Friday, July 28, 2017

Thoughts from Galicia: 28.7.17

Spanish life is not always likeable but it is compellingly loveable.
- Christopher Howse: A Pilgrim in Spain. 

If you've arrived here because of an interest in Galicia or Pontevedra, see my web page here.

Life in Spain:-
  • Things are on the up, it says here. And the unemployment rate is going down and nearing the low level of only 16%!
  • The British Ambassador shows how not to cook a tortilla here.
  • Here's a video I might have of posted before - the late Keith Floyd on Spain - Galicia. Good stuff.
  • Noise in Spain: I wonder if this chat with a neighbour last evening is representative of general attitudes here. The backcloth is a 'complaint' I've made to the neighbour who lives between my house and Manolo's about the loud techno music - example here - of her teenage son. I wanted to know what Manolo felt about the noise:-
Hola, Manolo. Listen, do you have a problem with Pedro's loud music?
Well . . . yes, a problem. But one has to endure it. It's only serious when our daughters are studying.
So, nothing to be done about it?
Don't think so.

Comments from Spanish readers very welcome . . .

I have always believed that common sense would prevail in the Brexit negotiations, though it's been hard to maintain this belief at times. As of now, we have a chorus of British voices demanding a transitional arrangement and even a Flexit. Which has been Richard North's proposal – see here – for years now. And yet . . . if we are to believe the following comment, it's the EU which is dragging its feet and remaining doctrinaire and unpragmatic: There has been a significant evolution in the UK’s position on Brexit in recent weeks. The Cabinet now appears united behind the view that a smooth Brexit requires a transition period of years, rather than months, between the UK’s formal withdrawal and a final deal coming into force. However, the EU position has not been updated to reflect the emerging consensus on the need for a transition.The core problem is said to be that: For all the EU’s talk of transparency in the negotiations, and its publication of various technical position papers, there has been hardly any public debate in or between EU member states about the kind of long-term or even transitional deal they would like with the UK. This is why it is so difficult to compromise. The EU does not actually know what it wants to have achieved at the end of the process. If true, let's hope this changes soon.

Anyway, there's a Guardian article on the pros of a flexible Brexit this at the end of this post.

And this is followed by another EU-related article on its clash with the Polish government and its implications for the thorny issue of free movement of workers, usually given as 'people'. The writer's final comment is that: Forcing a confrontation . . .  truly risks breaking Europe apart. More pragmatism and compromise required, then.

I caught a headline on the TV news earlier this morning . . . That there was a real danger of a civil war. This turned out to be a reference to Venezuela, and not the White House. On the latter, here's an apt comment on the new star of our screens, The Mooch: Another night of headlines generated by a luxuriantly coiffed New Yorker with a juicy line in vulgarity, paranoia and conspiracy theories. It is ugly and cynical. It demeans the White House and casts aside the hopes of voters who expected better. This president now has a spokesman in his own image.

Back down at the very local level . . . Someone is making a short film about a famous Pontevedra prostitute of the early-ish 2th century, La Mimitos. I will keep you informed . . . Meanwhile, if you can read Spanish, click here.

Today's cartoon:-

One of my all time favourites. Apologies to those who've seen it before . . .

"2 o'clock of a Sunday afternoon and all's well!"

"What can you expect when the government controls the mass media!"

Hardliners won’t like this soft Brexit plan. Tough – we have little choice Simon Jenkins, The Guardian

At last the fog is starting to clear around Britain’s Brexit negotiating position. The cloud is lifting, and we can see what lies beyond. It is nothing. There is no negotiating position. There is just an unbridgeable gap between idea and practicality. That gap continues to mesmerise political conversation.

When the public voted to leave the EU last year, there was no evidence that it wanted rid of the single market or cared about the European court of justice. The EU was never an election issue. The vote to leave was a proxy for voters’ immigration concerns. It must be honoured. But who could tell which Brexit was preferred, indeed, what the vote meant?

Since the government was strongly for a minimalist interpretation at the time of the vote, it should have gone immediately to Brussels with a problem. It should have explained that it had to withdraw, but believed it in the nation’s best interest to stay as close to Europe as possible. So which of the “softest” options might form the most constructive basis for negotiation?

As it was, Theresa May did the opposite. She ignored Henry Kissinger’s diplomatic maxim, of building confidence by negotiating from areas of agreement towards those of disagreement. She exaggerated disagreement from the start. Like some remainers I know, she seemed to want hard Brexit just to teach the leavers a lesson. She appointed three loud-mouthed Brexiters as her negotiators, hoping that hanging tough at the start would “win” more at the end. She cried hard Brexit at every turn. Inevitably, the EU retorted in kind. It was bad tactics.

We are told that behind the terrible trio of David Davis, Liam Fox and Boris Johnson are 80 of Whitehall’s brightest and best, burning the midnight oil on a deal under sherpa-in-chief Oliver Robbins. We are told they have a deal just around the corner, “the easiest in human history” (Fox). We “can have our cake and eat it” and the EU can “go whistle” (Johnson).

Brussels regards this as rubbish. MEPs have accused Britain of scuppering a Brexit deal, saying it will be impossible to meet an October deadline unless our negotiators give in on EU citizenship and budget payments. Brussel sources have said that given Britain’s “red lines”, there appears to be no sight of a deal on these matters – which along with the Irish border are the three preliminary withdrawal issues – let alone on a substantive new treaty. It is like the 1438 Council of Basel: as the Ottomans lay siege to Constantinople, the popes and prelates argue over whether the holy ghost was “of” the son or “through” the son. We now merely argue over chlorinated chicken.

The key must be to treat hard Brexit as a paper tiger. This week’s Economist carries a poll showing a quarter of referendum leavers (plus the vast majority of remainers) would vote for soft Brexit, assumed as some version of single-market membership. This confirms a recent YouGov poll that has 72% of leavers stating that the vote was about immigration, yet half of them accepting free movement in exchange for single-market membership if there were restrictions on social benefits for immigrants. The same finding emerges from a King’s College London survey. Again the issue is not immigration as such, rather a desire to relieve the perceived pressure on public services.

I know of no Brexiters who really want tariffs and trade barriers against Europe’s markets. I know of few who want NHS and care workers sent packing, or British fruit farms to close, or to have to get visas every time they visit Europe. There is no way the UK can replicate 35 EU regulatory agencies, all operating under the European court of justice. There is no sum that has trade lost to Europe replaced by trade with the rest of the world. Every economic model, however sceptical, has Brexit costing the British economy dear.

Come March 2019, it is a near certainty that the Brexit clock will have to be stopped. Common sense dictates that the best way forward will be to adopt “temporary” membership of the European economic area (EEA) outside the formal EU, a cobbled-together version of the Norway option. That means honouring leave, while also honouring the clear wish of public opinion to remain within the single market. Continuing to pay a proportion of £8.7bn a year will be cheaper in the short term than the reported £50bn leaving fee.

Brexit pundits may criticise the Norway option as messy, but they can rubbish anything. The chief hurdle is the contentious issue of free movement of labour, one of the four freedoms embraced by the EEA, along with free movement of goods, capital and services. But immigration is now an issue in every EU country. With barriers already going up between Italy and France and round Hungary and Greece, migration is fast becoming a challenge to all Europe. The concept of the “emergency brake” is already embedded in the EEA. Some reform of the Schengen area and control of intra-European migration is a near certainty. That, surely, is the area for Brexit negotiation.

Of course the EEA, temporary or not, will not satisfy Tory fundamentalists. But who cares? They have no coherent vision of what a post-EU labour market, or blanket passport control, or cross-Channel trade would be like. Their anti-Europeanism is not so much practical as psychological, romantic, disruptive. Theirs is an attitude of mind rather than a policy. The evidence anyway is that theirs is a minority view.

The oft-cited assertion that Brexit must mean “leaving the single market” may be legally true, but the EEA offers a replacement market. Jeremy Corbyn and his party are all over the shop on Brexit, but it is inconceivable that Labour would vote against EEA membership with some modified immigration clause. If anyone wanted to argue the issue, we can always stage another referendum, as the Danes and Irish did in comparable circumstances.

Arguments over trade and migration between adjacent states always end in compromise. Europe is already split between the eurozone, the EU and the non-EU, in a layer cake of sovereignties and deals. It is now to be split from Britain. But it has to be in everyone’s interest for the split to be minimised. Hard Brexit is not just daft, it is unnecessary. Brexit should mean flexit.


Poland's constitutional crisis threatens to pull EU apart: Peter Foster

Since the election of Emmanuel Macron in France, the mood in Brussels has been positively giddy with the prospect of a “rebirth” of the European project, driven by the promise of the renewal of the ailing Franco-German partnership. But the limits of the EU’s integrationist ambitions are being cruelly exposed by the fight between Poland’s hardline conservative government and the European Commission over whether Poland is failing to maintain the ‘rule of law’.

Europe has long been nursing a simmering east-west split over migration and fundamental values which this week has burst into open warfare. Here we look at how Poland’s constitutional crisis is threatening to pull Europe apart.

Briefly, what is the problem?

Poland is being accused of reneging on the commitment it made in 2004 on joining the EU to maintain “stable institutions guaranteeing democracy, the rule of law and human rights”. The country’s ruling Law and Justice party, lead by the irascible and charismatic Jarosław Kaczyński, is accused by the European Commission of trying to push through reforms to the media and judiciary that are anti-democratic. Tensions came to a head this week when Law and Justice tried to enact three bills that would have handed the country’s justice minister sweeping powers to fire judges and reform the country’s legal system. The reforms provoked street demonstrations from opposition groups and - to the surprise of many analysts - two of the three bills then were vetoed by the country’s president Andrzej Duda, who has long been presented as a Law and Justice lackey.

So liberal democracy is dying in Poland?

It’s not as simple as that. As a counterpoint it is worth noting that, contrary to the overwhelming Western media narrative, the ruling Law and Justice party’s reforms ideas are not, in themselves, necessarily anti-democratic if handled differently.

The Polish judiciary, fundamentally un-reformed since 1989, is widely acknowledged to be slow, corrupt and does not serve ordinary people well - but, Law and Justice argue, it is a creature of the post-1989 elite that favours the liberal opposition Civic Platform party and must be reformed. It is also worth noting that plenty of other mature democracies - including Germany, Denmark and the US - have political inputs into the appointments of judges. Judicial independence does not necessarily preclude politicians having a say in judicial appointments.

It may well be that the proposed Law and Justice reforms hand too much power to the Justice Minister, but that doesn’t mean, if properly framed, they are fundamentally inimical to democracy. This appears to be the position of President Duda. The ruling party can also reasonably argue that if "democracy is dead" then  Poland’s democratic institutions functioned strangely well this week - first with street protests and then the presidential veto.

So what is the EU doing about it?

Tension has been brewing between Warsaw and Brussels for months now, with a growing chorus of voices from the European Parliament and the Commission demanding the EU take action against Poland for allegedly breaching its ‘rule of law’ commitment. Frans Timmermans, the deputy of Jean-Claude Juncker, has now warned that the EU will “immediately trigger” the so-called the EU’s Article 7 procedure if Poland’s ruling party seeks to remove Supreme Court judges. This is the so-called ‘nuclear option’.

What’s so ‘nuclear’ about Article 7?

Article 7 is the how Europe deals with ‘rogue’ states who no longer conform to the rules of the club. It is a drastic step that ultimately leads to a member state being stripped of its voting rights in the European Council, the political forum where the 28 member states set the direction of the EU. Article 7 is triggered in a two-stage process. The first step requires a four-fifths majority vote (that’s 22 member states) to put a country ‘on notice’ before a final vote to strip a member of voting rights. This second vote must be unanimous. It should be noted, however, that Hungary has already said it would veto any attempt to sanction Poland in this way.

So Article 7 is an empty threat?

Pretty much. And not just because Hungary would veto it.

Mr Timmermans is talking tough, under pressure from the European Parliament and some member states - like France - which believe the EU must take a stand against what they see as the erosion of democracy in Poland. During his presidential election campaign Mr Macron accused Poland of threatening “our values” and later said that Poland and Hungary were treating the Europe Union“like a supermarket”, further stoking east-west antagonism.

Senior EU officials also say that the fact that Donald Trump chose to visit Poland on his recent trip to Europe was “noted with nervousness”, further framing Polish antagonism in the populist, anti-EU narrative pushed by the US president.

However for all that, the reality is that plenty of other EU members states disagree with this activist approach - including, importantly, Germany which doesn’t want to upset its day-to-day relations with Poland, and certainly not before September’s presidential election. "We tend to focus on Hungary and UK but there are other member states - including Germany - who will not want to risk acting against Poland particularly if they can trade Polish support in other policy areas, " says Agata Gostynska-Jakubowska, eastern EU expert at the Centre for European Reform, the London think-tank. "Relations between Berlin and Warsaw are already tense and Merkel wouldn’t want to risk strengthening the anti-German narrative in Poland," she adds.   

Other eastern EU states would also object, as potentially, would the UK, which has invested vast amounts of diplomatic capital in Poland since Brexit.

Just at the moment Brexit negotiations were reaching a critical point, an Article 7 vote would force the British government to choose between Poland and a ‘Europe’ as conceived by Mr Macron and the Commission - a choice that UK officials are very clear London would rather not make.

In short, any vote on Article 7 would be a giant advertisement for the EU’s fault-lines and disunity precisely at the moment Brussels is trying to impress everyone with how unified it really is. It would be madness to go down that road, and Poland knows it - which is the source for Law and Justice’s continued defiance.

So the EU will just stand idly by?

The Commission wants to ‘act’, but by doing so it risks hitting the EU’s biggest nerve: to what extent should a supra-national body of dubious democratic legitimacy be able to intervene in the internal affairs of a member state? And yet failure to act would equally advertise the impotence and emptiness of the greater European project just at the moment it feels under serious threat.

This is the EU’s fundamental dilemma.

Brussels will also note that at the moment, surveys show that Poland remains one of those most enthusiastic members of the European Union, with public satisfaction at over 70%. As Aleks Szczerbiak, professor of politics at University of Sussex and author of a research blog on contemporary Polish politics observes, even Poland’s opposition would be nervous about the EU’s sudden new activism. “There are lots of people who don’t agree with these reforms, but they really don’t like the idea of external pressure being brought to bear on Poland, and the idea of going abroad to put pressure on the government is deeply problematic,” he says.

The EU, for all its bluster, knows it must proceed with caution.

So is there anything the EU can do?

There are a couple of alternatives. The first is to bring legal ‘infringement’ proceedings against Poland for breach of EU law if it ‘retires’ judges unlawfully. This would be a statement, but the sanction would be fundamentally limited to fines or some other form of legal censure, that would do little to deter Warsaw. Hungary was fined last year for a similar breach over the ‘early retirement’ of a high court judge, and ordered to pay compensation of €100,000. 

More drastically, the EU could start to try to twist arms in Warsaw by threatening to cut Poland’s EU funding if it doesn’t ‘conform’ more to the EU’s democratic norms.

Brexit leaves a €10bn annual shortfall in EU budgets after 2019, meaning negotiations for the next EU budget round covering 2020-2027 are already shaping up to be the most fraught ever, as the EU deals with both the British cuts while trying to fund ever-more ambitious pan-EU projects.

So this step, like the Article 7 procedure, is therefore pretty ‘nuclear’. It is favoured by some in the Parliament and federalist elements in France and Belgium, but as Jean-Claude Juncker himself observed, it would immediately “poison” intra-EU relations.

None of that is to mention that the Commission has no legal power to link budgets to a member state’s behaviour and - in any event - the budget must be agreed unanimously, so Poland could veto such a move.

In short, the threat of financial penalties against Poland - which is already planning for a cut in EU funds in the next cycle - will never materialise.

Which leaves us where?

Facing the giant muddle that is the European Union. In essence, the Polish problem confronts the European Union of 28 member states with the fundamental limits of its grander ambitions.

When Poland and other eastern EU member states joined, there was a misguided fantasy among western liberal EU states that they would homogenise to become ‘like us’. They haven’t, and they won’t.

As Hungary and Poland have demonstrated with their rejection of EU migration quotas, there are hard limits to Europe’s much-vaunted solidarity. But as Brexit has so painfully demonstrated, there are also limits to the EU’s flexibility.

Forcing a confrontation over these limits using Article 7 truly risks breaking Europe apart.

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