The Spanish coal mining industry received its death sentence when the European Union decided to end all government subsidies by 2018 to promote cleaner energies. But this determining factor has not made the attempt to find other ways of making a living in the areas of Asturias, León, Palencia and Aragon — where there are still some 7,000 direct jobs in coal mining — any easier. For that reason, the announcement by the government of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy of a two-thirds reduction this year in the amount of subsidies received by the sector is seen as indicating that an activity that is highly dependent on public grants is going to be abandoned.
The problem is compounded in Asturias by the eruption of a strike in the ground transportation of goods and passengers, as witnessed by roadblocks, vehicle sabotage, and the organization of police-protected truck convoys to stop anyone from preventing supplies from getting through, as well as a series of injuries and arrests.
Although this conflict in an industry that is economically viable does not have anything to do directly with the miners — arising instead from differences about the collective bargaining agreement — it contributes to intensifying the climate of social unrest in a region where the coal mines have been closed since May 23.
It doesn’t appear that the Rajoy government will give in, since the prime minister is committed to demonstrating to the European Union authorities his fierce determination to impose austerity and show firmness. Politically, he is not risking much: the accumulation of social conflicts can wear down the new government in Asturias, which happens to be headed up by a mining engineer, Socialist Javier Arenas, who is already under pressure to clean up the public finances he inherited from former premier Francisco Álvarez-Cascos’ term in office. The mining question is not the responsibility of the regional government, but the climate of unrest won’t benefit the economic recovery.
It is time for Rajoy’s government to help find a solution to the depression that these decisions can cause in the mining sector, and the unions should be aware that their causes will lose sympathy if these incidents continue to escalate. Knowing that the mining sector cannot demand to be made an exception to budget cuts, the government must explain why the drastic adjustment is imperative and if it will be accompanied by a credible reconversion plan.