Tensions rise in Spain over use of €140 billion in EU recovery funds

The Spanish government is increasingly under fire over its use of the European Union's massive economic recovery funds, with critics blasting the distribution of aid as too slow and arbitrary.

Spain's Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez presents a graph during an end-of-year press conference at La Moncloa Palace in Madrid, on December 29, 2021. (Photo by JAVIER SORIANO / AFP)
Spain's Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez presents a graph during an end-of-year press conference at La Moncloa Palace in Madrid, on December 29, 2021. (Photo by JAVIER SORIANO / AFP)

Spain is due to receive €140 billion ($160 billion) from the fund by 2026, half of it in grants, making it the programme’s second-biggest beneficiary after Italy.

The landmark €800-billion recovery plan was approved by Brussels in July 2020 to help the bloc rebound from the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, and make its economy greener and more digitalised.

“We are talking about extraordinary amounts,” Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez said earlier this month, calling the funds “a historic opportunity for Spain”.

Spain and Portugal were the first nations to receive money, with Madrid collecting €19 billion during the second half of 2021.

The funds are at the heart of the economic and political strategy of Sánchez’s government after the economy contracted by a whopping 10.8 percent in 2020 under its watch as the pandemic hit.

The government faces elections by the end of 2023.

But some business leaders and opposition parties have complained about a lack of coordination between the central government and Spain’s powerful regions over the deployment of the money.

 ‘Lack of leadership’

Although Spain was the first to receive aid, the money was “not injected” as fast as expected in the “real economy”, the CEOE employers’ association said in a report in early January.

By the end of the year, only 38 percent of the funds allocated to Spain for 2021 had been used, official figures show.

This is “very far from the targets” that were set and the delay in using the aid will hamper growth, think-tank Funcas has warned.

Aerospace giant Airbus complained of a lag in the allotment of the funds, citing a “lack of coordination and leadership” from the responsible ministries, according to an internal memo published in El País newspaper last month.

Critics also say that even when the money is distributed, it is often not well spent, with small amounts spread across many projects.

“The current assignment system for the funds” leads to their “dispersion” and favours “little projects”, some of them “a bit odd,” said the Exceltur tourism association’s vice president, José Luis Zoreda.

He cited as an example a golf course in the rainy northern region of Asturias.

To have a “real impact”, the funds should focus on “a few large projects” with a strong potential to “transform” the Spanish economy, he added.

‘Cruising speed’

The row has in recent days become political, with the right-wing opposition Popular Party (PP) accusing the government of favouring regions and municipalities run by the left.

“Two years ago we proposed setting up an independent agency for managing EU funds” as happened in Greece, Italy and France, PP leader Pablo Casado said.

“But Sánchez preferred to distribute aid arbitrarily,” he charged.

Casado and several right-wing regional leaders have threatened to take the government to court over the distribution of the EU money, accusing it of “favouritism”.

But Sánchez quickly hit back.

“Let’s not turn the European funds into a partisan question… which is what the opposition wants,” Sánchez said Monday during a news conference with visiting German Chancellor Olaf Scholz.

Economy Minister Nadia Calviño, who served as director general in charge of the EU budget from 2014 to 2018, dismissed the PP’s criticisms as “not relevant”.

The deployment of European funds will achieve its “cruising speed” in 2022, she added.

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Spanish government divided over proposed menstruation leave bill

Talk of abortion policy reform and proposed menstrual leave has dominated Spanish discourse this week, but it’s also dividing Spain’s coalition government.

Spanish government divided over proposed menstruation leave bill

Spain’s PSOE-fronted coalition government recently outlined proposals that have dominated public discourse in the country.

But the legislation, which would allow women over the age of 16 to get abortions without the permission of their parents and introduce ‘menstruation leave’ for those suffering serious period pains, has not only divided Spanish society but the government itself.

The proposals would make Spain a leader in the Western world, and the first European Union member state to introduce menstrual leave, and changes to abortion law would overturn a 2015 law passed by the conservative People’s Party that forced women aged 16 and 17 to obtain parental consent.

The wide-ranging bill would also end VAT on menstrual products, increase the free distribution of them in schools, and allow between three and five days of leave each month for women who experience particularly painful periods.

READ MORE: What are Spain’s abortion laws for foreign residents and visitors?

Menstrual leave

Ángela Rodríguez, the Secretary of State for Equality, told Spanish newspaper El Periódico in March that “it’s important to be clear about what a painful period is – we’re not talking about slight discomfort, but about serious symptoms such as diarrhoea, fever and bad headaches.”

“When there’s a problem that can’t be solved medically, we think it’s very sensible to have temporary sick leave,” she added.

Cabinet politics

The proposals are slated for approval in cabinet next week, and judging by reports in the Spanish media this week, it is far from reaching a consensus. It is believed the intra-cabinet tensions stem not from the changes to abortion and contraception accessibility, but rather the proposed menstrual leave.

The junior coalition partner in government, Podemos, largely supports the bill, but it is believed some in the PSOE ranks are more sceptical about the symbolism and employment effects of the proposed period pain policy.

Vice President and Minister of Economic Affairs, Nadia Calviño, said this week: “Let me repeat it very clearly: this government believes and is absolutely committed to gender equality and we will never adopt measures that may result in a stigmatisation of women.”

Yet Second Vice President and Minister of Labour, Yolanda Díaz, who is viewed as further to the left than President Pedro Sánchez and other PSOE cabinet ministers, is reportedly “absolutely in favour” of the measure to reform Spain’s “deeply masculinised” labour market.

Sources in the Spanish media have this week also reported that some PSOE cabinet ministers feel the proposed paid leave not only plays up to stereotypes of women, or stigmatises them, like Calviño says, but also places them at a disadvantage in the world of work.

Minister of Inclusion, Social Security and Migration, José Luis Escrivá, stated that while the government should seek to improve women’s employment protections, it should also seek to boost their participation in the labour market under “better conditions.”

In that vein, some feel menstrual leave could be used a form of of employment discrimination similarly to how pregnancy has been historically, and the policy would, in that sense, actually be more regressive than progressive in enshrining women’s workplace rights. 

READ MORE: Spain eyes free contraception for under-25’s

Trade unions

Trade unions are also sceptical of the menstrual leave legislation. Cristina Antoñanzas, deputy secretary of UGT, one of Spain’s largest trade unions, has echoed those in the cabinet who feel the proposals could “stigmatise women.” She added that “it does women a disservice.”

Public opinion

A survey run by INTIMINA found that 67 percent of Spanish women are in favour of regulating menstrual leave, but also that 75 percent fear it is “a double-edged sword” that could generate labor discrimination.

The survey also found that 88 percent of women who suffer from disabling and frequent period pain have gone to work despite it. Seventy-one percent admitted that they have normalised working with pain.

Cabinet showdown

The proposed menstrual leave policy will be debated in cabinet next week when the Council of Ministers debates and approves the broader abortion and contraception reforms. According to sources in the Spanish media, and many cabinet ministers themselves, it seems a consensus on menstruation leave is a long way off.