Sun, Jul 15, 2012 - Page 13 News List

Spain sets out spending cuts to chorus of protest

Reuters, MADRID

A riot police officer beats demonstrators outside the socialist PSOE party headquarters in Madrid, Spain, on Friday.

Photo: Reuters

Spain created an emergency fund to protect regional governments from defaulting and warned that pensions will be overhauled as protesters rallied on Friday against deep spending cuts needed to dodge an international bailout.

After a weekly Cabinet meeting, the government gave details of the 65 billion euro (US$80 billion) austerity package Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy announced on Wednesday.

Spain — which enjoyed 30 years of almost uninterrupted economic growth until 2007 — is on the front line of the two-and-a-half-year eurozone debt crisis, weighed down by crippled banks, indebted regions and a deep economic downturn.

Ministers approved a reform of city and regional governments, wage cuts for public workers and cuts in unemployment benefits. The government confirmed it would enforce reforms this month of the energy sector, and rail, road and air transport.

Workers blocked streets and railways in Madrid, protesting against cuts that they said hurt ordinary people more than the bankers and politicians blamed for the country’s economic crisis. Unions called for a September strike.

In the evening, about 2,000 people gathered in central Madrid, chanting and jeering. Police fired rubber bullets to disperse the crowds, injuring two, emergency services said. Six people were arrested, police said.

Civil servants gathered outside the presidential palace, booing the ministers’ convoy of cars as Rajoy’s Cabinet convened under pressure from eurozone leaders and financial markets to approve its new budget plan.

“Spaniards are living today one of the most difficult and traumatic moments of our history,” Spanish Deputy Prime Minister Soraya Saenz de Santamaria told a news conference after the meeting.

Spain’s borrowing costs have soared in recent months and many investors believe that after seeking up to 100 billion euros for its banks, the government could soon follow Greece, Ireland and Portugal in seeking a state bailout.

As expected, the government approved on Friday a new mechanism to help Spain’s 17 autonomous regions — now shut out of international financial markets — to fund themselves and repay their debts.

The instrument, which will have a maximum capacity of 18 billion euros, will be funded through a 6 billion euro loan from the state lottery and by the Spanish Treasury.

However, the regions will retain full responsibility to repay any loan they obtain from the fund and they will have to meet conditions including more work on cutting their public deficits.

Spanish Economy Minister Luis de Guindos said the Spanish Treasury, whose credit rating is already on the verge of junk territory and could be affected by this new burden, would not change its debt issuance calendar.

Among other expected measures, the government said increases in value-added tax (VAT) rates would take effect on Sept. 1, after the end of the tourism season.

The general VAT rate will be raised to 21 percent from 18 percent and the reduced rate for the leisure industry to 10 per cent from 8 percent. Tax breaks on properties will be eliminated.

Saenz de Santamaria said the government would discuss a bill to overhaul the pension system with other political parties. Such a reform — which would break one of the last campaign pledges Rajoy has so far managed to keep — is a longstanding demand of the IMF and European Commission.

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