An easy ride

Brussels tentatively approved Spain's proposed budget for 2021 on Wednesday, but Pedro Sánchez's toughest test is yet to come - namely, pushing it through a lower house of MPs in which his Socialist party and their leftist partner Podemos lack a majority. It will be the first time in months that congress has before it something not explicitly to do with Covid, and a test for Spain's minority government as well as its increasingly ineffective opposition.

Apart from not interfering with an autopilot GDP expansion that began under Mariano Rajoy, most of Sánchez's pre-Covid achievements were symbolic. The most high-profile of these occurred last October, when the government transferred Francisco Franco's remains from a grand mausoleum outside Madrid to a less extravagant site nearby, a move which proved divisive among Spaniards. Nevertheless, it was at least approved by a vote in congress.

Sánchez's supporters cite his increase of the minimum wage by 22% in January 2019 as a more substantial achievement. Yet this was pushed through via Article 86.1 of the 1978 Spanish Constitution, which allows for "decree-laws" to be passed without congressional debate or approval in times of "extraordinary and urgent need". Was the case for a hike in the minimum wage early last year sufficiently "extraordinary" or "urgent" to justify the bypass of its presentation to congress? If so, then it seems hard to conceive of a situation in which the use of Royal Decree isn't justified.

There are strong parallels here with the situation in Britain, where Boris Johnson has effectively been operating without an opposition since March. He's been able to ratify coercive Covid measures by ministerial decree, even managing to pass a 348-page "Covid Act" in a day - nowhere near enough time for its contents to be properly examined and criticised by the Houses of Commons or Lords. Labour, the main opposition party, is unwilling or unprepared to question the prevailing pro-lockdown orthodoxy.

It's the same here. Despite occasional and nominal dissent, Spain's main opposition, the Conservative Popular Party (PP), has dutifully followed Sánchez's dictates throughout the Covid crisis. Yes, it has hurled insults and accusations at the prime minister during farcical "debates"; ultimately, though, the PP supported the extension of the state of alarm when asked to, without presenting any reasoned arguments against lockdown or suggesting alternatives to restrictions that were indiscriminate in every respect.

Vox, which sits on just 52 seats in congress, has so far been the only party in Spain to challenge the legitimacy or efficacy of the government's actions - a stance from which the PP, aware of Pablo Abascal's attempt to dominate the right, has distanced itself. But regardless of whether these two parties also differ in their response to the proposed budget, the spending plan won't have as easy a ride through congress as Sánchez's Covid measures. And this time, Royal Decree isn't an option.