Wednesday, April 05, 2017

Thoughts from Galicia: 5.4.17

Life in Spain: for those who didn't read my supplement on Christopher Howse's book A Pilgrim in Spain, this is one of his observations I agreed with: Spanish life is not always likeable but it is compellingly loveable. I like to think this is the tone of this blog. I'm going to put it as masthead in future.

Is there any more amusing item in today's news that that about Spain being shocked at the 'overblown' British reaction to the use of Gibraltar as a pawn in the Brexit negotiations? Especially after Madrid had striven to maximise the anger by sending a warship into Gibraltar's waters. Hilarious. Needless to say, articles in the Spanish press about Gibraltar have been as bad as those in the UK. Though perhaps none of them here has plumbed the depths achieved by the execrable Sun. For those looking for a decent article on what's really going on, see the end of this post. Where there's also an amusing take from Giles Tremlett, who knows a thing or two about Spain.

I don't know if this is a Spain-wide phenomenon but, here in Galicia, the local papers on Mondays are dominated by sports coverage. This week, the Faro de Vigo gave us 35 pages (49% of the total) and the Voz de Galicia checked in with 28 pages (a mere 41%). There is nothing, absolutely nothing, of the local sports scene which is not reported on.

Talking of the weekend . . . On Sunday, it was hard to know what season we're now in. Alongside the ladies sporting shorts and midriffs for the first time this year were those who still felt it necessary to wear jackets or even overcoats under a sun giving us a temperature of 25 degrees. Funny folk, these Spaniards/Galicians.

And talking of the the Faro de Vigo . . . Yesterday it chose to headline its edition with news of Madrid investing less in Galicia. The Moscow bombing rated a small item on the bottom of the first page, though there was an extensive report on pages 27-28. The Voz de Galicia also ran a local item - about tax receipts - as its headline but did give a bit more prominence to the tragedy on page 1. All rather parochial.

Here's another of those non-surprises: Third world companies who channel the foreign aid granted by Britain are rife with corruption. Just like the Andalucian beneficiaries of EU largesse. Who'd have thought it? Are governments really as stupid as they sometimes seem to be?

Spanish Language Corner:
  • The English phrase 'a gambling chip' (think Gibraltar again) seems to be moneda de cambio. Though the latter also seems to mean just 'currency' or 'stock in trade'. Depending, as usual with Spanish, on the context.
Nutters' Corner:

  • "Christian leader” Mary Colbert: Donald Trump is chosen by God and is part of His master plan. Anyone who opposes him will be cursed, along with their children and their grandchildren.
After reading that uplifting bit of 'Christian' thinking you might or might not need a laugh. So . . . .

Today's cartoon:-


Spain needs a British Gibraltar, just as the EU needs Britain

The British Prime Minister has ruled out war with Spain over the status of Gibraltar. No, not a headline from 1745, but from 2017. On Monday afternoon Theresa May laughed off suggestion of military conflict with Spain, something seemingly suggested by former Conservative leader Michael Howard on Sunday. Meanwhile, Lord Tebbit, writing in this newspaper, made headlines in Spain for his suggestion of inviting Catalan nationalists for a chat with the British government.

This is plainly a massive overreaction.

Call it spin if you like, but the government sees the apparent Spanish veto as a misstep by the EU, and a sign that divisions among the EU27 are already causing trouble. It’s not hard to agree. Yes, the EU is meant to defend the interests of its member states, but does that really mean scuppering a trade deal for 500 million Europeans over a small town on the Mediterranean?

Spain is currently governed by a minority government of the centre-right Partido Popular, a party that upholds the mantle of patriotism, opposes separatism, and and has form when it comes to taking an aggressive stance on Gibraltar. So yes, it rattles the cage every so often to stir up a bit of nationalist support and distract from domestic woes. Witness the chaos at the border in 2013 created by Spain after Gibraltar built an artificial reef.

The difference this time, of course, is that Spain has the much bigger platform of the Brexit negotiations to make its point. The Partido Popular could hardly pass up the opportunity. That the EU chose to agree to the demand is its problem not ours.

The same thing goes for the Spanish foreign minister’s statements about Scotland and the EU. Yes, it’s clearly manoeuvring by Madrid. But it’s also a simple continuation of Spanish domestic policy, and of common sense. Spanish constitutionalism sees Spain as indivisible, and the actions of Catalan separatists as illegal. Neither of those things are true for Scotland. Madrid would never countenance Catalonia becoming independent, and a threat to veto Scotland’s membership would undermine that stance by implying that it foresees Catalan independence. Spain is also a strongly pro-EU country and so its government would struggle, both domestically and in Brussels, to justify vetoing membership for a stable, relatively wealthy, and European nation.

What Spain’s foreign minister also stated was that Scotland would have to go through the normal process of application to the EU, something it took the most recent member, Croatia, a decade to work through. Both Catalan and Scottish nationalists talk of being independent nations within the EU to give themselves credibility. Ten years in the wilderness is a far more subtle and politically viable threat for Madrid to make towards the Catalans.

On Scotland, Spain is playing its own intricate domestic game with separatists, not winding up Britain. On Gibraltar, Madrid clearly is winding up the UK. But again, it’s also playing to the domestic gallery.

It’s worth asking what Spain actually wants from all this. Spanish demands are always for co-sovereignty. Not a return to Spanish rule. This isn’t a sop to self-determination – the government in Madrid has clearly shown it isn’t interested in the opinions of Gibraltarians, otherwise it would have listened to the result of the 2002 referendum which rejected co-sovereignty by 99 per cent to 1. Instead, it is an acknowledgement that Gibraltar is an economic lifeline in the otherwise economically depressed region.

Thousands of Spaniards drive across the border at La Linea every day to work in Gibraltar. They’re only able to do so because the low regulation low taxation system on the Rock has created economic prosperity. Make Gibraltar part of Spain and that disappears. (Full autonomy Honk Kong style wouldn’t work. It would destabilize Spanish federalism as Catalonia would almost certainly demand matched powers and it represents an enormous chunk of Spain’s economy.)

So what does Spain really want from Gibraltar? Co-sovereignty would salve a wound to national pride (though not one felt by all Spaniards) and perhaps provide a large short-term boost, or even an election win to the party that achieves it. Nevertheless, status quo ante Michael Howard’s bellum come 2019 would leave the Partido Popular with its favourite nationalist chew toy to distract from corruption scandals or economic trouble.

For Gibraltar as for the UK, the negotiation of Brexit will be complicated, nerve wracking, and hinge on both huge and small points.

Gibraltar does not have a soft border with Spain. It isn’t even in the customs union of the EU. 90% of its trade is with Britain. The real question around Gibraltar’s future is not trade, but what will happen to the huge flow of skilled workers who everyday queue at the border crossing. Without a suitable replacement or some kind of opt-in to freedom of movement, the Rock’s economy will be sunk. Much hinges on the outcome of the negotiations, but as in the bigger picture, both sides can do immense damage to each other, and both sides have more to gain from compromise than confrontation.

The absurd history of British-Spanish rivalry, from Henry VIII to Gibraltar Giles Tremlett
Brexit began in 1527. 

It was, in essence, a spat with Spain. The man responsible for this dramatic and deeply unsettling change in Britain’s constitution was a fat, childish and overindulged English monarch called Henry VIII, who became obsessed by something we might call “control”. 

Henry seemed like a jolly chap. He liked music, drank beer, danced a good jig and also liked women – although he was somewhat scared of them, which explains why he chopped off their heads. He came from an England with big ideas about itself, but which was essentially in decline. It had lost most of its territory in France and, in comparison to bold and dynamic Spain, was decidedly puny.

The Columbus family had tried but failed to interest the Tudors in exploring the Atlantic Ocean and backing a venture that would change the next 500 years of world history. But the Tudors were inward-looking, insular types. Instead, a female Spanish monarch – Isabella of Castile – backed Christopher Columbus. The next two centuries of European history, and the first global empire on which the sun did not set, belonged to Spain – “which, to say truly, is a beam of glory,” as Francis Bacon later observed. 

It is not surprising that the insecure Tudors were thrilled when Isabella’s daughter, Catherine of Aragon, arrived in England as a young bride-to-be. It meant that they had managed a tie-up with the great Spanish royal family. Whereas England was in retreat, Spain was widely admired as a nation of plucky fighters who had just conquered the Muslim kingdom of Granada. 

Henry VIII’s first major decision as monarch was to marry Catherine, who was his brother Arthur’s widow, and maintain the Spanish alliance. But Henry also saw himself as a manly man – and one who needed another man to reign after him. Catherine, however, failed to produced a son. 

Henry thought he was cleverer than those in charge of the great European union of the time. This was known as Christendom and was run from a foreign capital by the pope. Most importantly, England had recognised for centuries that the senior court for matters such as divorce also lay in Rome. A self-deluding Henry thought he could out-argue Catherine, but she was smarter and stronger. Henry was always going to lose, but the absurdly high esteem in which he held both himself and English history made him blind to this. In the end, Catharine won the argument and the pope refused him a divorce. A petulant Henry cursed wretched foreigners and launched his own Brexit by leaving the church of Rome. 

Bloodshed followed as the English turned on one another and squabbled over the country’s new, non-European identity. While Spain swam in wealth from South America, it took Britain centuries to achieve global prominence. Only bad weather helped it avert a true disaster when the Spanish armada tried to invade in 1588. Eventually, however, England grew and spoiled Spain went into decline. 

In 1704, a combined Dutch-English force took Gibraltar – a barren rock of limited material value, but one that provided a key strategic port at the mouth of the Mediterranean Sea. Spain’s decline coincided with Britain’s rise, but they were united by a hatred of the French. When Napoleon’s troops invaded and the brave Spaniards turned on his troops, inventing guerrilla warfare, Britain sent an army to help. Wellington achieved handsome victories in what became known as the war of independence in Spain and the peninsula war in Britain. Drunken British troops murdered or raped much of the population of Badajoz and gained a reputation for heroic, foolish failure at Corunna (now La Coruña). But Spain was glad to win the war and, with the exception of Gibraltar, largely remained a friend. 

Wellington walked away with a lot of great paintings – especially by Velazquez – but cultured Spain had lots more, and greater painters than England, so it did not really miss them. Things were mostly rosy from then on. British mining companies showed the Spaniards how to play soccer – and they learned well. The only real black spot was that a cowardly Britain stood by in the 1930s and allowed Hitler and Mussolini to help General Franco win the Spanish civil war, pushing it into dictatorship and encouraging Nazi Germany to launch the second world war. Many Britons died as a result, while Spanish republicans (the same people Britain had refused to help) volunteered to fight the Nazis and were the first to enter Paris. 

There was, however, one major problem. General Franco wanted Gibraltar. He closed the frontier for many years, bringing suffering to the poor people of Gibraltar and preventing the Royal Navy from sneaking over the border for tapas. The rest of the world generally agreed that this was an absurd spat. What sort of people would get belligerent over Gibraltar? 

Of all the big countries in Europe, Spain is now the one most enamoured of Britain. It wants a soft Brexit. It owns British banks, tolerates drunken tourists and is happy to have large populations of English people who do not speak its language – some of them undocumented, so much like illegal immigrants – on its coasts. It is, in other words, highly tolerant. But it still wants Gibraltar. 

This does not mean it is about to invade. In fact, all it wants is a veto on future deals between Gibraltar and the EU. Thanks to Brexit, it now has that. Sensible Gibraltarians knew the risk – and voted massively to stay in the EU. The suggestion that all this might now get out of hand and that gunboats should be used is a purely British one. Which seems as absurd now as Franco’s decisions to close the border did back then.


Sierra said...

Eamon said...

Henry VIII asked for an annulment of his marriage not a divorce as stated in the above article. An annulment questions the validity of a marriage whereas a divorce doesn't.

Colin Davies said...

OK but did he eventually divorce her under Anglican religious law?

Eamon said...

Yes he started his own church to achieve it. By the way all marriages in the UK come under the law of the land. So when two Catholics get married they are also married by a registrar. In some Catholic churches the priest acts as the registrar but if he doesn't have that power then the registrar will attend the church and marry the couple after the Catholic wedding. Suppose a Catholic couple marry and then they get an annulment because it turned out he only married her because her family were rich. That would not be a valid marriage in the eyes of the Catholic church because he didn't have the right intentions of marriage. I won't go into detail about what makes a valid Catholic marriage. What is their marital status now? Under the state rules they are still married so they need to get a civil divorce.

Colin Davies said...

If you can afford the process, the Vatican can prove remarkably flexible over annulments.

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