Spain: Our time is nearly up

La Vanguardia (Barcelona)

Until this week, Madrid thought it would have to wait for the Greek elections before getting any help to solve its national bank crisis. But panic is now growing with no easy solution in sight.

The political climate surrounding the euro crisis has changed almost imperceptibly in recent days. From a certain consensus on the idea that Spain, caught in the eye of the storm, could expect nothing before June 17, the date of the second Greek elections following the failure of the first to come up with a government, the mood has shifted to “Something – anything – has to be done before then.” Panic or a simple forecast?

The most obvious symptom of this new environment was the videoconference held yesterday by the G7 finance ministers, which was an unusual event and one that until now has always been the prelude to concerted action by the major central banks. And that could happen precisely today, the day that also sees a meeting of the governing council of the European Central Bank (ECB), that great white hope of those who are calling for clear action to defend the single currency.

Bound hand and foot

Two trends are converging on Spain: one, the absolute and mounting distrust of the markets in the sustainability of Spain’s public, state and private debt (banks); and two, a certain feeling that the eurozone – which for the purposes of what is being discussed these days means Germany – would be willing to take action to stave off the disaster that would follow if Spain were to fall into a tailspin. The stock markets and currencies are dancing up and down throughout the day to the the rumours that tip the balance toward one side or the other.

It’s time to pick up the pieces. Luis de Guindos, the Finance Minister, wants the Spanish banking sector to be able to capitalise on European money without bringing down intervention on their heads. The latter would mean the political end of the Mariano Rajoy government and a huge sacrifice for the Spanish people, who would be subject to the dictates of creditors.

Most of all, intervention would mean that the country would be shut out of the markets. The sole source of any new funding or money to cover maturing bonds would be the European rescue fund, which would dictate to the Spanish government all its economic decisions with no possibility of appeal.

The government would be bound hand and foot. The main shareholders of that fund are those countries that are the headquarters of those banks that have loaned out immense sums to their Spanish counterparts and the Spanish state. As is happening now in Greece, the bailout – one of the great euphemisms of the eurocrisis – is equivalent to strangulation.

Everyone knows that Athens is not seeing a single euro of the supposed bailout money, because nearly all of it is going directly to pay off the creditors – in this case, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the ECB and the European Commission.

“The Men in Black will not be coming”

From the standpoint of the creditor, however, things are different. To authorise a partial bailout of only the banks in trouble could be the first step towards shutting down the bilateral negotiations over the debts of those entities with their creditors, without being able to ensure collection with the same certainty there would be had the entire terrain been properly secured – i.e., the country that has been bailed out.

If one listens to what the Spanish government is suggesting and what German leaders are saying in public, Germany is helping Spain; but if one reads the international press and the correspondents covering the EU, Angela Merkel and her minister Wolfgang Schäuble are the ones most interested in making Madrid accept the complete package: a full-blown intervention. Obama, Hollande and Barroso are also on the list of those calling for a gesture from Berlin.

On June 5 Cristóbal Montoro, the Budget Minister gave in his witty way the best summing up of the situation the Spanish government finds itself in – “The Men in Black will not be coming,” which was an amusing way of rejecting intervention – but he also had to admit that to clean up the banks need money. “The problem is where to find it”.

This last sentence of Montoro’s probably helps to understand the shift in mood mentioned at the beginning. Spain is barely holding onto its access to the markets, and without help from the ECB and the eurozone, it will not be able to take much more.

Translated from the Spanish by Anton Baer

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