Energy Minister Simonetta Sommaruga said at the end of June. “In this context, there is no certainty about what awaits us.”

The possibility that Swiss households will have to turn down the thermostat this winter is very real. 

In the event of an actual shortage, “consumption restrictions may be ordered, for example restrictions on the heating of unoccupied buildings. The switching to biofuel could be imposed by ordinance”, Economy Minister Guy Parmelin has said.

If shortages persist, a quota system would be implemented – with households and essential services, such as hospitals, among the last to be affected.

But Parmelin insisted, “the role of the State is to guarantee a good supply of gas and electricity to the country. We want at all costs to avoid a disruption in supply, which would have a strong impact on businesses and  would then lead to an economic crisis”.

UK

Less reliant on Russian gas because of its own gas reserves, the UK is currently less worried about supply than price – soaring utility bills may force many households into poverty this winter, campaigners have warned.

Households in the UK will start receiving a discount worth a total £400 (€478) off their energy bills from October, the British government has said, with the support package rises to £1,200 (€1,430) for the poorest households.

A recent report by National Grid said there was little chance of the lights going out in the UK this winter – though experts have warned that a severe cold spell could prompt action, such as shutdowns of non-critical factory operations, to ensure homes can be heated.

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