Zapatero defends his government's reform package


FOR THE fifth time since becoming prime minister in 2004 José Luís Rodriguez Zapatero took the stand in the Cortes, the lower chamber of the Spanish parliament, to address the deputies in the annual two-day state of the nation debate.

Perhaps not surprisingly he tried to inject a note of optimism by opening his address highlighting Spain’s World Cup victory and the euphoric celebrations across the country which followed.

Looking tense and nervous as he walked to the tribune, Mr Zapatero tried to put a positive face on Spain and its troubled economic situation, although he could not hide the fact that there were few reasons for optimism and plenty for realism and even pessimism.

“In spite of the collective joy of recent days, this has been a very hard, difficult year. Spain is living through momentous times, crucial for its immediate future and crucial for future decades,” he said.

Mr Zapatero defended his government’s recent economic reforms, which he said were beginning to bear fruit. But although there had been growth in the second quarter of this year, the problems were far from over. “The economic crisis continues to be the principal worry for the Spanish people and for this government,” he said.

He accepted reforms demanded sacrifices for many people, such as those reaching retirement. “We need to raise the retirement age gradually and over a period of 12 years, from the current age of 65 to 67, in line with that in Germany, United Kingdom, Denmark, Norway and the USA,” he said.

He could not ignore last weekend’s mass demonstration in Barcelona – when the Catalans defended their home rule statute – where many demanded greater autonomy and some full independence from Spain. Mr Zapatero gave no clue as to how he would solve this crisis, but said he would respect and honour the findings of the constitutional court, which decided that several paragraphs, such as the right to define Catalonia as a nation, have its own courts or enforce the Catalan language over Spanish, were unconstitutional.

Clutching at straws, Mr Zapatero stressed Spain’s successes in foreign affairs, particularly consolidating its position in the G-20 group of nations and Cuba’s agreement to release political prisoners to allow them to travel, with their families, to Spain.

The prime minister was the only speaker in the morning session, but it was the turn of the other parties to reply and for Mr Zapatero to defend himself in the afternoon.

It was a much more heated and ugly session, when the deputies repeatedly interrupted speakers with heckling, abuse or applause. Time and again, the speaker, Jose Bono, called for silence and warned several deputies they could be expelled from the chamber.

Mariano Rajoy, leader of the opposition Popular Party, was particularly harsh in his tone. He continually doubted Mr Zapatero’s ability to govern the country. “You say we are living in very important times, so important that we must take very important measures. With you, we are going nowhere,” he declared.

For the first time in the Cortes, and to the accompaniment of loud cheers from his own benches, Mr Rajoy told the prime minister: “You are not fit to govern. The best service you can give to this country is to end our suffering, dissolve parliament and convene general elections.”