“I am very concerned that politicians, instead of helping citizens, become a problem,” says María Jesús Montero (Seville, 1966) with that uncomplexed way of speaking with which she confronts journalists’ questions every Tuesday. the press conferences after the councils of ministers.
On this occasion, the Minister of Finance talks with EL PAÍS on Christmas Eve. The Senate has just approved the Budgets for 2021.
They are probably the most important accounts in the democratic history of Spain, because they will serve to face an unprecedented health and economic crisisand because they contain an unprecedented increase in spending and investments thanks to the 27,000 million euros from European aid.
She is exultant for having carried out the project with the greatest parliamentary support in the annals of Congress and in a hurry because in a couple of hours she has to catch an AVE that will take her to Seville where she will spend Christmas with her family. To that Seville she longs for, where her two daughters and her parents await her.
But María Jesús Montero defends, with that overflowing energy that she gives off in public despite the fact that she only has a coffee in her stomach and has been awake for almost 10 hours, that “politics, for those who have nothing, is the only instrument to change things, to change reality ”.
He says it the week in which the CIS publishes a survey that reveals that politicians are the fifth problem for Spaniards and growing.
“Many times politics does not adequately connect with that social sensitivity, which translates into noise in Congress, news that may be anecdotal, but draws attention to discussions, distances citizens from politics and that is the point. main breeding ground for totalitarianism ”. For this reason, he adds:
“There are some who are interested in this polarization of life and politics, those that move in extremes. They are always interested in fighting, because they move in a simplistic, binary position, which does not correspond to reality.
Everything is always much more complex because life is much more complex, and moving in that populism that means yes or no, instead of in the world of nuances ”.
He says he knows what he’s talking about. In his life he has traveled through different worlds. He remembers how at the age of 14 he started in Catholic Action, a religious association, which in the eighties brought together the progressive wing of the church.
At that time he met a communist priest in the Sevillian Triana neighborhood, where he was born, who instilled in him some of the values that he preserves and applies in politics. His eyes light up when he remembers his youth, when he started with social activism.
He says that Christians in the party, communists in the church , a book by Alfonso Comín, marked him deeply because it helped him overcome that dichotomy of being on the left in an environment as conservative as the Catholic Church of the time and vice versa, being Catholic in an organization so refractory to religion.
Then came the university years, in which he studied medicine, although he hardly practiced it. Soon he began to work in the management of hospitals in Andalusia. She was deputy director of the Virgen del Rocío Hospital in Seville, the jewel in the crown of Andalusian health.
In 2002, he received a call from the president of the Board at the time, Manuel Chaves, and since then he has held positions with increasing political responsibility. “It is one of the best experiences of my life and one of which I feel tremendously proud,” she says about the time when she dedicated herself to developing the Andalusian health system.
I have always had a clear vocation of public service and social commitment, it is something almost innate during my life, which I have also cultivated throughout my personal history. My parents are teachers and they have always brought those values to the family education environment.
And maybe that’s why I studied medicine. I feel absolutely linked to the health system, I think it is the best profession in the world, which allows us to understand the body of the person, but also his soul.
The coronavirus pandemic, without a doubt, has marked the year. It has left thousands of deaths and a trail of suffering. The Government has lived its most difficult year with two states of alarmand trying to plug the multiple routes of sanitary and economic waters.
“During the pandemic, 34 decree laws have been approved. It has been a titanic effort to minimize the damage of this health pandemic and I think that there are the results in terms of not having caused a hemorrhage, a bleeding in the labor field, not having caused a massive closure of companies, having at least managed to maintain a situation that has been very complicated.
It has been a very intense year. We have left our skin so that in the end we have reached this moment with vaccines since yesterday. It has been a transit of enrichment, but also of a lot of sacrifice and pain ”.
In this sense, he assures that the Government is not yet talking about a plan to rebalance the accounts as requested by some organizations.
“We believe it is important to develop an anti-cyclical policy, we must give this policy a chance, so that the productive fabric that is there, and that we saw in the third quarter, is able to stimulate itself and is therefore able to respond to the challenge It has posed us as a collective, as a society.
Therefore, I do not believe that it is the moment, either in economic policy, or in public service provision policy, to be focused on how we prepare an adjustment plan. The important thing now is the recovery and time will have to establish a rebalancing plan, when the European authorities so demand or when the political and economic moment, which also demands it.
The minister says that despite being a doctor, he has not managed the health crisis, but the economic one. “It is true that although whenever there is a health project I see it with special interest. The health minister knows it, because I like it, and I also find them exciting ”, he confesses.
“Have you had the impulse to advise Minister Illa?”
“I’m very classical politics.” At least from the school that I have always been taught, that one has to keep a certain distance from the policies that one has previously practiced.
Montero is the first woman to hold the Treasury portfolio (after Elena Salgado, when the Finance and Economy ministries were a single department), a key ministry in the architecture of the State, complex and almost endless.
It is said that a government is actually a coalition between the Ministry of Finance and the other ministries, although in this term the political game has been complicated with the first coalition Executive of Spain. “I think it has a part of the truth, but there is a part of the myth,” he says about the power attributed to his portfolio, which will play a crucial role in the management of European funds. “It is true that this Ministry is permanently obliged to dialogue with all the departments about their needs. And this budget project has put our negotiation skills to the test, of dialogue, of understanding the position of the other, of looking for alternatives to proposals that you cannot accept ”. It rejects dogmatisms and values negotiation and consensus: “I would have been delighted to agree andalso negotiate a budget with the PP. And I believe, unlike some who think that options are always exclusive, I believe that at this moment in the country there was no room for crossed vetoes, it was not possible to exclude anyone, but rather to try to incorporate, although what it incorporates does not distort the basic progressive skeleton ”.
- The Budgets are for a year or for a legislature?
“These are our first estimates.” I have insisted a lot throughout the negotiations with the political groups, because it seems that the entire legislature had to be summed up in this project.
There was an aspiration of all the groups to translate the entire programmatic agreement and I told them ‘if it is the first budget of a series of budgets’, but everyone was in a hurry to incorporate all the measures committed in the investiture.
“Can’t that rush make them quickly become wet paper?” There is a strain of the virus in the UK that can delay recovery.
-Upside down. I believe in the appearance of the vaccine. I am confident that after the first quarter of the year, which may be harder, the second semester will be lighter and from there we will be able to return to normal economic activity, but especially in social relations. I think that all citizens are looking forward to talking to each other without wearing a mask, but above all to hug, touch ”.
The public accounts for 2021 have come to light with the support of the largest number of parties in budget history, despite the fact that the Government has skipped many procedures and has reduced the appearances of senior officials to a minimum. This has caused that they have been the Budgets that have been processed faster.
“Shouldn’t such an important project have been analyzed more calmly in both Congress and the Senate?”
The Budget brought a precedent that was that of 2019, which helped us to do a kind of dress rehearsal, because we got to Congress, we had to defend it even in the rostrum and therefore we knew very well what were the elements we wanted to improve what he gave of himself, because we had to scrutinize each game to stretch it like gum.
The minister details how after spending two years with the same extended accounts, those of Cristóbal Montoro (PP) from 2018, they were already known by heart. This allowed him to make small surgical changes in order to adapt those extended accounts to the reality of the crisis.
“This year we are already around 1,000 budget modifications. The new Budget is as if we had done it on a zero basis ”.
And he adds to downplay the haste: “ We have had many previous contacts with political groups. Most of the parties with whom we negotiated ended up joining and others have stayed on the road as Ciudadanos. I think that in the end they fell off the hook out of sheer tactics thinking more about the elections in Catalonia, which have also been planning especially the budget debate ”.
The agreement with ERC included tax harmonization. Do you think that the budget negotiation is a suitable scenario to agree on that?
I think that if we really face politics honestly, we should be happy that a political party like ERC is demanding fiscal harmonization in the country. That has a value in itself. If it had been the PP I would have been happy that ERC asked for a tax harmonization in Spain.
They are nationalists and they go with their own roadmap. But there is a reality and that is that regional financing models have always moved within a range, in the exercise of fiscal autonomy. How has that balance been broken?
It was broken when any autonomous community, because it houses the most important effects of tax headquarters of companies or because of the capital, has the ability to have a higher collection, a greater volume of citizens with a higher income and therefore made the tax policy a goal in itself.
“They ask me ‘do you prefer to raise or lower taxes?’ I say, ‘It depends.’ It depends on when, what figure, to whom I upload or download it and what I intend with that collection. There is an attempt to make citizens believe that taxes are not necessary.
And I am radically against fiscal antipedagogy, because it seems to me that it deceives citizens. In order for us to have public services, it is essential that each one contributes according to their capacity. And what we ask for here is what we ask for in Europe.
The situation that has occurred with taxation in the community of Madridresponds to other slogans. If we want to have quality public services, no matter where we live, we have to have a tax system that is homogeneous throughout the country or at least that is not radically contrary when one crosses a highway ”, he argues.
The minister alludes to the failed accounts of 2019, which were overthrown in Congress. That episode precipitated the electoral call and the subsequent repetition of the elections. But Montero came out of that tumble stronger.
Her intervention in the gallery of Congress defending the accounts revealed a tough, effective and courageous parliamentarian. “I went to that debate knowing that the Budget did not come out. Was it very hard for me that we couldn’t support a budget project and had to go to elections?
Well, they can’t even imagine it. And much harder to go to an electoral campaign for the second time ”. But after that debate and the 2019 elections, a new coalition government emerged in which she is the spokesperson.
“How do you carry that responsibility?”
“I wear it normally.” I think I have a facility for communication with people. This allows me to speak with much more spontaneity.
How do you handle the criticism for your Andalusian accent?
—What angers me about that criticism is that many people identify it with ignorance and ignorance. From my point of view, Andalusian is an evolved Castilian. I think it has the character of a very graphic, very expressive communication, with a single word we are capable of expressing many feelings.
When in Spain there have been women with responsibilities and a more pronounced accent, they received much fiercer criticism than men.
Montero participated in the negotiations to form a government with United We Can. “We had a very good experience in the agreement with United We Can. It was an important learning for the investiture agreements later.
We knew each other much better since that Budget debate. We knew what each of us aspired to. Our discussions in the negotiations are very frank. We know very well the limits that each one of us has ”.
The 2021 Budgets have been easily approved. Some say that the PSOE can look for other allies for the rest of the legislature and not depend so much on United We Can.
The president has always expressed very clearly the commitment that the socialist party made for a left-wing coalition, for a progressive government that would allow correcting many of the injustices that from our point of view had occurred after the governments of the right and from a financial crisis that had a solution that resulted in significant inequality in our country.
We are comfortable within this coalition government.
“But there are frequent discrepancies.”
“It’s not easy, you need filming.” In most cases, the discussions that occur in a coalition government are very similar, if not identical, to those that occur in a mono-color government.
But in the councils of ministers there are discussions about the minimum wage, evictions or the reform of Social Security.
You live in a very natural way. I do not interact with the ministers depending on where they come from, but on the matter at hand. I would say that the councils of ministers are much more peaceful than the appearance that some may give, which gives the impression that within the Government we are arguing about everything.
‘What’s going, what’s going’. We practically agree on everything and there are some specificities, which are what we can have discrepancies, not so much depending on the parties, but on who handles the matter.