Spain imposes more austerity amid protests

DANIEL WOOLLS

Published: Wednesday, July 11 2012 10:30 a.m. MDT

A riot policeman shoot rubber bullets towards demonstrators after demonstrators threw bananas during a coal miners march to the Minister of Industry building in Madrid, Wednesday, July 11, 2012. Coal miners angered by huge cuts in subsidies converged on Madrid Tuesday for protest rallies after walking nearly three weeks under a blazing sun from the pits where they eke out a living.

Andres Kudacki, Associated Press

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MADRID — Spain's government imposed more austerity measures on the beleaguered country Wednesday as it unveiled sales tax hikes and spending cuts aimed at shaving €65 billion ($79.85 billion) off the state budget over the next two and a half years.

A day after winning European Union approval for a huge bank bailout and breathing space on its deficit program, Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy warned Parliament that Spain's future was at stake as it grapples with recession, a bloated deficit and investor wariness of its sovereign debt.

"We are living in a crucial moment which will determine our future and that of our families, that of our youths, of our welfare state," Rajoy said to catcalls from the opposition socialists and other parties as he revealed the biggest single amount of projected deficit savings in modern Spanish history.

He spoke as thousands of miners stung by a huge cut in government subsidies were joined by protesters to demonstrate outside the Industry Ministry in Madrid. The protests later turned violent with riot police firing rubber bullets on crowds after they were pelted with fireworks and rocks.

The spending cuts, designed to cut €65 billion off state budgets by 2015, include a wage cut for civil servants and members of the national parliament and a new wave of closures at state-owned companies. Spain will also speed up a gradual increase in the retirement age from 65 to 67. They are to be approved officially Friday at a Cabinet meeting.

Spain has had to digest round after round of austerity measures since Rajoy's conservative government took power in December. Until now, there have been €60 billion ($73.71 billion) in spending cuts and tax hikes by the central government or regional administrations. If you include measures taken by the previous, Socialist government, the number goes up to €75 billion. Now, albeit spread over two-and-a-half years, comes another €65 billion.

"This is the reality. There is no other, and we have to get out of this hole and we have to do it as soon as possible and there is no room for fantasies or off-the cuff improvisations because there is no choice," Rajoy told Parliament.

The measures are in exchange for the bank bailout of up to €100 billion ($122.85 billion) granted to Spain by the other 16 countries that use the euro and extra time to cut the Spanish budget deficit. Finance ministers approved the bailout program at meetings in Brussels this week and as much as €30 billion could flow to Spain's banks by the end of the month. The country's banks are saddled with billions of euros in toxic loans and assets following the collapse of the country's real estate market. The full amount Spain will seek is not yet known.

Europe's finance ministers also this week extended Spain's deadline for achieving a budget deficit of less than 3 percent of its annual economic output, until 2014. The size of Spain's economy in 2011 is estimated to have been $1.5 trillion.

The bank aid and the deficit-cutting come at the cost of greater EU supervision of Spain's finances, both for the government and the banks, even though Rajoy's government insists it has given up no sovereignty.

"In exchange for the bank bailout agreement, Brussels, the ECB and the IMF have placed Spain and its institutions in a situation of strict monitoring and control," Spanish newspaper El Pais said in an editorial Wednesday.

The concern among investors and Europe-watchers is that further austerity cuts will push Spain's economy further into recession in the short term, making it even harder for the government to trim its deficit.

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