Thursday, January 31, 2013

There is, as they (almost) say, something rotten in the state of Spain.

Thanks to today's El País, the Spanish - as well as we guirris – can now slaver over the details of the black payments made to senior officials of the governing PP party. At least between 1997 and 2008. These include 25k euros a year paid to the current president – Mariano Rajoy – and a couple of lump-sum payments to the previous PP president, José Maria Aznar. For his daughter's wedding maybe. Perhaps now we can begin to see why there've been no assertions along the lines “We will root out all corruption and prosecute all those implicated.”

After reading all about the payments, I took to wondering about the interviews between the party Treasurer and those PP politicians who reached its cúpola:-
Well, congratulations on rising to the most senior level of the party.
I know you're here for the good of the country, given that someone of your ability would earn a lot more in the real world.
Well, yes, indeed.
But I've got some good news for you; we give you an additional salary, financed by development companies to whom we're particular close.
Oh, that is good news.
Yes, but this is totally between me and you. And should it ever come up, you have to deny it vehemently and insist you've never received anything. As I will, of course. [Unless I'm ever implicated in any corruption and the party doesn't back me. In which case I'll blow the gaffe and issue copies of my handwritten book entries to the opposition newspaper El País.]
I understand.

As I say, we can now see just why there've been no assertions that the PP party will investigate corruption, root it out and punish everyone involved. It would a death sentence. More accurately suicide. Which is what we suspected, though we never expected to have the evidence so soon. I guess the next PP defence will be that the accounts are totally false and all written in the last two weeks by an angry ex-Treasurer with too much time on his hands.

But, anyway, you can imagine, against this background, the reaction of foreign residents to a new law which seems primarily designed to sucker foreigners into a minimum 10k euro fine for non-payment of new taxes on global wealth they knew nothing about. This is another – possibly illegal - measure which stinks of the expediency for which Spanish administrations – local, regional and national – are famous. Most evidently with the demolition of 'illegal' foreigners' housing in the South. Bugger the long-term consequences. Let's go for the money today. And if we can't get a few big ones, let's go for a lot of little ones who don't have the vote.

Finally . . . Spanish numbers. The night train from Pontevedra to Madrid originates in the former and departs at 21.28. Having passed through one station twice, it rolls into Madrid at 8.02 the next morning. For the life of me (again), I can't understand why it doesn't leave at 21.30 and arrive at 8.00. Or 8.10 even, if your antihistamine works too well and you have to be woken up by the guard. By the way, it's a great feeling being the very last person off the train, by some way. You feel as if the train has made the journey just for you.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

The Spanish for 'pub' is pub. But it's not pronounced 'pub'. For reasons known only to them the Spanish say paf. This is now my preferred way of dealing with this:-
Look, 'pub' is short for 'public house'. Say 'public house'.
Poobleek 'owse.
OK. Now just say 'public'-
OK. Now shorten that to the first syllable.
There you go! Now you've (almost) got it. Stick with that and I won't be tempted to ram a fist in your face.

Perhaps inspired by those Spaniards who protest by breaking into song in a bank or the town square, here's the British Austerity Allstars performing a little ditty entitled. Bugger the Bankers. Catchy chorus.

The 'Misery Index' is a number gained by adding the unemployment percentage to the inflation rate. This turns out to be one chart Spain dominates. But it's not all bad news; with the accession of Croatia this year, Spain may well be knocked off the top spot. Not that this will solve any problems here, of course. But it will, as the author put its, highlight what the EU does best – Spreading misery for the common good.

I heard some other disturbing numbers today, in the first sentence of a BBC podcast:- A survey published last year revealed that 24% of the French population holds anti-semitic views. The figure for Hungary is 63%. Most shocking of all, in Spain 72% of the people are willing to admit they are anti-Jew. I've no idea why this number should be so high in Spain. After all, it's not as if Jews or Judaism have high profiles here. Frankly, they couldn't be lower. Albeit a little higher than in 1493. I suppose the only positive(?) aspect is that the number for gypsies would certainly be higher. Approaching 100%, I suspect.

More depressing numbers . . . Here (below) is our Ambrose again, commenting on recent economic data from Spain, he feels calls into question Madrid’s high-risk strategy of refusing an EU-IMF rescue.

Finally . . . I'm off to Hamburg for a few days tomorrow. Booking the flight with Lufthansa has been as easy and as efficient as you'd expect it to be, with the whole process clearly designed with the customer in mind. Almost a pleasure. But, then, it's not Ryanair. Or Iberia. Or even Renfe. That's a bit unfair; I booked a train ticket this evening without problems. Until it came to the (new) chip and pin machine. Back to the old piece of paper to sign.

Over to Ambrose . .  .

Spain's crisis strategy under fire as economy buckles again.

Spain’s economy has tipped into an accelerating downturn as sales data and the money supply flash serious warnings, calling into question Madrid’s high-risk strategy of refusing an EU-IMF rescue.

The country’s retail sales plunged 10.7% in December from a year earlier as austerity bites deeper, one of the worst months since the crisis began.

The Spanish car lobby (Anfac) said the country’s output of vehicles has fallen below 2m for the first time since 1993, crashing 17% last year. The industry has shrunk by a third since the boom.

Ominously, car exports plunged even faster at 18%, dimming hopes that foreign trade can lift the economy out of slump as internal demand shrinks. While Spanish exports have been a bright spot over the past three years - keeping pace with German exports - the momentum has faltered due to lack of investment.

Citigroup said it now expects Spain's economy to contract by 2.2% this year and another 2% in 2014, pushing unemployment to 28%
The effects of the slump will overpower any gains from fiscal austerity. The bank said public debt will surge from 88% to 110% of GDP in just two years.

Professor Luis Garicano from the London School of Economics said the recovery of EMU sovereign debt markets has not fed through to the real economy, leaving Spanish firms starved of credit and investment. “Credit constraints are forcing Spanish companies to eat up their future,” he said.

The loan crunch has put Spanish firms at a “severe competitive disadvantage” with rivals in the EMU-core, further widening the North-South gap. German firms such as Volkswagen are conquering market share across southern Europe by offering cheap credit for sales.

There has been little relief for Spanish firms since the European Central Bank agreed to back-stop Spanish debt in the summer. Private loans contracted by a further €30bn in December alone, even after stripping out distortions.

Prof Garicano said Brussels has made matters worse by forcing the pace of bank deleveraging under the terms of Spain’s bank rescue. “It is too fast. There is a gigantic financial multiplier at work,” he said.

Premier Mariano Rajoy has so far resisted a full rescue from the EU bail-out fund (ESM), fearing a political backlash and loss of sovereignty. Yet the ECB cannot purchase Spanish debt until Madrid pulls the trigger and signs a "memorandum".

Mr Rajoy’s team believe the 250 basis point drop in yields on Spanish bonds since July is enough to restore confidence and drive growth, but economists say this falls far short of actual purchases of debt.

Julian Callow from Barclays said the ECB’s Mario Draghi is “itching” to buy Club Med bonds, seeing this as a way of targeting monetary stimulus on the countries in trouble - without an causing inflationary spillover in Germany - but he is paralised until Madrid relents.
The current calm may be misleading. Spanish yields have fallen largely because local banks have gorged on Spanish bonds, now deemed safe. This has diverted lending from firms and further entwined the banking system with the sovereign state. This defeats the purpose of EU strategy, which is to break the “vicious circle”.

Monetarists say Spain’s money supply is buckling again after a brief respite in the early autumn, giving an early warning alert of further trouble this year. A key gauge - real six-month M1 - fell 4.5pc in December, while broad M3 has also begun to roll over.

The ECB must be given the pretext to buy the bonds,” said Tim Congdon from International Monetary Research. “The critical issue is to raise the quantity of money in Spain. In order to do that the ECB must actually buy things and not just lower rates. They don’t seem to understand this in Madrid. It makes you want to cry,” he said.

Mr Rajoy on Tuesday unveiled a plan of “micro-policies” to revive growth, but the overall setting of fiscal policy is yet further tightening to meet EU deficit targets.

Olli Rehn, the EU economics commissioner, said Brussels is drawing up plans for a “convergence instrument” to help steer investment to crisis countries as a reward for good conduct. But the scheme will not be ready for up to 18 months and is unlikely to be large enough to turn the tide.

Mr Rehn signalled that Madrid may be given more time to cut its deficit. "If there has been a serious deterioration in the economy, we can propose an extension of a country's adjustment path… That's what we did last year in the case of Spain," he said.

The Spanish authorities and the Commission are betting that Spain’s policy of “internal devaluation” and wage cuts within EMU will slash unit labour costs enough to claw back competitiveness, but this is a risky strategy that may overlook the lasting damage to the productive economy - a concept known as "hysteresis".

The US Conference Board said in a report on Tuesday that overkill could backfire in the end. “There is a danger that a drastic lowering of labour costs for an extended period of time could trigger an economic downward spiral,” it said.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Checking one of the (numerous) toll receipts garnered down in Portugal recently, I noticed that the numbers of the credit card used were not those of my card. For a moment, I thought either I'd been given the wrong receipt or, better, that someone else had been hit by my charges. But all the other receipts bore the same four numbers and I finally realised these were not the four final numbers used in Spain, but the four before these. No idea why but, in this case, it looks like Portugal is different.

The EU and its future has been a somewhat dormant issue since the the panic of last summer was finally calmed by Mario Draghi's announcement that the ECB would move heaven and earth to save the currency. Whatever the legality, was the impression. Happily for Spain, the rates on her sovereign bonds then fell significantly and President Mariano Rajoy has felt able to postpone (sine die?) a humiliating bail-out request. One gets the impression that, since mid 2012, not much progress has been made on addressing the core deficiencies of the EU but, then, as someone commented recently, it's only crises which bestir the members into substantive action. And the next crisis could be around little Cyprus, which looks like defaulting on its debts and, besides, is a centre for the laundering of untold millions belonging to the Russian mafia. No less a personage than Mr Draghi has stressed that Cypriot banks are big enough to pose a systemic risk to the eurozone. Olli Rehn, the EU’s currency chief, fears that failure to back Cyprus could once again shatter trust, setting off fresh capital flight. “It’s essential that everybody realises that a disorderly default of Cyprus could lead to an exit of Cyprus from the eurozone,” he said. “It would be extremely stupid to take any risk of that nature.” So, in short, interesting times may well return.

Talking of the Russian mafia . . . The mayor of the Catalan town of Lloret de Mar was today taken to the local calaboose, accused of running a large-scale money-laundering operation for their benefit. No doubt at a price. We await developments with interest. Especially as to what name this case will be given.

If you were planning to go to the Las Ventas bullring in Madrid for any of its upcoming events, you need to think again. The new roof installed there only fa few days ago has fallen down, even though “All the instructions of the French manufacturers were obeyed to the letter.”

Finally . . . Re-watching Napoleon Dynamite tonight with the Spanish subtitles on, I noticed the English term Liger – lion plus tiger – was translated as Tileon, or tiger plus lion. Same thing, of course, but one wonders why. Other than the word Ligreleón plus tigre – doesn't exist in Spanish. Except it does. Whereas tileón doesn't. Odd.


Commentators all over the world have been analysing David Cameron's speech on Britain and the EU. And, as you'd expect, coming to wildly divergent conclusions. Here's an article from Ambrose Evans-Pritchard, who believes – if I've got him right – that Britain should stay in the EU but that the latter needs to be thoroughly reformed to take cognisance of today's realities. Not those of 1948.

David Cameron has one great ally: the people of Europe.

Cherry-picking. Europe a la carte. And from Madrid, a finger-waving admonition that "David Cameron must understand he cannot pretend to renegotiate the treaties, and undo what we have done, or slow the speed of the EU cruiser."

There speaks the old guard, still struggling to grasp the magnitude of what has just happened. They offer no flicker of recognition that the EU itself has over-reached disastrously and must learn to respect the nation-state democracies if it is to survive at all.

For the first time since the Treaty of Rome in 1957 a country has challenged the Monnet doctrine of ever-closer union. Some 180,000 pages of acquis communautaire supposedly written in stone are being thrown open.

If Europe's leaders dig in their feet, there is a high likelihood that Britain will walk away in 2017, setting off a complex chain-reaction in the alliance system of Northwest Europe.

The first reflex has been to dismiss Mr Cameron's speech as an entirely British act of perfidy, or as party intrigue to see off UKIP, or both. But matters are not so simple.

Very large numbers of people across Europe agree with him, and that is a greater danger for Brussels. The latest Eurobarometer surveys shows that just 30pc of Europeans now have a "positive view" of the EU.

France's Vox Agora praised David Cameron for breaking the taboo and igniting a pan-European debate, running a red-blooded headline: "towards the end of European dictatorship?"

"The British prime minister has scored a bulls-eye," said the Frankurter Allgemeine, Germany's most venerable newspaper. "Cameron is right: the EU must be more flexible and competitive. The return of competences to the national authorities must be made possible. The EU must be made more democratic at long last."

Germany is in ferment as citizens awaken to danger that EMU bail-out funds will shoe-horn their country into an EU fiscal union with shared debts. To the extent that this is buttressed by the actions of the European Central Bank -- bond purchases, bank liquidity, or Target2 imbalances -- it is more insidious, since it amounts to fiscal union by stealth.

The Free Voter party won 10pc of votes in Bavaria with calls to block the European Stability Mechanism (ESM), and this in turn has forced the Bavarian Social Christians to harden their message, including demands for a referendum on transfers of power to Brussels. Chancellor Angela Merkel has her own "UKIP problem".

So too does the French establishment. Marine Le Pen's Front National -- at 18pc in the polls -- is threatening the right-flank of the Gaullistes with calls for an in/out referendum. President Francois Hollande's Socialists face a parallel attack on the other side from the Left Front.

So too do Italy's mandarins. The triple alliance of Beppe Grillo, Silvio Berlusconi, and the Northern League commands 37% of the vote on EU-bashing of one kind or another. Holland, Finland, and Austria all have eurosceptic parties large enough to upset politics. Austria's Freedom Party now wants an Alpine alliance with Switzerland and a vote on EU-exit.

It is hard to know exactly what has caused the dam to break. The failure of EMU has played its part. Half Europe is trapped in depression, with 1930s levels of unemployment, deprived of the policy levers needed to extricate themselves. The gap in growth between the US and Eurozone is running at 20-year highs of almost 3pc, and looks likely to continue with powerful compound effects through much of the decade.

I have long argued that the EU's refusal to respect the French and Dutch `No' votes against the European Constitution in 2005 was the moment when the Project crossed a line and lost its legitimacy, but everybody has their own particular grievance. What lies behind the anger is the sense that little can be done to redress it. You can vote out your government, but you can't vote out the EU machinery.

It is well understood in Germany that EU fiscal union erodes the tax and spending powers of the Bundestag and therefore must eviscerate German democracy. As the ECB's retired prophet Otmar Issing keeps warning, this is the issue over which the English Civil War was fought. It is not only about money. It is about self-government.

The hot debate in Germany is perhaps why Mrs Merkel has refused to join the chorus of attacks on David Cameron, instead holding out an olive branch with talk of a "fair compromise". In Davos she went so far as to embrace his message of deep reform.

The new political fact in EU affairs is the Anglo-German Entente, a twist that has caught many by surprise. You could say this is raw trade politics. Britain has become Germany's biggest trade partner, overtaking France for the first time in the modern era.

Germany is looking beyond the EMU stagnation sphere, where its trade has fallen from 46% to 37% in just over a decade. It has a spanking new capital, just 80 miles for the Polish frontier, with an "Ossi" Chancellor who grew up on the other side of the Iron Curtain, and is moreover appalled by French foot-dragging on reform.

You could say too that Berlin does not much like the prospects of an EU that gains Romania, Bulgaria, and soon the rest of the Balkans, and loses a wealthy, free-trade, Atlantic ally. It is bad enough to be stuck in EMU, outnumbered by a ring of mostly Latin states needing transfers in perpetuity.

Yet there is another motive for seeking to win over David Cameron. Germany's leaders feel unloved and are alarmed by their owned unwanted power. Their modest national ambition is to make things, sell them, prepare for Germany's ageing crisis in five years time, play the piano, and be a good neighbour.

Already faced with the burden of hegemony and all its painful associations, the last thing they want is a British exit that would drastically upset the EU balance of power.
What is surprising is that France has been so slow to face up to the implications of a reunited Greater Germany. Everybody knows Franco-German condominium is an illusion. It can no longer mask German power.

The EU has completely changed in any case with Nordic and Eastern enlargement. There is no going back to the glory days when Emile Noël was able to run the European Commission as an outpost of the French civil service for thirty years, from 1957 to 1987, with the benign acquiescence of Bonn. That world has vanished for ever.

One might expect the French to bite their tongues and seek to bind the British as closely to their side as they did in 1904, and again in the 1930s, for purely diplomatic purposes this time of course. Yet Mr Hollande's first reaction to the Cameron speech was a tone-deaf reminder that Britain must abide by its "obligations".

This may change. Finance minister Pierre Moscovici was more subtle, admitting that the UK is "extremely useful" in the EU. The reality is that British and French forces worked side by side with in the Balkans, and again in Libya, and do so now in Mali. An Anglo-French military union already exists.

There are some who will play to stereotypes. Spain's foreign minister José Manuel Garcia-Margallo helpfully told us that Brexit would lead to "terrible devastation" of our industries with nothing left but "a few petty bankers" in xenophobic isolation. I hardly have to remind readers that England is the only major nation that happily lets foreigners run its football team and its central bank, or lets the Spanish run its airports, or lets the Hong Kong Chinese run the rail transport of its capital city. What Britons dislike is foreign rule, not foreigners.

David Cameron has at last established this sentiment as British state policy. My guess is that other leaders of Europe's historic nation states will be forced by their own peoples to fix the limits of EU power in a similar fashion.

If he has set that process in motion he may just help to save a European Union worth saving.
The Spanish president, Sr Rajoy, is reported to have told Mrs Merkel that Spain doesn't want yet another year of sacrifices with no rewards. Something was expected in return increased taxes, reduced public sector salaries, cuts in funding of social welfare and a drive for zero debt. We don't know Mrs Merkel's reply but we do know that she rejected Sr Rajoy's suggestion that Spain's situation will improve this year. Which is hardly surprising given the IMF forecast of a 1.5% fall in GDP.

What we's all like to see from Sr Rajoy is something along the lines of “We will identify corruption wherever it exists and seek to eradicate.” Or even “Yes, corruption is a major problem for Spain and we will do our best to eradicate it. But there are more important things to deal with right now, such as an unemployment rate of 26%.” Nothing of this nature so far. Possibly because the government's real objective – and that of the opposition – is to keep the lid on things.

I've averred there are too many levels of government in Spain and, thus, too many politicians. Maybe we'll see a reduction sometime but, until then, they all have to find something to do. And this is where the Cultural Centres I mentioned yesterday can come in handy. For they need to be visited. Especially just before regional elections in which overseas citizens are allowed to vote. Buenos Aires is a particularly popular destination for Galician polticians.

Coincidentally, the Spanish government is bringing in a law which will, it's reported, keep tabs on what regional governments do outside Spain. Or, in other words, will ensure “"unity of action, institutional loyalty and coordination." Cynics see it as a handy weapon against Cataluña's threat to seek international support for its goal of independence. On this subject, here's the trenchant view of my fellow blogger, Candide – writing in IberoSphere.

Closer to home and down in scale . . . There are 23 new homes up the slope behind mine. They took 6 years to build and have been unoccupied for at least 2. The problem is that the developers stole some land and 4 of the houses plus the drive to the entire development are illegal. The latter has become an overflow car-park for me and my neighbours but, over the last 2 weeks, quite extensive works have been carried out on it, down among the water pipes. It's hard to understand why, but there we are. Perhaps the builders are optimistic of getting access. In Spain one tends to stop speculating as anything could happen. Or nothing.

Over in London . . . Harrod's window in Knightsbridge is given over to a display in favour of Galicia. This features the strap-line - Can you keep my secret? Which I've long thought of as rather naff. But let's hope it works. Supported by the Rick Stein program on Galician cuisine on the TV today.

You may recall the calvario I suffered in getting my name off the municipal records in respect of the house in the hills I sold in November 2011. Despite which, I received both a demand for payment of the 2012 municipal taxes and a penalty for non-payment. Well, today I sent off a letter, together with 24 copy-documents, in an effort to bring this matter to a close. But I'm none too confident of this. Probably there'll be a document missing. Or one of the photocopied pages won't be clear enough. Anything to keep the matter unresolved and the bureaucrat in employment. It's at times like this that one feels Spain needs to drag itself out of the 18th century. Something which, as I say, La Crisis may help with.

Finally . . . When asked about giving up alcohol to help prolong his life, Kingsley Amis (a fan of single malt whisky) replied: “No pleasure is worth giving up for the sake of two more years in a geriatric home.” Or ten, so far, in the case of my father.

Monday, January 28, 2013

A day of contrasts in Lisbon. But, then, Portugal is like that; a collision of the magnificent old with the brutal and dilapidated new. Or not so new. Testament to its erstwhile splendour and more recent poverty.

One of the more beautiful buildings we saw this morning was the Galician embassy in Lisbon. I say 'embassy' but, of course, it isn't. It's just an impressive 'Centro' in a salubrious part of the city, dedicated to looking after Galicia's interests there. As if it were a sovereign state. There are several of these all over the world and Galicia isn't alone in spending millions on them every year. It's quite possible every region is Spain does. It's as if every county council in the UK indulged in this extravagance. By comparison with the Galician Centro, the British Embassy in Lisbon is a garden shed. Could there be any better candidates for the chop? By the way, among the many courses the Centro offers is flamenco dancing. Which you won't see in a thousand years in Galicia. Click here for an idea of the splendour and grandeur of this pointless pile.

In contrast, there's the truly appalling coach station in the Oriente barrio of Lisbon. This would be depressing enough in the sunshine but with the rain falling it's an invitation to suicide. And, in the Portuguese tradition, there's no information available as to which coach is leaving from which bay. As for the toilets, I've seen better in the Third World. Here are some fotos of both the bus station and the nearby train station. Presumably taken when they were new or in a brochure. Proof positive that fotos can lie. Presumably the architects were East European. Circa 1960.

The car-park beneath the coach station is the same immense size but actually more appealing, as no one's tried to be artistic with it. As underground car-parks go, it's quite acceptable. But there's only one pay machine, to which I had to make a 500 yard round trip to get my ticket endorsed. It struck me some slow folk might be in danger of having the allotted time run out before they got back to their car and tried to drive out. But at least it explained why there was no one parked anywhere near my car and plenty round the corner. Anyway, if there's only a few minutes to go before your bus leaves, go straight to the station. Otherwise, have a drink elsewhere first. You'll need it.

Back in Spain, the ex-Treasurer of the governing PP party has announced, via friends, that he knows where all the bodies are. Rather, that he has several boxes full of files with pertinent data in them. Which perhaps should not see the light of a courtroom. Stay tuned for Chapter 3.

Finally . . . Patricia Janet – or Baroness Scotland – came to the UK from Dominica as a two year old. After taking a law degree, she became the first ever black QC. She went on to become the first woman to hold the position of Attorney General since it was created in 1315. Just imagine what being her daughter must be like.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

On a trip to Chile, Spain's President Rajoy continues to bat off awkward questions about corruption at the top of his party with weasel words. “There's nothing more unfair than a generalisation that all politicians are corrupt when, in fact, the majority of them are efficient and honourable”, he protested. Which may well be true – even in Spain - but the trouble is few believe him. And the rest would like to see some evidence of anti-corruption measures. Like a Transparency Law which complies with international standards. Unlike the draft currently on the table. 

I mentioned the other day that I was surprised by the suggestion that one could defame a political party in Spain. And now comes the news that judges can be sued as well. Or at least that's what we're to understand from the response given by the ex-Treasurer of the PP party when he was asked by his Swiss bank about reports he was involved in what was then Spain's biggest corruption scandal - “It's all lies and I'll be suing the judge for defamation”. Or words to that effect. I'm wondering whether this is because Spain operates under the inquisitorial system of the French Civil Code. Leading to public statements by judges about the possible involvement of individuals in the case he or she is inquiring into. And, thus, to the risk of defamation. Or perhaps it was all just bluster. 

Talking about judgements . . . The BBC has recently erased from an episode of Fawlty Towers racist comments made by the bigoted Major character. This has lead one commentator to pose the apt question:- “George Orwell used to write disparagingly of 'the pansy Left'. He was, by 2013 standards, homophobic. Should publishers erase his prejudice from his essays? Or would that be a little, well, Orwellian?”

Fellow blogger Lenox reports that “Fixing a drain, workers found that a home in Mérida was served by a sewer system built by the Romans.” This happens in Pontevedra, too. Though we haven't yet found any of the more salubrious items with which Mérida abounds. And which fill its marvellous museum. And an amphitheatre still eludes us.

A couple of Public Service Announcements:-
  • Here, from the Olive Press, is information of use to us foreigners living in Spain.
  • And here's something which may help you when you want to cancel a subscription or quit, say, increasingly-irritating-Facebook
Finally . . . Here's a graphic – and amusing – illustration of the dangers of total texting. Top left corner.
The Aga Khan is going through a divorce and this has shone a light on his personal fortune of 5-15 billion euros. Most of this has come from voluntary donations from members of the Muslim Ismaili community. As I was saying about the Rev Moon, it looks like a really smart move to start and head up a religion.

With its 17 regional governments, Spain has an awful lot of politicians. And with politicians come bureaucrats, like fleas on a dog. So it is that companies wanting to operate throughout the country currently have to seek 17 different licences. As of mid-year, though, they'll be able to do this on the basis of just one. This, I guess, is another positive consequence of the Crisis but better late than never.

Talking about the impact of La Crisis, can it be a coincidence that I've had some exceptionally pleasant treatment at the hands of shop assistants over the last week?

Another reform which may be in the offing is that of Executive's power to pardon criminals without explanation. Which is an open invitation to the sort of conspiracy thinking we've recently had about the kamikaze driver who was let off a 13 year sentence and given just a small fine. The head of the Spain's Constitutional Court has said that the system needs to change. “Or at least be explained”. Indeed it does. Especially as the current PP government has pardoned three times as many criminals in just one year as its predecessor did in eight years in power.

A UK report suggests that the cost of raising a child to the age of 21 is now £222,458. Thank God, then, they're all worth every penny of that.

Corruption: Here's a recent and apposite El País editorial on the subject:- "Beyond the need to clarify exactly what the source of Bárcenas’ funds is, there is the problem of the public becoming sick to the back teeth of corruption and tax evasion. There is no transparency regarding the sources of the financing of political parties, nor the loans they receive, the companies they have links with, and not even whether or not Bárcenas made use of the government’s fiscal amnesty to regularize part of these funds with the taxman. . . . The economic and financial crisis that we are living through has seen the patience of the public run out when it comes to the plundering of public funds and tax evasion. The PP must not wait for the results of a judicial investigation, which will presumably move at a snail’s pace. The parties must actively take control of their expenditure and their income and guarantee the transparency and legality of the funds under their management. If they don’t, they will be clearing a path for populism and radicalism." The full text is here.

Finally . . . My fellow blogger Lenox Napier is now producing a weekly newsletter by the name of Business over Tapas. This is a “weekly report on the finance, the economy, the housing, the opportunities and the pitfalls of life in Spain, together with some news items, press cuttings and translations of stories of interest, with special focus on life as a foreign resident and property owner in this splendid but sometimes frustrating country.” Take a look here if you fit the bill. Or even if you don't. 

Friday, January 25, 2013

The town of Tomar had plenty of sights but none more unusual than that which greeted me as I took the stairs up to the pay-station of the underground carpark. This was a couple in the well of the staircase who'd just finished comparing their underwear. At least, this is what I assumed they'd been doing as each of them was pulling up their pants. I wished them well but didn't get a response. Perhaps I should have used Portuguese. They were still there when I went down but I felt I detected a degree of sheepishness.

On another track altogether . . . You can now train from London to Barcelona in less time than it takes to get from Pontevedra to Madrid. And the Catalans claim they're hard done by! Will we ever get the AVE high-speed train in Galicia? I do wonder, even though President Rajoy is Galician and should be pork-barrelling like mad.

Which reminds me . . . The infamous airport at Castellón which cost billions and has never seen a plane is now being rented out to those who have a racing car they want to test. Sic transit gloria mundi.

Click here for the best 20 inventions to come out of Spain. And then just imagine what could have been achieved if the other 90% of the population had been applying themselves.

To be serious . . . As someone once almost said: Every country gets the politicians it deserves. In Spain's case this is a political class which is far too numerous and far too close to unscrupulous Spanish businessmen. Not to mention arrogant, immoral and self-serving. If Spain really is to become a modern European state, this mould has to be broken and another one created. With the involvement of the people. And not via we-know-best dictat. Will it happen? I don't know. But I certainly hope so and am willing to be optimistic.

Frankly, though, the first signs are not encouraging. Ex President Aznar has started legal proceedings against El País because of what's been reported around his involvement in the latest corruption scandal. And, ahead of a TV debate on the subject, the governing PP party issued threats that it was watching closely and would take legal action over any “defamatory” comments. Rightly, some of the participants suggested the party should instead be considering legal action against the chap who'd been distributing fat brown envelopes to party members. Which won't be possible, however, until the party admits this happened. We await this development with bated breath.

Back to reality . . . Mackerel is a fish which is now endangered. This won't bother the Spanish as they decline to eat it, as being 'too strong'. Demand is, therefore, low and so is the price. Which is good for those of us who like it. Even if we now have a dilemma.

Finally . . . I keep getting emails about Twitter in the name of Pablo Casals. Anyone else?

Finally, finally . . . “Every country gets the government it deserves” - Joseph de Maistre

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

This morning Faye and I walked up a steepish hill to get to the site of a Templar castle-cum-church-cum-monastery. Bit by bit we discovered we could've driven up. But that's what happens when you use an out-of-date guide-book which says you can only get there by foot. But, anyway, Alfie had told me it was well worth seeing and on this, at least, he got it right.

Another reason to ditch the guide book is that it recommended the chicken curry at a restaurant by the river. They no longer did this, the waiter told me. But they did do a delectable prawn curry. Not entirely true. It was the worst curry I'd eaten in 40 years. Even worse that the curry crap they serve in Chinese restaurants. But Faye had a delicious grilled bream. Luck of the draw, I guess.

This afternoon we drove from Tomar to Lisbon airport to pick a dear friend, ahead of spending the night with her and her partner in Carcabelas, on the coast. Thanks to the satnav sending us, first, 10km westwards and back and, then, 15km northwards and back, we were an hour late at the airport. And one of us was not in a very good mood. Especially as the petrol warning light had been flashing violently for 15 minutes. But all's well etc.

Far more seriously, in this article Alan Murphy takes a look at what he sees as the four possible scenarios for post-crisis Spain. His initial assumption is that the existing state of Spain will not be able to survive long enough to hold general elections again in 2015, and that therefore Rajoy’s Partido Popular government will be the last of the 1978-model Kingdom of Spain. Pretty contentious stuff.

Here in Portugal, I finally got to use my Chip & Pin debit card the right way - i. e. without needing to prove my identity or sign anything. How long will it be, I wonder, before Spain, follows suit on this. I hope I live to see it.

Finally . . . The CEO of the Portuguese Banco do Espíritu Santo has sent me a Friend request on Facebook. And a foto of himself looking like a film star. I know he's a banker but can he really be that lonely and friendless.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

My daughter, Faye, and I are down in the lovely Portuguese Templar town of Tomar, just north of Lisboa. It took a bit of time to orientate ourselves when we arrived, as the place has two sorts of street-name plaques – 1. Absent, and 2. Written in some curly medieval script. Neither is very useful as you're trying to negotiate the narrow, cobbled streets and to obey the No Entry and One Way signs. In a car, I mean.

Armed with advice from our expert on Portugal, Alfie Mittington, we were able to quickly identify the hostel he recommended. And that's when the fun started. The young man at the desk was pleasant but inept. We got through the registration process well enough, using a mixture of Portuguese, Spanish and English, but things went downhill from there:-
I'd like two single rooms, please.
OK. The price is X, including breakfast.
Except we don't have any single rooms for tonight.
OK, how about a double room with two beds.
OK, I'll just get the key.
We move into the corridor and he tries the key. After a minute or two, he finally gets the door open. To find that the room contains a double bed. Back to the desk, where he picks up another key. We then move, via a seriously steep set of stairs, to the next floor. Again he wrestles with the lock. Finally, he opens the door, looks in and tells me it's 'under maintenance'. Back to the desk again for a third key, and back up the vertiginous flight of stairs that Alfie failed to tell me about. I feel we should be roped together and wearing oxygen masks but say nothing. To his evident delight – and after the by now standard wrestle with the lock and door knob – he lets me into a room with two single beds and I say 'Fine. But where is the heating?” He points to the radiator, says something like 'mechanical' and tells me it comes on at 5.30. Needing to conserve oxygen, I don't argue.

I return to the car to tell Faye we're fixed up for the night but she's not happy about sharing a room. I ignore her protestations and we take out bags to said room. Having seen it, Faye trots off down the corridor to see if she can better it. But she can't. We then return to the car so I can put it in an underground car park I'd seen. This was large but contained only two other cars. My suspicion was that this owed something to the fiendishly complex schedule of 15m, 30m, 45m, etc. charges displayed at the entrance. I tried to get Stephen Hawkings on the phone to help me with this but, as usual, he didn't pick up. Without his input, I managed to work out that the overnight charge would be over 20 euros, more than I've ever paid in the centre of Madrid. These Templars may not have been good Christians but they were clearly ace businessmen. I don't think it's a coincidence there's a synagogue and a Hebrew Museum here.

Having settled in, Faye and I set off in search of the restaurant recommended by Alfie.
Which is when we got caught by a freak wind and hailstorm as we were crossing the raging river to the new barrio on the other side. So, it was good to find the restaurant closed when we sought refuge in its entrance. As was every café, bar and food place within a quarter mile of it. Except for a pizzeria that Faye felt she just had to avail herself of.

And then we finally found an open café, with WiFi and the girls on the next table smoking. Which came as a shock. But I guess Portugal is still at where Spain was a couple of years ago, leaving to the owners to decide whether or not to ban smoking.

And so, as I finish my beer, in the café and contemplate the challenge of finding a restaurant open, I raise my glass to Absent Alfie. Just imagine what problems we'd have had without his input!

Monday, January 21, 2013

In the wake of the Tesco horse-meat 'scandal' in the UK, two enterprising souls have entered one of their supermarkets in panto-horse guise, shouting 'Murderers!' and “Where's my Mum?' before being gently ushered out by a security guy, who possibly couldn't stop laughing. There's a Spanish connection to this in that at least some of the meat came from here. Not that I've ever seen it on the menu in Spain. Click here for the, allegedly, best jokes on this theme. And here for Hitler's reaction. He flipped, apparently, at the hamburger disclosure.

Private Eye magazine has a regular feature called Dumb Britain. It throws up some gems but this one is priceless, from The Weakest Link:-
Anne Robinson: Castel Gandolfo is the summer residence of which religious leader?
Contestant: Jesus.

I mentioned the other day I knew nothing about the lady – Beate Gordon – whom El País was running an obit on. Thanks to The Economist, I know now she was famous for writing the clause in the post-war Japanese Constitution which gave women equal rights. Or, indeed, any rights. She was barely 22 at the time. Life after that was a bit of an anti-climax.

There's been a fistful of comments from doyens and doyennes of the PP party today. On the latest corruption scandal, of course. Plus a threat to prosecute anyone who defames the party. I didn't know you could defame a political party, as opposed to the individuals in it. Nor do I think it would be possible to defame it right now, given what has emerged about the black cash swilling about inside the PP HQ. President Rajoy is still denying manila envelope practices but a colleague of the ex Treasurer-in-Trouble has confirmed that monthly 'bonus' payments were routine and that they were far bigger than the standard pay cheques. But we're all a lot closer to the truth now, as Señor Rajoy has said that internal and external audits will be set in motion someday soon. Meanwhile, the ex Treasurer's mate has revealed that, as suspected, the money came as donations from private companies.

Time for Spain to Clean up Its Act? I was going to write a bit more about corruption today but, as Guy Hedgecoe has penned a good article answering this question, I'll confine myself to quoting this:- There's a paucity of hope, a frustrated paralysis over corruption, cronyism and ego-driven politics. Nobody believes voting will change anything. . . Endemic levels of misery and apathy are tied to a popular conviction that politicians of all stripes will continue to serve an elite while ignoring everybody else.

Finally, this is The Economist's latest overview on Spain. It makes no mention of corruption but I'd bet my life on things being different next week:-

In Madrid ministers brag that they have turned a corner. Euro-zone bond yields have been hitting new low levels. Spain’s banking and labour reforms are now in place. Growth will revive later this year or in 2014. Jobs, the Spanish El Dorado, will eventually follow.

But that is surely too rosy a view. Exports are growing and the current account is now in surplus, but even the government sees GDP shrinking by 0.5% in 2013 (and most analysts talk of 1.5%). Spaniards are suffering an aching spell of record unemployment, at 26.6%. Austerity means worsening public services just as real wage and pension cuts make people poorer. The biggest asset for many families, their house, is plunging in value, with a further 20% price fall expected. Higher income, sales and housing taxes will hit spending power further. Business confidence and retail sales are in retreat. And a housing glut will take years to digest. Only 25,655 of what Fitch, a ratings agency, says are 1.2m unsold Spanish houses were bought in November.
Spain must eventually emerge from all this. But will Spaniards put up with extended pain? Or will they rebel against a political establishment that has failed them? So far they have been quietly dignified. Peaceful demonstrators have made more headlines than violent protesters. Yet days lost to strikes are at a ten-year high. A budget deficit of 7-8% of GDP in 2012 must be cut this year. The European Union has set a 4.5% target, though it may relax this. Investment has already been slashed so future cuts must fall on public health, education, pensions and welfare services.
Polls show most politicians in the doghouse. Barely half of all Spaniards back the two parties that have governed for three decades: the ruling People’s Party (PP) of Mariano Rajoy or the opposition Socialists. The communist-led United Left has surged to almost 16%, while Rosa Díez’s centrist Union for Progress and Democracy stands at 10%.
Spaniards blame the Socialist government of José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero for dropping them in the mess, and Mr Rajoy’s PP for failing to get them out of it, says Juan José Toharia of Metroscopia, a pollster. Only one in six Spaniards has confidence in Mr Rajoy.
That may also explain why he is so anxious to dodge the euro-zone bail-outs that led to changes of government in Greece, Ireland and Portugal. With bond yields heading down, thanks to the European Central Bank (ECB), the pressure has eased. As long as this holds, Mr Rajoy can avoid the new soft bail-out under which the ECB promises to buy Spanish bonds on the secondary market. Josep Comajuncosa of the Esade business school now sees only a 50% chance of a formal bail-out. Renewed market nervousness could yet force one; and a bail-out that slashed borrowing costs would speed recovery, even if it damaged Mr Rajoy. But his ministers still see it as a silver bullet that is all the better for being left unused.
Mr Rajoy has time on his side. He is only a year into a four-year term and enjoys an absolute majority in parliament. Catalonia is rumbling, but any stand-off over independence has been postponed two years or more. In electoral terms, he need fret about the economy only in 2016. He wants Germany to stimulate growth to help Spanish exports.
But Spaniards are shedding their enthusiasm for an EU that seems to impose austerity and prevents devaluation. Only 4% thought the EU was bad for Spain five years ago, but now 37% do. A century ago the philosopher José Ortega y Gasset declared that “Spain is the problem, Europe is the answer”. As the crisis drags on, Spaniards may start thinking the opposite.