Spanish life is not always likeable but it is compellingly loveable.Christopher Howse: A Pilgrim in Spain
- It's not only the Vox party which is snuggling up to Iran. The Spanish government is doing it as well. This won't go down well with President Fart, I suspect.
- According to a survey of more than 10,000 people, 40% of Brits do some volunteer work, with the vast majority saying it benefits their mental health and acts as an antidote to loneliness. I suspect the Spanish number would be quite a lot lower, reflecting the lifelong proximity to family and old friends from school, college and university.
- Wishing to downsize to, perhaps, a flat in Pontevedra city, I've been talking to someone local about the possible sale of my house to her. One difficulty I have is that, in typical Spanish fashion, she tells me she wants to do everything face-to-face, because she finds emails and text messages 'cold'. I suspect she also dislikes my notes of our meetings to date, setting out what we've discussed and agreed and what actions have arisen. I'm reminded of my company's managing director in Iran, years ago, who counselled me not to do this as: "Then people will always be able to prove what you said and agreed to at the meeting'.
- Oh, dear. Perhaps the pessimists have been right. The German Federal Government expects a drastic slowdown in the economy. 2019 growth will only be 1.0%, against previous forecasts of 1.8%. A huge drop in reality.
- And more trouble for Brussels here.
- Ambrose Ev and Pritchard: "Europe’s deep internal divisions were on vivid display in Davros as prime ministers and leaders lashed out at each other over core issues of policy". See the full article below.
- Iain Martin: "Away from parliamentary shenanigans at Westminster, the EU has it in its power to resolve our constitutional crisis. If it is sensible the European Union will move, not out of a misplaced sense of sympathy for Mrs May, but because it is in its own interests to offer greater flexibility. Unless a deal is passed soon, the EU will have on its doorstep the Continent’s second-largest economy and its biggest trading partner fighting itself for years in an ever more messier populist culture war, growing steadily more resentful, while bordering an EU member state, Ireland. Even if (and it is a big if) MPs manage to prevent Britain leaving without a deal on March 29, that settles nothing for the EU. The fabled referendum rerun is no answer for the EU either. The so-called People’s Vote looks increasingly unlikely. A new referendum is only a route to more disruption for both sides. There is another reason for Brussels to move Brexit to a speedy conclusion. This week’s events show that the EU has got itself into a terrible mess over Ireland. The plan to enforce the backstop to prevent a hard border is now a shambles. The EU and the British are going to have to deal with each other, to talk about co-existence and co-operation, for many years to come, so let’s do it sooner rather than later. This difficult Brexit process does not end on March 29, or even with the conclusion of the next phase of talks on trade. It will go on for a decade and beyond as we try to get along, or not. In the next few weeks it is within the power of the EU, if it can grasp this, to save everyone a lot of time by moving a little and getting a viable deal done now."
- See below for an article on that now rapidly developing Irish imbroglio. Is Brussels going to throw Ireland under the bus? That won't go down well.
- "Politico reports that Trump was furious about Rudy Giuliani’s interviews this past weekend, which caused all kinds of headaches as he made statements at odds with that Trump had said publicly about the Moscow Trump Tower project and his communications with Michael Cohen prior to his congressional testimony. Both Trump and Giuliani spend much of their time constructing and advocating a totally alternate reality that stands the facts on their head, but they can’t seem to construct the same alternate reality. Their fantasy worlds are in conflict. And Giuliani is only doing what Trump does every day, which is ad lib his way through interviews and contradict himself. They’re like mirror images of one another."
- "The deranged crackpot Rick Wiles says the whole point of the Russia investigation is for England to reverse the Revolutionary War and take the United States back as a British colony. Here's the evidence. I'm wondering whether Wiles isn't Iranian, as this is the way most of them think." Video here.
- Odd old word of the day:- Bean-king: "The person who presided over the Twelfth-Night festivities, attaining this dignity through getting the bean buried in the Twelfth-Night cake.
- Another cartoon . . .
1. EU leaders air their bitter differences for all to see in Davos: Ambrose Evans-Pritchard,
Europe’s deep internal divisions were on vivid display in the Swiss Alps as prime ministers and leaders lashed out at each other over core issues of policy.
Mark Rutte, the Dutch premier, launched a blistering attack against Italy’s insurgent government and accused the European Commission of failing in its treaty duty to enforce budget discipline.
He said the decision to let Italy off the hook for violating the Stability Pact had shattered trust. “It has again alerted the northern European countries that while we’re playing by the rules, others are not,” he told a session at the World Economic Forum in Davos.
“If Italy, and in the past France, can get away with not implementing what they have collectively agreed. Why should we? That is the question I’m asked, and it is creating distrust between North and South,” he said. Mr Rutte said it was impossible to deliver on full banking union with pan-EMU deposit insurance - crucial for ending the sovereign/bank ‘doom loop’, which still remains so dangerous - without first assuring that rules are respected and the financial system is safe. “If we cannot trust the EU to uphold agreements, and hold to Italy’s feet to the fire when it has debt of 130pc of GDP, how can we explain the need for these reforms?” he said. The outburst was especially pugnacious since he had not even been asked about the subject.
Cecilia Malmstrom, the EU trade commissioner, said Brussels had acted only after the Lega-Five Star coalition in Rome had backed down and ditched its original high-spending budget. “We have not let Italy off the hook, absolutely not,” she said. “The role of the commision is to be tough but also to seek dialogue. You need to evaluate the consequences of toughness,” she added.
Poland’s premier, Mateusz Morawiecki, leapt to the defence of the Italian government, his ally in disputes with the EU over migration, the rule of law, and sovereignty. “I see that Italy is treated differently from France. The EU should apply the same standards,” he said.
Mr Morawiecki then took aim at the Irish Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, sitting with him on the panel. He said certain countries in Europe were manipulating their tax systems “to the detriment of others” and were spoiling efforts to create a fair digital tax. “I am in favour of eliminating all tax havens in Europe. This would level the playing field,” he said.
Mr Varadkar shot back that Ireland was now aligned with the angels: “We have close down the ‘double Irish’; we no longer tolerate stateless organisations; and we’re closing loopholes.” He said Ireland was opposed to the digital tax because it was based on turnover rather than profit. “The principle has to be that taxes are paid where they are created,” he said. It is a criticism that most tax economists would agree with.
Anna Botin, head of Santander, said Europe desperately needed to complete the banking union. Without it, the region’s lenders will remain pygmies unable to compete toe to toe with the Americans. Her bank is the biggest in continental Europe but is worth just a quarter of the US giants. Lenders cannot operate at scale, or take the same risks. It is doubly damaging for Europe since 90pc of funding comes from banks, compared to just 50pc in the US. She said the e-commerce directive was written for a world that no longer exists and was not fit for purpose.
But the deeper problem is timidity. “We see America First, and China First: my ambition is that Europe should punch its weight,” she said.
Mr Rutte had caustic remarks about the total failure to deliver on a genuine free trade in Europe, paraphrasing Gandhi’s immortal comment on European civilisation. “People ask me about the single market. Well I say, it would be a good idea. At the moment it is only for goods. There is no single market for services and e-commerce,” he said.
Emma Marcegaglia, the outgoing head of BusinessEurope, said it was going to be even more difficult to make headway on market reform without the British in the thick of the fight.
“The British could be a problem sometimes but they were always strong advocates on competition issues. What I am afraid of now is that we are going to get even more of the EU’s ‘precautionary principle’,” she said. “Just look at artificial intelligence right now. Europe is a spectator while America and China dominate everything. We have a cultural problem in Europe: You cannot embrace new technology unless you accept risk, and the EU is afraid of risk,” she said.
2. Naive Leo Varadkar has finally clocked that the EU has used Ireland to punish Britain
The Commission know a useful idiot when they see one
"If you'd like to push me and speculate on what might happen in a no-deal scenario in Ireland, I think it's pretty obvious – you will have a hard border”, said Margaritis Schinas, the EU Chief Spokesperson on Tuesday, causing shock in the Republic, where there has been blind faith that the British government would inevitably be forced to accept the backstop.
Ireland would not accept a hard border and therefore wouldn’t plan for one was the mantra the Government continued to repeat, but as the day went on, the floundering Taoiseach Leo Varadkar was forced to admit that in the case of a no-deal outcome, the British and Irish governments “would have to negotiate an agreement on customs and regulations that would mean full alignment so there would be no hard border.”
Varadkar hasn’t suddenly joined the European Research Group, but he’s had an unpleasant bucketload of reality dump on him. It's a dramatic volte face, since when he came into office in June 2017, the Taoisach opposed the idea of bilateral negotiations with the United Kingdom and deliberately dismantled the arrangements his predecessor – Enda Kenny – had set up with London and Northern Ireland officials to minimise the negative effects of a border could be minimised.
Mr Kenny had many years operating in the EU corridors of power, but Mr Varadkar, naïve, inexperienced and keen on waving the green flag, thought he knew better. He made no efforts to develop relationships with pro-Brexit politicians in Belfast or London, and when informed suggestions were made about technical solutions that could avoid any provocative physical structures that might slow down trade or tempt terrorists, the Irish government joined the scoffing Brussels chorus. He was very popular with the Commission. They knew a useful idiot when they saw one.
The Irish have mostly supported him. Appalled by what they find a completely incomprehensible decision by the British electorate, incredulous that British politicians should honour such a foolish referendum outcome (this, after all, is the country that obediently re-ran two referendums in order to come up with the right answers on the treaties of Nice and Lisbon), and indulging in a mixture of contempt and hilarity at the mess Prime Minister May and her ever-changing Cabinet are making of the negotiations, unsurprisingly they’ve been indulging in Schadenfreude.
It is understandable that, however well the British and the Irish get on individually, a small country finds it hard to shake off an inferiority complex about the big neighbour which dominated and in the distant past often bullied it. There has been since the referendum a deep resentment that the United Kingdom should be so uncaring and cavalier as to vote Leave with no regard for the consequences for the small island they share. But there was comfort that while the British were making eejits of themselves, the Irish were secure in the warm embrace of the EU Commission and the 26 other member states.
The few critical voices in Ireland that warned against betting the country on the promises of the Commission were ridiculed or howled down. Irish Anglophobes have frequently looked to Continental countries to come and rescue them from the British, and can’t seem to shake the habit although they have been let down variously and at different times by the Spaniards, the French, the Germans and a few smaller players, all of whom, of course, had their own anti-British, agendas. Just as a punitive EU has now.
So as Mrs May trapped herself in one corner, Mr Varadkar backed himself dutifully into another. The Good Friday Agreement, which is irrelevant to the negotiations, became an instrument for virtue signalling. President Jean-Claude Juncker was to the fore: “We agree,“ he told the Irish Parliament last June, “that there should be no return to a hard border, we need to preserve North-South institutions, and the Good Friday agreement should be preserved in its entirety”.
There is a symmetry now about the chaos prevailing in Dublin and in London, with discussion in Brussels about border checks in France or the Netherlands in the event of a no-deal Brexit, operating with the EU treating the UK and the Republic "as one block". Brussels's eyes are smiling.