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Spain: From Laggard to Leader on Social Rights?

The devastating findings of the UN poverty expert’s recent visit will put the new government’s laudable commitments on social rights to the test.
By Ignacio Saiz
February 25, 2020
At a time when political leaders across the globe are outdoing themselves to attack pillars of human rights – eroding asylum and justifying extrajudicial killings, for example – it may seem utopian to expect governments to place human rights at the foundation of their socioeconomic policies. 
Yet recent developments in Spain offer a ray of hope in this regard. The newly-formed coalition government has vowed to position Spain as “a leader in social rights protection in Europe.” The significance of the new government’s pledge–and the enormity of the challenges it faces in honoring it–were highlighted earlier this month by the UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights, Philip Alston, at the end of his two-week official visit to the country. 
“Spain’s high rates of poverty are ultimately a political choice,” said Alston, presenting his hard-hitting findings in Madrid. “With its embrace of social rights…the government’s message is a welcome one, but its actions must live up to that rhetoric.” 
Alston’s end-of-mission statement paints a disturbing picture of the state of social rights in Spain after ten years of austerity policies imposed by successive governments following the 2008 economic crisis.  One in four people–and one child in three– are now at risk of poverty in Europe’s fourth largest economy. School dropout rates are the highest in the EU, while unemployment is double the EU average – with youth unemployment at 30%.  A quarter of the population faces housing exclusion due to a steep rise in housing costs and minimal social housing provision, with half a million people evicted from their homes over the last decade.  Inequality has “exploded” since 2010, as the benefits of economic recovery have flowed largely to corporations and the wealthiest 1%, while many public services curtailed through austerity have not been restored. 
The fiscal roots of poverty and inequality
Echoing the findings of CESR’s long-standing work in Spain–submitted to the Rapporteur prior to his visit–Alston concludes that Spain’s alarming levels of poverty and inequality reflect deliberate fiscal policy choices made since the crisis. In line with CESR’s analysis, he finds that Spain’s tax and budget policies “provide far more benefits to the wealthy than the poor.” Corporations have been granted hefty cuts in tax rates, resulting in a 50% fall in corporate tax revenue between 2007 and 2018. Tax evasion and avoidance by companies and wealthy individuals have additionally cost the country billions of euros each year.  The wealthy have seen their income taxes reduced, while indirect taxes such as VAT, which disproportionately impact the poor, have increased. Funding for critical social protection measures such as disability, housing and family benefits is well below the EU average, and minimum income schemes have been kept “miserly.” 
“If Spain is serious about fighting poverty and making much-needed investments in social assistance, education and housing policies, it also needs to change its tax policies” concludes Alston. He calls for “far-reaching fiscal reforms” if the government is to deliver on its commitment to make Spain a leader on social rights. Such reforms would also help generate the resources needed to attend to other critical priorities, including easing the housing crisis, restoring decent work conditions and ensuring an effective national minimum income scheme. Becoming a leader in social rights, says Alston, also requires attention to the disproportionate impacts of poverty and fiscal austerity on disadvantaged groups in Spain, including women, children and youth, migrants, people with disabilities, and the Roma (Gitano) population.
Social rights: the roadmap to fiscal justice

There are strong indications that the new government will be receptive to these recommendations. It has named fiscal justice as one of its key program priorities, which include plans to tackle tax abuse, introduce “green” and financial transaction taxes, and increase income, wealth and corporate taxes. These commitments, however, are coupled with a pledge to ensure fiscal discipline and a balanced budget through deficit reduction and periodic reviews of public spending efficiency. The tension between these commitments highlights the need to ensure that social rights principles guide their implementation and frame any review of how resources are generated and spent. 

This illustrates the broader challenge facing governments rhetorically committed to advancing social rights: that of moving from recognition to institutionalization and accountability in practice. For the government’s commitments to translate into actually reducing dire levels of poverty and inequality in Spain, rights must be operationalized across all aspects of economic and social policymaking. Spain has an opportunity to demonstrate leadership by modeling a human rights-centered approach to its fiscal policy reforms, drawing on the growing body of normative and operational guidance which CESR is proud to be contributing to. This should include carrying out a systematic assessment of the human rights impacts of its austerity policies, so as to take appropriate remedial action and provide a sound evidence base for future policymaking.

Given the fragile context in which the new coalition government was formed, there is a risk that a lack of political space will constrain its efforts to expand the fiscal space needed to realize social rights. One way of countering this risk is by dismantling the dogmas that continue to be used to justify austerity and other regressive fiscal policies, in Spain and worldwide, and by shifting the narrative on the values that should underpin the economy. As Alston notes, “Spain needs to take a close look at itself in the mirror... The self-image of a close family-based society rooted in deeply shared values and social solidarity has been badly fractured by an economic crisis and the implementation of neoliberal policies.”  

Spain has shown leadership in the past on social rights. It was the first country in Europe to ratify a UN protocol creating a new international complaints mechanism on social rights. On taking office in 2018, Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez overturned an austerity decree that deprived half a million migrants of their access to healthcare, following repeated calls for repeal by international human rights bodies that were prompted by sustained advocacy by CESR and its Spanish civil society partners.  Like many within and beyond Spain, we will once again be looking to the government to show leadership on its laudable commitments to social rights and fiscal justice by acting swiftly and thoroughly on the Rapporteur’s recommendations.
First image: Philip Alston visits migrant workers in Huelva, Andalusia. Second image: Philip Alston meets with the Ministry of Social Rights, Madrid.
All images courtesy of Bassam Khawaja 2020/Office of UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights.