Terms and conditions

Charges of lack of patriotism are suddenly flying around the Spanish parliament, as the country's leading politicians argue about the conditions on which Spain should receive EU grants to help it tackle Covid-19. Which member states receive how much will be decided at a summit of EU leaders next month, but there's one thing that Spanish lawmakers (rightly) broadly agree on - namely, that the money, if it comes, should be in grants, not repayable loans. Spain's public finances are precarious enough as it is, without further debt being stacked onto a pile that's already in danger of toppling over.

The head of Spain's independent fiscal watchdog, AIReF, recently outlined to congress just how tough the debt-maintenance challenge will be over the coming decade. In her address last week, Cristina Herrero forecast that for Spain to return its public debt to last year's level of just under 100% of GDP, it will have to balance its budget, which is currently running a deficit of just under 3%, by 2030 and keep it balanced until at least 2040.

No wonder, then, that the Socialist government of Pedro Sánchez has set its sights on as much as €140 billion from the EU, around €74 billion of which could be in the form of grants that don't need to be paid back. But the question of how the money should be used, and to what extent the Spanish government should be allowed to decide that issue, has sparked a row in congress that purports to be about patriotism, with the PSOE and Popular Party (PP) each accusing the other of insufficient love of country in recent parliamentary debates.

The PP is among those EU countries and parties stipulating that the Spanish government be disallowed from using the money to pursue its own agendas (or for what it calls "ideological" ends) rather than for the task of "promoting structural reforms and innovation". Leaving aside the issue of where ideology stops and innovation starts, the request that there be conditions attached to the use of EU funds, especially for those given as repayable loans, is entirely reasonable. Podemos leader and deputy prime minister Pablo Iglesias, however, has said that arguing this case makes the PP's EU branch guilty of "treason".

The debate about the terms on which EU members receive funds to help them deal with Covid-19 has nothing to do with patriotism. At its centre is a concern over where exactly the money will be spent, especially in countries like Spain, where an already vulnerable economy has been rendered even more fragile by the pandemic. Employing charged but vague terms such as "patriotism" in this context helps no one; instead, it prevents necessary, detailed discussion of how Spain should use EU grants if it's fortunate enough to receive them.