Spain's Minister of Defence, MArgarita Robles, speaks in Congress on Wednesday. / EP

Not in denial

Margarita Robles' intervention in Congress on Wednesday came at a bad moment for prime minister Pedro Sánchez, as his coalition government goes through a rocky period

MARK NAYLER

We're accustomed to politicians saying stupid things, but sometimes a minister comes out with something so unbelievable you wonder how he or she got their job in the first place. On Wednesday, defence minister Margarita Robles, whose government denies involvement with espionage allegedly committed against leading Catalan separatists, put the following, presumably rhetorical, questions to congress: "What does a state have to do, what does a government have to do, when somebody violates the constitution, when somebody declares independence...?". Hang on, I know this one! - (allegedly) tap phones to spy on those involved.

Robles' off-script outburst couldn't have come at a worst moment for Pedro Sánchez: today (Thursday) he's seeking retroactive parliamentary approval for a package to limit the financial impact of events in Ukraine on Spanish households. The sixteen-billion-euro package was announced last month when inflation hit ten per cent, the highest for almost forty years, and needs to be ratified by congress to remain effective.

To pass the Ukraine package without prior parliamentary approval, Sánchez used his favourite toy, the Royal Decree. Royal Decree Laws can be put in place immediately, but only "in case of extraordinary and urgent need", according to the 1978 Constitution; they must then be approved by congress within thirty days or dropped.

According to a recent report by the Spanish employers' federation CEOE, Sánchez approved 32 Royal Decree Laws in 2021, the most since 1978 save for 2020, when his administration approved 39 such laws. Were all of these so important that they couldn't go through normal parliamentary procedures? Almost certainly not. Remember that in October 2019, Sánchez used the Royal Decree mechanism to relocate the remains of Francisco Franco - hardly a response to a national emergency, unlike the Ukraine package.

The Catalan Republican Left, led by regional president Pere Aragonès, says it will withhold support for any new legislation until it receives a satisfactory response from the government over the phone-tapping allegations, including an independent investigation. Did anyone inform the defence minister of that, or did she just decide to cause a little mischief on Wednesday? Robles' rhetorical outburst will severely weaken relations between the Socialists and Catalan secessionists for the foreseeable future, making it difficult for her coalition to win parliamentary votes.

The two-headed monster that runs Spain is out of control again. Downtrodden junior partner Podemos was flabbergasted by Robles' speech, which will add to a constantly-growing list of disagreements between the government's two parties. One of these concerns Sánchez's commitment to sending weapons to Ukraine, a pledge that he renewed on a visit to the stricken country last week. You wonder if the government's Podemos members are already nervously checking their phones for spy.