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OP-ED | 25-05-2024 06:35

The pain in Spain falls mainly on the gain

This dispute is far more easily personalised as being between President Milei and Spain’s PM Pedro Sánchez rather than between the two nations.

Like any May 25 for over two centuries, today is the commemoration of the birth of Argentine nationhood. But this year is different, falling somewhere between being just another public holiday and the grand milestone of national rebirth envisaged by President Javier Milei when opening Congress at the start of March. Easier to say what is not going to be happening in Córdoba than what today will bring: no ‘Pacto de 25 de Mayo’ consensus endorsing orthodox pro-market economics signed by all the provincial governors with full parliamentary approval of the ‘Ley de Bases’ omnibus bill of deregulatory reforms already under the government’s belt.

Various alternatives have been suggested but in the current context, who knows whether Milei will not opt for the oldest of them all – namely cutting loose from Spain, just as in 1810? Back then it was not yet clear (as it soon became) whether the patriotic reaction was against King Ferdinand VII or against the French Emperor Napoleon overrunning the Iberian Peninsula but today’s dispute is far more easily personalised as being between President Milei and Spain’s socialist premier Pedro Sánchez rather than between the two nations.

Just as today falls between being merely another national day and the historic milestone imagined by Milei, so the gravity of this dispute lies somewhere between the widespread media exaggeration it is being given and the rather less frequent attempts to minimise it (the “anecdote” of Foreign Minister Diana Mondino). In favour of the latter stance is the spat with Colombia less than two months ago and now largely forgotten. In late March Milei called Colombian President Gustavo Petro a “murderous terrorist” (two months after having called him a “murderous Communist”), provoking him into not only recalling his own ambassador here “for consultations” but also expelling the entire Argentine diplomatic corps in Bogotá. Within this context it might be pointed out that only seven or eight months ago Milei was as good as calling his own Security Minister Patricia Bullrich – today his main stalwart among his PRO allies – a “murderous terrorist” (and even an infanticide with kindergartens among her alleged bomb targets).

If Milei’s belligerence thus seems more relative, it could be seen as even more synthetic on the side of Sánchez. The Spanish politician has taken much deeper umbrage over his wife being called an “influence-trafficker” than Petro over being called a “murderous terrorist” for what are perceived as electioneering reasons. Facing both municipal and European elections in the next fortnight, Sánchez is attempting a stunt very similar to the Peronist presidential candidate Sergio Massa (whom he actively endorsed, a factor in the debate as to who started the intervention into the domestic politics of another country) in last year’s campaign – namely to divide his opposition between the moderate and extreme right by magnifying this dispute to boost the visibility of Milei’s far-right Vox hosts at the expense of the mainstream centre-right Partido Popular. Seen from this perspective, the friction with Spain should fade away in mid-June once the elections are over, just as the clash with Colombia has already done.

Yet none of the above can excuse Milei’s gratuitous insults, which do carry consequences. Presidential spokesman Manuel Adorni sought to justify a trip to Spain doing far more to indulge personal whims than to advance national interests by assigning more importance to the President’s huddle with Spanish businessmen (who were all men, by the way) than to the Vox rally the next day. Yet anything which might have been achieved at the business gathering was shattered by the head-on confrontation with the Madrid government the next day. Milei’s libertarian philosophy prevents him from recognising the reality of the mixed economy almost worldwide (ranging from Communist China to the West’s most conservative governments) – a fallacy which he extends to some of Argentina’s most important markets such as Brazil or China. Almost none of the businessmen meeting Milei last Saturday would vote for Sánchez yet all felt obliged to repudiate the libertarian’s verbal excesses due to the interdependence between the private sector and the state. Argentina can forget about any Spanish investments for now since the notorious cowardice of investors leads them to shy away from conflict – especially when falling short of the risk investment extremes of “blood in the streets.”

But what better way of celebrating today’s anniversary of emancipation from Spain than steering away from this futile dispute and setting a new agenda?

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