Open Europe Blog

Former Spanish Socialist Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero has upset quite a few people after he included the letter he received from the ECB and the Bank of Spain in August 2011 in his recently published memoirs. Though bits and pieces of the letter had already been disclosed, the full content was never really made public. In a radio interview today, Zapatero has justified his decision to keep the content of the message secret at the time because at least part of it “would have put stability at risk”.

Courtesy of El País, we have had a look at the letter – and we thought it was worth translating a few key points:

  • The first priority identified by the ECB and the Bank of Spain is labour market reform. The letter reads, “We deem it necessary to adopt additional measures that improve the functioning of the labour market […] We are enormously concerned about the fact that the [Spanish] government has not adopted any measure to abolish inflation-indexing clauses. Such clauses are not an appropriate element for the labour markets in a monetary union, as they represent a structural obstacle to the adjustment of labour costs.” 
  • The letter goes on, “The government should also adopt exceptional measures to promote wage moderation in the private sector […] We suggest revising other labour market regulations shortly, with a view at speeding up the re-integration of unemployed people in the labour market […] We see important advantages in the adoption of a new exceptional work contract that is applied for a limited period of time, and where compensation for dismissal is very low.” 
  • The second priority is the adoption of “bold measures to ensure the sustainability of public finances. The government should prove in a clear manner, by action, its unconditional commitment to the achievement of its fiscal policy targets, irrespective of the economic situation. To this end, we urge the government to announce, by the end of this month, additional measures of structural fiscal consolidation for the remainder of 2011 worth at least more than 0.5% of GDP.” “Simultaneously”, continues the text, “the application of national fiscal norms must be continued in order to ensure [central] control over regional and local budgets (including the authorisation for debt emissions by regional governments).” 
  • The third priority is product market reform. According to the letter, the Spanish government should “increase the competitiveness of the energy sector in order for prices to better reflect the cost of energy” and “increase the competitiveness of the services sector, in particular by addressing the regulation of professional services.” 

Therefore, as in the case of Italy (see our blog post from September 2011), the letter was a lot more than just a push to shape up. It was a detailed and quite prescriptive to-do list in return for ECB bond-buying – even boiling down to specific policy measures and the size of fiscal cuts. Furthermore, it did not shy away from touching on politically sensitive issues for Spain – just think of the demand for more central control over regional spending or the abolition of wage indexation.

All this put the ECB squarely in the realm of domestic fiscal policy, somewhere many would agree it should not be. In any case, any country considering applying for an OMT bond-buying programme should consider these points when wondering how prescriptive the conditionality might be.

The closing paragraph of the letter sounds a lot like a warning. It reads, “We are confident that the [Spanish] government is aware of its highest responsibility in the good functioning of the eurozone in the current [economic] conjunction, and that it will adopt in a decisive manner the necessary measures to regain the confidence of the markets in the sustainability of its policies. Such measures […] should greatly benefit not only the Spanish economy, but also the eurozone as a whole.”

Therefore, it is no surprise that many of the letter’s ‘suggestions’ have become government policy – though under the centre-right cabinet led by Mariano Rajoy, who took office at the end of 2011.

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