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 Ligre – león 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.