Friday, April 20, 2018

Thoughts from Galicia, Spain: 20.4.18

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.

I'm travelling this morning so this post will be both brief and early. And indebted to yesterday's edition of Lenox Napier's Business Over Tapas.

Spain v Cataluña
  • Says The Local: The speaker of the Catalan parliament said Wednesday that new elections were not in the region's "interest" while Spain persists in blocking a new president from taking office. So, will they take place?
  • El País report here on 'surprising' developments among the parties of Spain's Left.
  • As for the  PP government, it's still hamstrung in its attempts to push through what one paper sees as a 'high risk' budget
  • Talking of the Left . . . Andalucia is a by word for corruption. So, it's not very surprising to read that the EU regards its government as the worst in Spain. Though I'm not clear on the criteria. So, I should probably read the EuropeanQuality of Government Index 2017.
Life in Spain
  • HT to Lenox Napier for the news that:- The radical actor Willy Toledo is called to explain himself in court for insults made against God on his Facebook page. God forbid.
  • The university of King Juan Carlos in Madrid appears to have become something of degree factory. On the heels of the Cifuentes affair comes the news that many senior police officers would not be in their current positions without their degrees in Criminology, bought for €3,000 each.
The EU
  • M Macron has been goading Frau Merkel and challenging her over whether she wants to form a new Franco-German double act on a par with those which drove The Project forwards in the past. The article below suggests he might be vaingloriously wasting his time.
The USA/Russia/The World
  • In a thoughtful article below Peter Hitchins – the well-known 'right-wing' brother of Christopher Hitchens – expresses the fear that the drums of WW3 are being resoundly beaten. One rather hopes not.
  • An unexpected consequence of the new law compelling microchipping of one’s dog is a record number of dogs being abandoned to their fate in the region. The dog region's kennels will be even fuller than usual. And there's talk of the law being applied to cats too.
  • There've been a lot of very funny things circulating about Sra Cifuentes and the university of King Juan Carlos. The one I liked most yesterday was a claim that, if you buy a gym membership there, you can lose weight without ever attending. Still time for a laugh before we're all nuked to perdition.
© David Colin Davies, Pontevedra: 20.4.18


1. Macron recalls giants of history to taunt Merkel   

President Macron appeared to taunt Angela Merkel today by invoking the successful partnerships of former French and German leaders as he tried to persuade her to back his ambitious plans for EU reform.

In promoting the “strength” of their predecessors such as Konrad Adenauer and Charles de Gaulle, the French president was claiming a similar leadership role in Europe.

His comments were interpreted as a challenge to Mrs Merkel over whether she wanted to form a new double act.

Alongside Mr Macron at their joint press conference, the German chancellor emerged as hesitant and cautious. The former “Queen of Europe” appeared to have been put on the spot by the new prince.
Mrs Merkel, 63, who was never keen on greater EU integration, has been hamstrung by the loss of seats in the German election and faces resistance in her own party to the French president’s more audacious ideas.

Mr Macron, 40, arrived in Berlin after an impassioned speech to the European Parliament on Tuesday when he warned of “civil war” in the continent unless radical reform measures were taken.
Senior German politicians have been warning that his plans for a minister and budget for the eurozone and for a European Monetary Fund were expensive distractions when the real challenge was controlling immigration and asylum.

“We need to come together,” Mr Macron said. “This is a moment that is decisive for the future of Europe.” He outlined threats to European democracy from external forces such as trade wars and internal pressures, such as the rise of populism.

“In the past we had predecessors who had the strength to resist bad tendencies and even counter them. This is something expected from us,” Mr Macron said, standing next to Mrs Merkel ahead of their talks today.

Mrs Merkel wore her best blank expression as he said this but the reference to predecessors recalled champions of EU advancement such as Adenauer and de Gaulle, who founded the project in the 1950s, as well as François Mitterrand and Helmut Kohl who saw through the creation of the euro.

Mr Macron also made numerous calls for greater “solidarity”, a word interpreted in Berlin as demands for more German taxpayer money.

“You have certainly understood that there is a lot of work ahead of us,” Mr Macron said to the chancellor in concluding his opening remarks.

“Even though these challenges seem to be daunting they will certainly be worthwhile and we can succeed,” he added by way of reassurance.

In stark contrast Mrs Merkel stressed the need for compromise and pragmatism.

“There are of course always different starting points when it comes to the opinions of Germany and France. We need open debates — and in the end we need the ability to compromise,” she said.
“One issue that we will be working through very quickly now and that I am very optimistic about is how to complete the Banking Union. We are also willing to set up a joint bank deposit insurance system in a more distant future,” she said.

“However, we want to make sure that liability and risks go together. I believe we also agree that solidarity is needed in Europe but that competitiveness is also necessary.”

Mrs Merkel’s idea of a banking union without a common bailout fund is at odds with Paris, however. Her emphasis on competitiveness means more of the painful austerity measures and economic liberalisation that her former finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble insisted upon to reform the Greek economy.

She pledged to work with Mr Macron to bring forward compromise proposals for the EU summit in June. Mrs Merkel has also proposed an enhanced committee for overseeing the euro which includes economy ministers as well as finance ministers. It is seen in Paris as a distraction motivated by German domestic political reasons – Mrs Merkel’s finance minister comes from the Social Democratic Party while the economy minister is from her own Christian Democratic Union.

In an example of the domestic pressure facing Mrs Merkel her coalition partners from the Christian Social Union, the Bavarian conservatives, urged her to resist Mr Macron’s reforms.

“A new beginning for Europe cannot not just mean new money,” said Markus Blume, secretary general of the CSU.

“Europe must become more efficient and better not more expensive. One thing is clear we must stay the course of the stability union. That means no transfer union, no European finance minister, no new funds and no European unemployment insurance. We have to be careful. Macron speaks of more Europe but he also thinks of France first.”

2. The Guns of April : Are we in a pre-War era, right now? Peter Hitchins.

A pre-war era  My feeling that we are in a pre-war era, and are being prepared for that war almost every day, grows. I am not feeling especially well at the moment, and my days are tinged with a certain darkness anyway, despite the arrival of spring, but I cannot at any point in my life ever recall being gripped by such a feeling of impending, unavoidable disaster.

It began early on Sunday morning with claims of a gas attack in the suburbs of Damascus. Although the BBC were careful to state that the reports were unverified, my heart sank.  The prominence being given to the story suggested that it didn’t much matter that they were not verified. Why lead a news bulletin on a main national material with unverified material, if you think verification matters a lot? Surely the old rule was ‘verify first’, then publish’?

Is it 1914 again?  I wearily resigned myself to the fact that at some point I would have to write what I am now writing, a warning that these claims have not been proven, may not be proven, and serve the end of those who desire to draw this country into a war. What sort of war? Well, I am horribly reminded of the summer of 1914.

Two major powers, Saudi Arabia and Iran, are irreconcilably hostile to each other. One of them, by aggressive diplomacy in proxy states, has created a state of grave tension between them which, if it goes much further, threatens to draw the great powers into open conflict. A single incident, by providing the basis for aggressive diplomacy, unacceptable demands and perhaps actual warlike violence, could trigger that war. If so, it will not be confined to the Middle East, because of the involvement of Russia in the dispute. Indeed, it may be Russia’s involvement in Syria, where it has frustrated Saudi Arabian designs and those of Saudi Arabia’s allies, such as the USA, this country and France, which triggered the considerable increase in tension in Ukraine which began to heat up in 2013.

A single incident could trigger war Given the nature of the controversy about Ghouta today, even the events in Salisbury have a relevance to this, as does the mass expulsion of diplomats which followed that outrage, even though it has never actually been linked by indisputable evidence to the direct action of the Russian state.

War fever means the death of honest debate Careful readers will also have noticed that the Labour leader has been facing increasing accusations from the Tory party of being a Russian stooge, in my view a breach of the moral code which allows freedom to live. If the Leader of the Opposition cannot oppose the government without being accused of some sort of fealty to a foreign power, then we are not free. I have no doubt something similar will soon be said of me. I find this worrying not because it is bone-headed and childish (though it is) but because it is a symptom of something very serious – the death of open, honest debate.This is an invariable symptom of a country whose elite is bent on war.

Idiot-proofing So before I began, I knew I was going to have to idiot-proof it by showing (before they were made) that claims that I am some sort of stooge of the Damascus Government are false. Here is the proof of that, a catalogue of my long record of severe criticism of the Assad state (such that I have never even sought a visa for Syria, on the assumption that it might be refused or, worse, that it might be granted and some sort of revenge taken on me once I arrived).

By the way, my fear of such accusations is not unfounded, as you may read here in an account of my dispute with the former Tory MP Brooks Newmark, during an earlier attempt to drag this country into intervening in Syria.

Mr Newmark, who has subsequently come to grief through his own folly in other matters, accused me of acting ‘in support of the Assadregime’.

I contacted him and politely asked him to withdraw, but he would not, and eventually my own then MP, the excellent Andrew Smith (a proper old-fashioned Honourable Gentleman who treated his constituents without fear or favour) was kind enough to make my rebuttal for me in the Commons, so ensuring that it was recorded in Hansard. But Mr Newmark never retracted.

No, not a Putin Patsy either Now, despite my equally long record of criticism of Vladimir Putin, going back to 2004, see here. I have no doubt that some semi-literate will accuse me of being a ‘useful idiot’.This hackneyed and ill-understood Cold War term was never actually used by Lenin, as claimed. In any case it applies specifically to the dim fellow-travellers of Communism, who defended the USSR’s misdeeds because of ideological sympathy.  This is an accusation that simply cannot be made against me. Russia has no ideology. And I am not a defender of, or a friend of, the Russian state.

I also knew I would have to republish this posting. Iin my view a pretty arduous and definitive demonstration that the previous accusation of poison gas use by Assad’s forces had never been proven, though it had been made to look as if it had been. It is also, though I say it myself, fascinating in many ways, if you are interested in evidence at all.

That done, I was going to have to examine, patiently and dispassionately, the accounts of the latest alleged atrocities, and apply the same treatment to them.  I cannot, alas, analyse them all. So I have chosen two left-wing papers. But I must also remind readers of the difficulty of sources for reports in these areas, where in general western journalists cannot safely go. This article (please note the interesting background of the doctor quoted) may help you understand just how difficult it is to get straight information under these circumstances

It is very hard to get straight facts outof war zones.

Some coverage of the Syria crisis examined 

Here goes:

The Financial Times prominently quotes the words of others who *have* assumed the case is proven, such as President Trump and, apparently, the EU, both of whom are said to be calling for action. ‘Sentence first, verdict later’, as the King of Hearts says in ‘Alice in Wonderland’.   But it is careful to say in its headline that it is an ‘alleged chemical attack’. And it uses the qualifying phrase ‘if confirmed’ , before saying it would then be the most serious since sarin gas *was* dropped in Khan Sheikhoun a year ago.

See what you think  It seems oddly unaware that this allegation remains in question, or that no independent observer ever investigated the site. Time does not turn an allegation into a proven fact, and the truth about this should not be forgotten. The FT’s story is datelined ‘Rebecca Collard in Beirut’. Beirut is 70 miles from the alleged attack, and in a separate country, even assuming she could have got to the scene in time or entered the very dangerous conflict zone involved, and also to ‘Courtney Weaver in Washington’, which is even further away from Ghouta than I am. The report cites as a source a body called the Syrian American Medical Society, whose website here gives some indication that it may not be wholly neutral in Syrian matters. Click on ‘Our Advocacy’ and then on ‘Campaigns’ and see what you think.

The Guardian’s Page One story is from Martin Chulov, likewise 70 miles from the scene, in Beirut.
Moving  It is illustrated by a moving photograph of a child, eyes closed, with an oxygen mask over his face. The caption says he is ‘struggling to breathe after the attack”. No qualification is visible in this caption , in the headline (Outcry over chemical attack in Syria’), or in the opening paragraph, which uses the phrase ‘chemical strike’ and the word ‘atrocity’ without the word ‘alleged’ or ‘suspected’.

The picture is credited to Mouneb Taim, who I think must be the same person as the author of this Twitter feed

Why Verify if you've already made Your Mind up, and vice versa? Interestingly, Mr Chulov’s story noted ‘[President] Trump demanded that access be opened to Douma, which is the last of three besieged districts in the Ghouta area of Damascus to remain under opposition control. Trump said access was necessary to verify what had happened and treat remaining victims.’ If he is so keen to verify, as indeed he should be, why is he calling President Assad an ‘animal’ and warning of a ‘big price to pay’? Surely such things should wait for the verification? Or does he know in advance what its verdict will be? By the way, it is worth noting that the Islamist group based in Douma is Jaysh-al-Islam, the 'Army of Islam'  (which is not very nice, see here.

I believe Jaysh (or Jaish) al Islam has had significant Saudi support. But the US administration in the past has been pretty unkeen about it. See these remarks by John Kerry.

On page nine, the Guardian has a longer account from Kareem Shaheen  – in Istanbul, 900 miles from Damascus. It attributes to ‘aid workers and medics’ descriptions of ‘apocalyptic scenes’, and does use the word ‘alleged’. But I could not see a single named person quoted, just unidentified doctors, paramedics and a local journalist.

The Guardian Becomes the Warmonger’s Gazette  Remember, this is the Guardian, a newspaper which for decades was the house journal of ban-the-bombers and protestors against the Suez adventure and the Vietnam war, with very high proportions of Quakers, moth-eaten liberals and vegans among its readers. Yet now it has become a trumpet for armed intervention. Under the pious slogan ‘Comment is free…but facts are sacred’ first stated by its greatest editor C.P.Scott, the paper’s opinion column declares (again without the slightest qualification): ‘Syria's renewed use of chemical weapons against its own people at the weekend is shameless and barbaric. Dozens of people in the remaining rebel-held suburbs of Damascus were suffocated by Saturday's chemical attack on the Douma district. This is not the first time this has happened. Since the use of sarin at Khan al-Assal in 2013 there have been dozens of chemical attacks by the regime. These deliberate attacks on civilians show callous contempt for humanity and disregard for the laws of war. Official Syrian claims that the latest killings have been fabricated are beneath contempt.’

But if facts are sacred,  how can the Guardian be so sure, given that it is relying on a report from one correspondent 70 miles away, and another one 900 miles away, however good they are at their jobs, and some anonymous quotes from people whose stories it has no way of checking?

Long-distance Psychiatry? A Breakthrough!  It recognises the problem that any such action by President Assad would be raving mad. Assad is on the verge of a highly significant victory in Ghouta, and a gas attack would provide the only realistic opportunity for an American intervention against him, about the only thing that could once again put his position in doubt.  The Guardian isn't troubled by that. It argues: ‘Some may ask why, since the slow throttling of Damascus's eastern Ghouta suburbs seems to be approaching a grisly climax, the government feels any need to breach one of the oldest taboos in warfare once more. To answer that adequately it is necessary to delve into the darkest places of the psychology of a regime that celebrates the overwhelming use of force, the need to terrorise civilians and the right to punish opponents indiscriminately as a weapon of policy.’ In other words, yes, President Assad is mad. Well it is a point of view, but even if reporting of atrocities can be done accurately from a distance of 900 miles, I have heard of no attested experiments showing that psychiatry can be done at such distances.


Scrooge said...

Quality of Government (QoG) - taken from the "Index":
"QoG has become a broad concept in the social sciences and, when quantified, it has
generally been dis-aggregated into categories/concepts such as:
1) ‘corruption’,
2) ‘rule of law’,
3) ‘bureaucratic effectiveness’
4) ‘government voice and accountability’/ or ‘strength of democratic and electoral

Three groups are delineated - in order of "quality". 1 being best.

"Cluster analysis reveals the following three broad groups:
Group 1: Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Netherlands, Luxembourg, Germany, Austria,
U.K. and Ireland
Group 2: France, Spain, Belgium, Malta, Portugal, Cyprus, Estonia and Slovenia
Group 3: Czech Republic, Lithuania, Hungary, Slovakia, Poland, Latvia, Greece, Italy,
Bulgaria and Romania."

Sierra said...

Interesting development:

Colin Davies said...

@ Scrooge and @ Sierra. Many thanks for these.

Colin Davies said...

Bit suprised to see France in the second group . . .