OPINION: Is the Iberian hibernation over?

By Nick Meynen

While winter is taking shape in most of the Northern Hemisphere, Portugal and Spain seem to enjoy an Iberian spring in political terms, reawakening after years of hibernation.

Portuguese political parties campaigning on an anti-austerity agenda won elections in 2015 and formed a government that raised the hairs of many bankers and European policymakers alike.

Many thought that the bailed-out country would now enter a very toxic debt spiral. What actually happened was the opposite.

While the new government quickly reversed previous austerity cuts to wages, pensions and social security, Portugal slashed its budget deficit to its lowest level in 40 years. It is even on track to a positive budget for the first time in a quarter of a century, sooner than anticipated.

Business confidence rebounded, production and exports have taken off. Unemployment was cut in half. All this was done after people gave politicians a mandate to rip apart the austerity playbook. Putting well-being first is exactly what the creditors did not want, but it is what is working.

Rather than using the stability and growth pact as the ultimate benchmark, Portugal went for stability and well-being. And with tourism playing a key role in Portugal’s revival, it makes sense that the country abandoned a planned oil exploration project. The economic and ecologic transition taking place in Portugal shows us that there is an alternative to the more common austerity playbook.

More recently, Spain is going through a similar political revival as well. Their new minister for ecological transition pulled of a €250m transition deal that will result in the closure of most coalmines – without the unions going on strike.

Why? Because the agreement with unions includes early retirement for miners, re-skilling and environmental restoration jobs. In a just transition, jobs in the fossil fuel economy are not killed but replaced and the people who work hard to provide for their families are not the victims but the agents of this positive transformation.

Coal miners also know that there are no jobs on a dead planet, they just need a plan B that works for them as well. To boost employment in the renewable energy industry, a controversial sunshine tax on solar panels from the previous government was ditched. To top it all off, the EEB and its member Ecologistas en Accion recently created a major court win that will boost the path to clean air on the Iberian Peninsula.

All this led Jeremie Fosse from EEB member Eco-Union to say:

 “We finally see the (green) light at the end of a very dark tunnel, with the new Spanish government advocating for a green, inclusive and sustainable economy through a new ambitious climate law, greening of the transport sector and a strong support to renewable energy. At Eco-Union and other NGOs we will of course monitor if all the talk is being walked”.

Is all going well in Spain and Portugal? Of course not. Both economies remain fragile due to high debts and in at least 78 places across Spain and 16 places across Portugal, people are battling against some powerful polluting forces. All these local struggles have become part of a global movement fighting for environmental justice. The Atlas of Environmental Justice maps resistance in almost 3000 places. From mines to landfills, peoples want to save both their community and the planet.

While far from perfect, the governments on the Iberian peninsula are showing that protecting people and planet can go hand in hand. When workers, environmentalists and governments are all working towards the same goal of a one-planet-only economy where all can breath and enjoy life well, a lot can be achieved.