Sunday, March 31, 2019

Thoughts from Galicia, Spain: 31.3.19

Spanish life is not always likeable but it is compellingly loveable.
            Christopher Howse: A Pilgrim in Spain
  • In contrast with the UK, Spain is a highly (excessively?) de-centralised, regionalised country. The same can be said of Germany and, I suspect, France, among others. I hadn't realised this state of affairs in Britain stems only from the Second World War administration and from the policies of the Labour government which followed it. What it means is that, in the UK, it's the central state which gets the blame for everything that goes wrong and not the local government. And it turns subjects such as healthcare and education into far greater political potatoes than they are here in Spain at least.
  • No one here talks about the split of public and private healthcare, for example. And it was noteworthy to read yesterday that, for one reason and another, the percentage of people with private medical care insurance in Galicia has risen from 14.5% to 15.7% in the last 4 years. And is as high as 19.3% in the city of La Coruña. Nationally, I believe it's nearer 25%. The UK level is much lower. If I recall correctly, around 9%.
  • Down in Madrid, it's sometimes hard to get Galicia's albariño white wine and usually impossible to get (my preferred) godello. What's on offer is invariably verdejo. Which is OK. If you live in the UK, here's 3 verdejos - all from Rueda - recommended by some wine expert today as alternatives for sauvignon blanc. I've spared you the inevitable guff about elements of the taste. 'Refreshing' will do:-
- The Best Canto Real Verdejo 2017: Morrisons.
- Beronia Verdejo 2017: Waitrose.
- Finca Montepedroso Verdejo 2017: James Nicholson Wine

Local News
  • In the space of an hour last week - and in a spot on the A52 auto via where there's a sign telling you there's a radar camera in situ - 2 drivers in their 30s' were clocked at 237 and 246kph. Or 147 and 153mph. Maybe they'd been to the same party. Though it was early evening. So, maybe lunch.
  • The latest additions to Galicia's list of invasive species include the Vietnamese pot-bellied pig and the royal python. Sometimes known as the ball python in English.
  • Talking of nuisances, our farmers are not allowed to shoot marauding wild boars but will now be permitted to trap at least some of them. But not in pits with sharpened poles in the bottom, I'd guess.
  • In an article on the earlier-than-usaul fire risk here in Galicia, there was this map, showing humidity levels a day or 3 ago. As you can see, up in the NE corner, on the Bay of Biscay, it was 100%. A level I'd normally associate with, say, Jakarta:-

Brexit, the UK and the EU
  • Looking back: Below is the first of many, many retrospectives. It's excellent, if long. A tale of staggering ignorance and incompetence on the part of British ministers and politicians of all parties.
  • Looking forward 1: There is no way out of this mess, and from here on in things will only get worse. 
  • Looking forward 2: If Theresa May wants to request another delay to Brexit, she’ll have to tell the EU exactly what Parliament will use it for. Here’s a suggestion. Not a referendum. Not a general election. Instead: a holiday. And a long one, too. Because God knows, Parliament needs it. After two solid years of spirit-crushing, scalp-clawing chaos, every inhabitant of that Gothic Gehenna looks a nervous wreck. You might as well expect a workable Brexit plan from a cage of sleep-deprived chimps.
The EU
  • It's finally dawning on the Irish and EU leaders that, if they force a No Deal Brexit in 2 weeks' time, they'll immediately get the resurrected border with Ireland that they've said must be avoided at all costs in any deal with the UK. They're holding several top-level meetings this week in Brussels, it's reported. The outcome will be interesting. At the moment, the Irish PM is insisting there won't be a hard border with physical checks. But, says an observer: Listen carefully and you will see that this is at odds with the position of the European Commission. Which could well shaft Ireland in the interests of the other 26 EU members.
The UK
  • So, driving on the left is the fault of the Catholics . . . Safety for pilgrims (and their offerings) became so important to the Catholic Church that in 1300, Pope Boniface VIII made it a rule that all people travelling to Rome should keep to the left.
  • Odd Old Phrase: Beggar's velvet. 'The lightest down shaken from a feather bed and left by a sluttish housemaid'. (1887 definition).
Finally . . .
  • Did you remember to put the clocks forward? Maybe for the last time. Btw . . . The government of the Canary Islands - named after dogs, not birds - has said that, if mainland Spain (logically) moves to the same time as the UK and Portugal, it will maintain the hour's difference with Spain. Presumably by being then on Eastern Atlantic time.  

How the UK lost the Brexit battle     Tom McTague

The course of Brexit was set in the hours and days after the 2016 referendum.

The European Union set the train in motion before the result of the Brexit referendum had even been announced. It was at 6:22 a.m. on June 24, 2016 — 59 minutes before the official tally was unveiled — that the European Council sent its first “lines to take” to the national governments that make up the EU.

The United Kingdom was leaving the European Union and Brussels was determined to seize control of the process.

In the short five-paragraph document written by Council President Donald Tusk’s chief of staff, Piotr Serafin, and circulated among EU ambassadors, the bloc’s remaining 27 national governments were urged to speak with one voice and to insist that the U.K. leave through the Article 50 process set down in EU law.

This meant settling the divorce first and the future relationship second, once the U.K. had left. “In the future we hope to have the U.K. as a close partner of the EU,” the document read. “First we need to agree the arrangements for the withdrawal.”

This was crucial. It ran counter to declarations by the U.K.’s victorious Vote Leave campaign not to be bound by the formal exit procedure. If the U.K. agreed to the terms of its departure before its future relationship was settled, the Brexit campaigners had argued, it would deprive itself of much of its leverage. “Taking back control is a careful change, not a sudden stop,” read the official Brexit campaign’s prospectus — endorsed by two of the political leaders of the campaign, then Justice Secretary Michael Gove and the former mayor of London, Boris Johnson. “We will negotiate the terms of a new deal before we start any legal process to leave.”

It would be the first of many battles the EU declared, and the first of many it would win, as it stuck to the strategies it laid out in the earliest days of the Brexit process.

Over the 33 months since the referendum, British officials would stage a series of unsuccessful stands, trying to dislodge the EU from its chosen course before grudgingly — and often bitterly — acquiescing amid howls of pain in Westminster.

British envoys — including Prime Minister Theresa May — would reach out to national leaders in an attempt to overhaul Brussels’ legalistic approach with a diplomatic discussion about mutual interests, flexibility and “imaginative solutions.” They would meet with no success.

An attempt to strike side deals on citizens’ rights, an effort to begin talks on the future relationship before the divorce was settled, a go at starting bilateral discussions with Dublin over the contentious issue of the Irish border — none of these would shift the direction of the talks set forth by the EU in the earliest days.

POLITICO has spoken to dozens of leading officials, diplomats and politicians in Dublin, Paris, Berlin, Belfast, London and Brussels — including in No. 10 Downing Street and chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier’s team in the European Commission —  about the nearly three years of negotiations.

The story that emerges is of a process in which the EU moved inexorably forward as Westminster collapsed into political infighting, indecision and instability.

The only concession the EU would make regarding its core principles over the course of the talks was at the request of one of its members, the Republic of Ireland — and to the disadvantage of the U.K. The rules of the single market could be bent, but only for Northern Ireland — and only to help the Republic’s unique problem on the border. For the U.K., there would be no special deals. In the words of the EU’s negotiators, there would be “no cherry-picking.”

As Westminster descends into increasing political turmoil, it has become highly uncertain whether British Prime Minister Theresa May will be able to secure parliament’s approval for the Brexit deal she struck with the EU in November.

Twenty-nine members of the government have resigned over Brexit since June last year, and party discipline has all but disappeared in both May’s Conservatives and the opposition Labour Party. The prime minister has suffered a succession of defeats, including the largest in parliamentary history, when lawmakers rejected her deal first in January and then again in March. She even promised to step down once Britain’s divorce from the European Union is seen through, although she gave no date for doing so.

With Brexit day postponed, MPs have voted to take control of the parliamentary timetable to chart a new Brexit course. Just when and how — and even if — the U.K. will leave the EU has never been less clear.
Even if the prime minister does eventually force her deal through parliament with grudging Euroskeptic support, Brexit is far from over. Despite months of negotiations, many of the key questions raised by the Brexit vote remain unanswered. Such is the opposition in Westminster to the terms on offer, that leading figures on both sides of the talks fear that Brexit, far from settling the U.K.’s place in Europe, will continue to poison British politics for years to come, with knock-on effects for Ireland and the EU.

May’s opponents blame the current crisis on her decision to pursue one interpretation of Brexit, with little real attempt to reach out to MPs on the opposite benches of a hung parliament. But, as this story reveals, many of the unstoppable forces that led to this moment were set in motion long before the prime minister took office.

United front

The European Council’s “lines to take” were the product of months of planning. Ahead of the Brexit referendum, Tusk had spoken to every EU leader urging a united front regardless of the result. Draft political responses had been drawn up, ready to go — for either eventuality: Leave or Remain.

As it became clear what direction the U.K. had elected to take, the document was circulated among EU ambassadors by the European Council — complete with a typo in the subject line: “PEC messqges.”
Across Brussels’ gray Rue de la Loi in the Commission’s Berlaymont building, President Jean-Claude Juncker and his then chief of staff, Martin Selmayr, had worked up an even tighter, technical response that would follow shortly after as a joint statement from the heads of the four EU institutions.

In days following the referendum, the EU ratcheted up its position.

The first turn of the screw came at 11:57 a.m. on June 24, 2016, less than five hours after the result was declared, in the joint statement drawn up by Juncker and Selmayr.

Released in the names of Tusk, Juncker, then European Parliament President Martin Schulz and Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, then head of the Council of the EU’s rotating presidency representing national governments, the EU ruled out any talks with Britain before it triggered Article 50, as required by the EU treaties. “We have rules to deal with this in an orderly way,” the statement read. “Article 50 of the Treaty on European Union sets out the procedure to be followed if a Member State decides to leave the European Union. We stand ready to launch negotiations swiftly.”

The leaders also urged London to trigger Article 50 “as soon as possible” and declared that the future relationship between the two sides would only be determined after the U.K. had left. They also made clear there would be costs for walking away.

The EU’s thick yellow and blue lines were set — and formalized by EU ambassadors on Sunday, June 26.
Four days later, EU leaders met in Brussels to formalize their position. The summit — first at 28 with a chastened British Prime Minister David Cameron and then at 27 a day later — would set the tone for the next two years and 10 months.

On Brexit, EU leaders rowed in behind the heads of the institutions in Brussels, barely changing the opening positions drawn up by the Council and Commission. Only one major change was introduced — a hardening of the EU’s position.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel demanded that a specific line on the indivisibility of the four freedoms — the movement of goods, services, capital and people — be included in the final communiqué.

Cameron had told his fellow leaders at the summit that immigration had been a driving factor in the Britain’s decision to leave, but he hoped the U.K. would stay close to the single market.

The EU’s conclusions, ruling out the possibility of carving out the free movement of people from the rest of the single market, looked like a rebuff.

National interest

Had London been prepared for Brexit on June 24, 2016, the negotiations might have played out differently.
“The British government should have offered something very, very quickly,” said one high-ranking official of a large EU country. “If the U.K. had said: ‘Here’s the plan,’ we might have accepted it.” “The British strength was being one member state, being able to define its national interest quickly and making its move quickly,” the official said. “It did not do that.”

Instead, in the aftermath of the referendum, Cameron resigned as prime minister; Labour MPs attempted to oust their party’s leader Jeremy Corbyn; Nicola Sturgeon, the Scottish first minister, vowed to hold a second independence referendum; and Martin McGuinness, then deputy first minister of Northern Ireland, called for a vote on whether the British territory should leave the U.K. and become part of the Republic of Ireland.

The seeds of the crisis Britain faced today were planted by Cameron, said Foreign Office Minister Alan Duncan. “He called the referendum too early, ran a crappy campaign and then walked out, leaving a vacuum.” “It is a crisis caused by bad decisions on top of bad decisions, turning a short-term gambit into a long-term catastrophe,” he added. “You can trace the whole thing back to the start. The crash was always coming.”

On the morning after the referendum, Cameron announced he would be standing down to allow a new prime minister to prepare for the negotiation with the EU. “Above all,” he said “this will require strong, determined and committed leadership.”

On July 11, 2016, the Conservative Party chose Theresa May to replace him.

By selecting May — a former home secretary known for her hard line on immigration — the Tory Party put in place a prime minister whose personal definition of Brexit would put her in conflict with the goals set out by the EU.

May began her premiership with a simple — if enigmatic — definition of leaving the EU: “Brexit means Brexit.” By her first Tory Party conference as prime minister in October 2016, she had clarified her position. Brexit meant controlling immigration from the EU, shrugging off the jurisdiction of EU courts and regaining the ability to strike independent trade deals.

“We are not leaving the European Union only to give up control of immigration all over again,” she said, to the ovation of Tory members.  “And we are not leaving only to return to the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice. That’s not going to happen. We are leaving to become, once more, a fully sovereign and independent country.”

She would spell out in a later speech at Lancaster House in January 2017 that that also meant leaving the single market and the customs union.

If the EU didn’t accept her red lines, “no deal was better than a bad deal.”
But even as May staked out her position, she was also making a commitment that would define the rest of the negotiations.

In the same speech, on the first day of the Tory Party conference, May reiterated a promise she had made in a newspaper interview published that morning: The U.K. would trigger Article 50 before the end of March 2017.

“That duly forfeited at a stroke any leverage over how that process would run,” said Ivan Rogers, former U.K. ambassador to the EU, in a lecture at Liverpool University in December 2018. “And it gave to the 27, who had, by the morning of June 24th, already set out their ‘no negotiation without notification’ position, the first couple of goals of the match in the opening five minutes.”

Jonathan Faull, a British former director general at the European Commission, who led a task force on the strategic dilemmas posed by the U.K.’s EU referendum, agreed: “It was not entirely inevitable … but much of what followed should have been obvious from the way Article 50 is written and how we know the EU works.”

For Matthew Elliott, the Vote Leave campaign’s chief executive, May’s decision to trigger Article 50 was a defining moment. “Vote Leave always had a plan — the key plank of which was not to trigger Article 50 pre-emptively, but to instead use the time after the referendum to prepare and plan,” he said. “It is deeply regrettable that the advice wasn’t heeded among officials.”

May had planted her flag. The question was how the EU would react.

Ireland plans

Brussels was not the only European capital where politicians and civil servants had been preparing for Brexit.

One adviser on European affairs to a prominent EU27 leader said Dublin had begun lobbying other EU countries in the months before the referendum to ensure Ireland was protected in the event of decision by the U.K. to leave. “If there is one player which made Ireland go to the top of the agenda, it was Ireland,” the adviser said.

The Irish were pushing on an open door. EU members were always going to give priority to the vital interests of a member state over those of a country that had decided to turn its back on the Union — just as they had sided with Cyprus over the Turkish Cypriots, despite Brussels’ support for a peace deal for the divided island that the Turkish Cypriots had accepted and the Greek Cypriots voted to reject.

Northern Irish peer Paul Bew, one of the chief architects of the Good Friday Agreement, said Dublin’s preparation was typical of the Irish in their long history of negotiations with Britain. “They are on top of the detail, and we [the British] are incurious. The people at the top of the U.K. government are also paralyzed by imperial guilt.”

The contrast with London was stark. While Cameron refused to allow officials to prepare for a Leave vote — barring officials from putting anything on paper — Ireland had produced a 130-page Contingency Plan with an hour-by-hour checklist.

On the morning the referendum result was announced, then Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny made a statement intended to reassure the markets and Irish citizens. Its central thrust was blunt: Ireland would remain a committed member of the EU. The point was so important he repeated it. “Ireland will, of course, remain a member of the European Union,” Kenny declared. “That is profoundly in our national interest.” His government, he said, had “prepared to the greatest extent possible for this eventuality.”

That Ireland, which joined the bloc along with the U.K. in 1973, felt the need to reiterate its commitment is illustrative of how the country’s leaders saw Brexit as an existential threat.
Not only do the two countries share a lengthy and complex colonial history, they remain uniquely intertwined. The two countries share a common travel area — a mini Schengen — a language, and of course, a common land border, one with a violent history quieted by a delicate peace agreement that Brexit threatened to unravel.

Hard border

The problem posed by the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland was evident long before the U.K. voted to leave.

On June 9, 2016, two weeks before the referendum, former U.K. Prime Ministers John Major and Tony Blair visited Northern Ireland to warn that the future of the union was “on the ballot paper” and that a Leave vote risked the return of border controls with the Republic of Ireland.

The Republic of Ireland and the U.K. had agreed a common travel area in the 1920s and joined the EU together in 1973. There had never been a moment when one country was in the EU and the other not.
And yet, for all its preparations, Dublin had not come up with a solution.

In Cameron’s statement to the House of Commons on June 27 he said the British and Irish governments would start discussion that week to “work through the challenges relating to the common border area.”
In early scoping exercises, according to “Brexit & Ireland,” by Tony Connelly, Europe editor at the Irish broadcaster RTÉ, Dublin had proposed a U.K.-Ireland bilateral trade agreement for agriculture to avoid the return of a hard border.

This had been rejected out of hand by the EU as illegal.

The Anglo-Irish talks went on for months. Even as May was setting out her “red lines” at the Tory Party conference, Irish and British civil servants were meeting in the Foreign Office in London for a two-day summit, with Brexit on the agenda.

These bilateral talks — taking place before the Brexit negotiations had officially started — soon caught the attention of Brussels, where officials were becoming concerned. “From the autumn onwards, they had their diplomacy on the ground, taking everyone through the details of the Good Friday Agreement,” said one senior EU official intimately involved in the negotiations. “But there was always a worry that the Irish were the Brits’ Trojan Horse.”

A few days after May’s speech at the party conference, Michel Barnier, the Commission’s chief Brexit negotiator, arrived in Dublin. The message was clear: Stop negotiating with the British.

From then on, it would be Brussels that took on responsibility for the Irish border.

United front

The appointment of Barnier, a tall, suave former French minister and two-time European commissioner, is credited as one of the primary reasons the EU was able to maintain a united front in the face of Brexit. “As soon as we had found our ‘face,’ it was a second-rate problem,” explained one Europe adviser to a major EU27 leader. “This is the main reason the U.K. was not seen as a threat.”

A second senior official, a sherpa for an influential EU leader, added: “Brexit is a lose-lose game. We want to focus on the future of the Union and let Barnier settle the accounts of the past.”

That it would be Barnier who would be tasked with the talks was not obvious the morning after the referendum. In the aftermath of the vote, control of the negotiations was the subject of a turf war between the EU’s major institutions. Should it be the Council leading the talks — or the Commission?

In the end it wasn’t much of competition. The Council of the EU — the institution representing national governments — was the first out of the gate, with the appointment of the little-known but well-liked Belgian civil servant Didier Seeuws to coordinate its response. Juncker and Selmayr then laid their trump card: Barnier. “The decision to appoint Barnier and to do so quickly was a big decision,” said the Europe adviser to a major EU27 leader. “This was a decision taken by Juncker. I don’t think he saw all the consequences, but it was a very good decision. Seeuws was a coordinator, not a leader. We needed a political guy. That was clever.”

A Frenchman and a member of Merkel’s center-right European People’s Party, Barnier had the endorsement of the German chancellor and the French president. He also knew the U.K. and the City of London well, having been in charge of EU financial regulation in the aftermath of the global financial crisis. “He’s a politician who is reassuring for France, but is identifiable in Germany,” the Europe adviser explained. “He’s a Brussels man, but from a national capital.”

Most important, he had enough stature to allow national leaders to step back from the process.

No matter how hard May and her officials tried to turn the Brexit talks into a diplomatic discussion, a negotiation among equals, Barnier would ensure it remained an institutional process — between the U.K. and the much larger EU.

Brexit would be — in the words of Pascal Lamy, a former head of the World Trade Organization — not a negotiation, but an “amputation.” “The Brits always want to make it a political discussion, but it’s just the reverse of an accession negotiation,” explained one EU aide. “It’s not a negotiation. We unwind EU law in your domestic system.”

Even ardent Brexiteers in the U.K. would come to share this view. In March 2019, former Conservative Party leader Iain Duncan Smith would complain bitterly about the way the talks had gone. “The negotiations up to now have been less a kind of negotiation and more of a process which allowed the European Union to get their way,” he said.

France’s diplomatic establishment schools its officials in the idea of a “rapport de force” — the balance of power in any relationship. As long as the negotiations remained between Brussels and London, there would be no question who had the upper hand.

And that was maintained by controlling the process. There would be no negotiation without notification, no future relationship without the divorce agreement, and no divorce agreement if the money, citizens’ rights and the problem of the Irish border weren’t sorted out first. “The EU, while strategically myopic, is formidably good at process against negotiating opponents,” said Rogers. “No one was paying much attention to how the EU was patiently constructing the process designed to maximize its leverage.”
At every turn, Barnier pressed home his advantage, and the U.K. — with little alternative — bowed to the inevitable. “We don’t need to create rapport de force. It was there on the day it [Brexit] was triggered,” was how one French official put it.

Upper hand

Nowhere was the imbalance of power more important than on the Irish border.

By February, 2017 — before Britain had even triggered Article 50 — Brussels had taken ownership of the problem and come up with the beginnings of a solution.

In a confidential Brexit note, titled “Brexit and the Border between Ireland the U.K.,” the Commission proposed a soft land border for goods — and no border controls for agriculture and food. In effect, the island of Ireland would be treated as unified when it came to food and farming. Northern Ireland would be subject to EU law even after it had left.

The kicker: This meant there would have to be border controls within the U.K. — between Britain and Northern Ireland.

“Ireland asked for something,” one European Commission official said. “But so did the EU: single market integrity in Northern Ireland.”

According to Connelly’s “Brexit & Ireland,” the memo “acknowledged the sensitivity of this idea,” because of the fury it would cause among unionists in Northern Ireland. “As the Commission’s Irish interlocutors have indicated,” the note stated, “insisting on such a solution could harm the peace process.”

But it was the only way under EU law, the Commission concluded, given the U.K.’s decision to leave the EU’s customs union.

The discussion about the border was part of the EU’s work on its Brexit negotiating “bible,” in preparation for the U.K.’s official declaration of departure. It was published, after extensive consultation with national governments, at the April leaders’ summit shortly after Theresa May triggered Article 50 on March 29, 2017.

Like a balloon slowly expanded from its original form, the negotiating guidelines were simply a blown-up version of the statements published by the EU in the hours after the result was announced. As the talks dragged on, the balloon continued to expand but never substantially changed shape.

There must be a “balance of rights and obligations” the agreement declared. “The integrity of the single market must be preserved, which means the four freedoms are indivisible and excludes any cherry-picking,” it read.

Crucially, it also declared there would be a “phased approach” to the negotiations. Only after the divorce had been settled could work on the future relationship begin.

It was exactly what Vote Leave had feared. Britain would have to agree to settle its bills and agree to the EU’s solution to the Irish border before talks could start on what kind of relationship would come next. This would deprive the U.K. of much of its leverage in the discussion about the future relationship.

“Where we are now has been obvious for a long time,” said a senior member of Theresa May’s Downing Street operation. “By setting up the sequencing like they did, and putting Northern Ireland in the first phase, this was always going to happen. It was their choice, it doesn’t say anywhere in Article 50 that it had to be like this.”

Irish wins

When the EU’s negotiating “bible” was published in April 2017, Brussels was still publicly toying with “creative solutions” for the Irish border. It also restricted its commitment to the “aim” of no hard border between the Republic and Northern Ireland.

Yet the frenzied Irish diplomacy had already resulted in three substantial achievements.

First, Enda Kenny visited the U.K. prime minister in July 2016, the month that May took office, and won a public assurance that there would be no return to the borders of the past.

Second, the border problem had been put explicitly on Brussels’ agenda — a top-ticket divorce item that needed to be resolved before the U.K. could depart.

Third, Dublin had persuaded the EU as early as April 2017 to confirm that should Northern Ireland ever reunify with the Republic it would automatically become a member of the EU.

The British were furious, but the EU had proved it had Ireland’s back.

In November 2017, after the U.K. had failed to propose a solution to the Irish border, the Commission unveiled its proposal: a “backstop” to ensure that whatever happened in the future, the border would remain open.

Barnier’s team had concluded that the only way to protect the EU single market while avoiding a hard border in Ireland was for the U.K. to ensure that there would be “no regulatory divergence” between Northern Ireland and the rules of the single market and customs union.

For May, already struggling politically, the implications were deadly. Doing so would require one of two painful compromises, each of them anathema to political factions supporting her government.

The entirety of the U.K. would have to abide by EU rules (something hard-line Brexiteers would never accept), or Northern Ireland would be subject to different laws to the rest of the country (a measure to which the Northern Irish unionists whose votes she depended on were sure to object).

Bending the rules

The reaction in London was apoplectic. The Commission had proposed bending the rules of the single market to apply bits of EU law to Northern Ireland, but not the rest of the U.K.

The proposal was designed to answer the goals laid out by Brussels and Dublin: to protect the integrity of the single market and maintain an open border. It ensured the price for Brexit would be paid by the British and not the Irish who otherwise faced the “ghastly choice,” in the words of one high-ranking EU official, of erecting border controls with Northern Ireland or diluting its membership of the single market and customs union.

Olly Robbins, Theresa May’s chief negotiator, travelled to Brussels to complain.
“Among our many arguments was a key democratic deficit point,” said one U.K. official who was in the room with Robbins. “You will leave Northern Ireland with no say in the laws governing it. That is tyranny and will be unsustainable.”

But the EU were immovable — and eventually, in December 2017, the British agreed to the proposal.

In Dublin they could not believe the U.K. had agreed, one senior EU27 official said. “I remember being in a taxi that Sunday night. We just could not believe the British had accepted the text. We knew it would not be acceptable to the unionists. The truth is, Brexit was always going to poison the atmosphere and it has.”

The Irish backstop would remain the key sticking point for the rest of the negotiations, even after May convinced the EU to widen its scope to ensure the whole of the U.K. remained in the customs union.

Ultimately, it caused May’s deal to be rejected in parliament in January 2019 — the largest government defeat ever. That raised the prospect of the U.K. crashing out without a deal, plummeting Northern Irish politics further into crisis.

“There were a number of missteps, but the two most serious were on the sequencing and the language on the backstop,” said former Brexit Secretary David Davis. “By giving way on the sequencing right at the start we broke the linkage with the future relationship that was vital. From December 2017 onward [after the backstop was agreed] it went from a standard, fairly tough negotiation to a struggle to escape from the positions [May] fell into.”

One senior Downing Street official said the U.K. had warned the EU about the risks the backstop posed domestically, but felt it had no choice but to agree. “It didn’t feel like we had much choice, it felt like it would all fall apart quite quickly if we didn’t. But that sowed the seeds for where we are now.”

Asked directly whether the EU knew what it was getting itself into, one senior official close to Barnier said: “Oh, we know what we’re getting ourselves into. We just have no choice.”

Salzburg reality check

For the U.K., the reality of its position finally came crashing down in September 2018, at special EU summit in the Austrian town of Salzburg.

On, Wednesday September 19, May’s most senior advisers were relaxing on a rooftop hotel bar. The mood was light. Hopes were high. May was due to address EU leaders the following day and had one-to-one meetings lined up with key leaders Donald Tusk and Ireland’s Leo Varadkar.

By lunchtime the next day, the prime minister — and British diplomacy — would be publicly humiliated, her best-laid plan for Brexit rejected.

May had started her tenure riding high in the polls — the dominant, domineering figure in British politics. Parliament was rarely consulted; only because of a court order did the prime minister seek the chamber’s consent before triggering Article 50.

It all went wrong for May after she called a snap election in the hope of securing the strong majority she would need to push through whatever deal she struck with Brussels. The plan backfired. In a stunning rebuke, voters stripped the Conservative Party of its majority.

As the leader of the largest party, May remained prime minister, but she became reliant on the votes of the conservative Northern Ireland Democratic Unionist Party, a fiercely pro-union party that had opposed the 1998 Good Friday Agreement that brought peace to the island.

Weakened, May became unable to soften her red lines — or compromise on the Irish border — without losing the support of the hard-line Brexiteers in her party or the Northern Irish unionists. Her red lines kept her in power, but they made it nearly impossible for her to strike a deal with the EU. “She drew bloody red lines which she has consistently tried to blur afterwards,” one of the EU’s most senior Brexit officials told POLITICO shortly after the deal had been agreed. “It wasted a lot of time because it made every single step very painful.”
Forced retreat

As the negotiations dragged on, Britain was repeatedly forced to retreat. May would make a stand, only to be forced to back down as the EU pressed on relentlessly.

Efforts to whittle down Britain’s financial accounts with the EU were rejected, until May finally agreed to honor them in full. Rows over the role of the European Court of Justice protecting EU citizens’ rights dragged on. British pride was badly piqued when the EU made clear the U.K. would not remain full partners in EU programs it had once played a leading role in, such as Galileo, European defense or security. The law was the law, and Britain would be a third country.

British concessions were large and small. Staff at the U.K. parliamentary representation in Brussels — UKREP — were left exasperated after each visit from David Davis, May’s first Brexit secretary.

On each occasion, Davis demanded that they prepare to host the joint press conference with him and Barnier on British soil in the city. But every time, despite the staff going to great lengths to ensure the U.K. could put on a press conference at the last minute if necessary, Davis always, eventually, relented to take questions in the European Commission. “It was every bloody time,” said one British official. “Every time. And every time we ended up at the Commission.”

There were other small indignities. Before the negotiations started there had been, in London at least, talk of alternating the negotiations between the British capital and Brussels. By the end, no technical talks had taken place in London.

Officials from both sides often met in meeting room 201 of the European Commission’s “Charlemagne zone” on floor five of the Berlaymont building, one EU official said. On the side of the wall outside the room sits a picture of Conwy Castle in Wales, a building renovated using EU structural funds — a neat statement of the EU’s position on Brexit.


The first significant blurring of Theresa May’s red lines came in December 2017, with her acceptance of the backstop.

Then came May’s Chequers proposal, in July 2018. For May, the proposal — named after the prime minister’s country retreat — was a huge climbdown. It envisioned the whole of the U.K remaining, to all intents and purposes, in the EU’s single market for goods.

It would allow the U.K. to avoid a border being erected — on the island of Ireland or in the Irish Sea. But it was politically costly. May’s foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, and her Brexit secretary, David Davis, both resigned in protest, along with six other junior members of the government.

It was this proposal that May had brought to Salzburg, in an attempt to break the deadlock by appealing directly to EU leaders.

Doing so was a gamble — and an enormous miscalculation. At the leaders’ summit, Donald Tusk quickly dismissed any chance it would be accepted. The Chequers proposal was “not acceptable” he said. “Especially on the economic side of it.”

French President Emmanuel Macron broke with diplomatic niceties, attacking British Brexiteers as “liars” and dismissing May’s proposal as a “brave step” that remained “not acceptable.” “The Chequers plan cannot be take it or leave it,” he added.

In Westminster, the episode became known known as the “disaster of Salzburg,” epitomizing months of failure. “Salzburg was the moment British diplomacy came crashing down,” said one U.K. diplomat. “It was a big misunderstanding, a big mistake,” agreed the senior adviser to an EU leader intimately involved in the negotiations.

Westminster had underestimated the EU’s determination to ensure the Brexit talks remained a bureaucratic process — and not be sucked into political horse-trading with the U.K. “It misread the legal nature of the EU,” one senior French official said. “This is what makes it strong.” The British “seemed to think this was the moment it would be taken out of Barnier’s hands to become a political negotiation,” the adviser continued. “That was the last time the U.K. thought it could all be sorted out politically.”

MPs take control

 I feel like, when people look back at this, they’ll realize this was the real beginning of the end,” texted one member of May’s inner circle. It was 10:20 p.m. on March 25, 2019, and MPs had just voted to begin the process of “indicative votes” on alternative Brexit plans.

With less than three weeks until Brexit day — already kicked down the road into April after parliament had twice voted down the deal May struck with the EU in November — the prime minister had formally lost control.

A third vote on her deal had been pulled because she just did not have the numbers.

For many around May, that a crash would come had been obvious for months. As far back as July 2018, senior figures inside No. 10 Downing Street had warned that her deal, as it was shaping up, was unsustainable. There was just no way a majority in parliament could be assembled for the Brexit the EU was offering.

In truth, the trains had been set in motion far earlier — the collision was the culmination of decisions taken by both sides within the hours, weeks and months that followed the referendum. The EU’s determination not to cut London a special deal; Cameron’s decision to walk away; May’s sweeping promise not to raise a border in Ireland, while at the same time drawing incompatible red lines — something had to give, and it would not be Brussels.

The result, some of the most senior figures in Brussels and London admit, is an outcome in which the  negotiations will have fallen short of their limited ambitions — even if a deal is eventually forced through a recalcitrant House of Commons in the coming days or weeks.

The contentious Irish backstop — the root cause of the crisis — has become so toxic for the largest party in Northern Ireland, the DUP, that it risks permanently undermining power-sharing until it is removed and replaced.

Throughout the negotiations, the divisions in Northern Ireland have deepened, and the peace process has been damaged — as the Commission predicted in February 2017.

Most important, few of the major questions created by Britain’s decision to leave the EU have been answered. “The big loss is that they have not settled the question for the future,” one senior official close to Barnier admitted.

Should the EU have resisted the temptation to press home its overwhelming advantage? Should it have allowed the U.K. some cherry-picking? Should it have made Dublin share some of the costs of Brexit by imposing a border with Northern Ireland instead of the backstop?

Many in the U.K. might think so, but few in Brussels, Dublin or any other European capital would agree.

“History will judge,” said the senior official.

Saturday, March 30, 2019

Thoughts from Galicia, Spain: 30.3.19

Spanish life is not always likeable but it is compellingly loveable.
            Christopher Howse: A Pilgrim in Spain
  • More on the Spanish/Galician villages for sale in their entirety.
  • In case you didn't read that . . . Spain’s fertility rate of 1.3% in 2017 was the second-lowest in the EU, after Malta, and the gap between urban and rural births is one of the widest in the EU. A lack of young people means the population isn’t replenished, while the regions also lose the entrepreneurs who might have generated employment and driven the local economy. Immigrants  - especially those from culturally similar South America - are seen as part of the solution to this problem. Which helps to understand why the Spanish are pretty relaxed about it.
  • I have to admit to surprise at learning that Spaniards don't even make the top 20 coffee drinkers of the world. Perhaps the talking is more important that the consumption of the beverage.
  • Dear dog! Fart emulation
  • There's concern in Spain about increasing obesity, with young kids said to be second to only those in Malta in the fat stakes. I thought of this when dodging young people on motorised scooters in the centre of Madrid. Who can no longer be bothered to walk even short distances. Likewise in the Retiro park. At least some of them use the roads recently 'liberated' by the banning of traffic in the centre.
  • Here's the estimable Matthew Bennett on an excruciating interview involving Spain's Foreign Minister. MB is pretty even-handed in his castigations for the disaster. Which won't help Spain's international image, however unfair that is.
  • The battle to legalise cannabis here. Is the country going to pot?
Brexit, the UK and the EU
  • After the 3rd rejection of Mrs May's deal, Richard North says that Parliament - far from taking control of the Brexit process - has handed it over to the EU. Since 23 June 2016, our political establishment have had one thing to do, and even that it couldn't manage. Our politicians have ended up as ignorant and confused as the day we voted, having failed on what was supposed to be the last day of our EU membership to decide even on whether we're leaving, much less when. . .  Whatever else, the Brexit process represents a loss of political and moral authority of that political establishment which has consistently and repeatedly failed to measure up. Most marked has been its intellectual bankruptcy, where so few politicians have grasped the basic issues.  . . Brexit has turned out to be the touchstone of a decadent nation.
  • As for the future, RN forecasts:  At midnight on 12 April, the most likely scenario is that we exit the EU without a deal. 
  • But, as I've said, others think that we're hearing the death knell of Brexit, as the EU will impose conditions to a long delay which will effectively guarantee its demise - be it a general election or a referendum. Or both. My guess is that it's the latter belief which is keeping the pound above what it was only weeks ago.
The UK
  • I think it fair to say that Guardian columnist Marian Hyde is no admirer of the "mad bastards" of the Conservative party. Here she is - very amusingly - on the candidates in the imminent leadership election.
The World
  • Interesting to read in Robert Tombs The English and their History that the British, in taking a mandate over Palestine in 1917, blundered insouciantly into what would turn out to be an intractable and damaging problem with long-term ramifications unimaginable at the time. And that as long ago as the 1930s people were putting forward the 2-state solution still being talked about today, 80-90 years later.
  • Word of the Day: Siesta. An institution I value highly, despite not living in the hot South.
  • Odd Old Word: Oxgang: 'A land measure of uncertain quantity. As much land as an ox would 'gang'[go] over or cultivate. Also called a bovate'. On average, c. 15 acres.
Finally . . .
  • During a metro trip in Madrid, I identified these 'odd' station names. I'm sure Madrid is not unique in having such things:-
Three Olive Trees
King's Pillar
Virgin of the Farmhouse
Catholic Kings
Crystal Sea
Pink Rivers
Spanish Aviation
Angel Port
Frontier Posts
Zone of Conception
The Muses
Mary Tudor
King's Pine Forest
Angel Port
Angels' City
Happy View
The Peseta

Friday, March 29, 2019

Thoughts from Galicia, Spain: 29.3.19

Spanish life is not always likeable but it is compellingly loveable.
            Christopher Howse: A Pilgrim in Spain
  • The Pontevedra library has dozens/hundreds of films on its shelves and on 27 Feb I took out one for the Noche de Cine with my 2 neighbours. I returned it on 18 March and was told I'd lost 2 weeks' loan privileges because it was late. Arriving home last night, I found a letter from the library - undated - telling me to return the film. It's stamped with the seal of library so obviously involved human intervention, some time after the due date of (midnight on) 7 March. Admittedly, the last line is: If this notice arrives after you have made the return, you can forget it, but I still wonder why this was sent after I'd returned the DVD. But perhaps it wasn't. Maybe it was issued on 8 March and took more than 10 days to reach me in the mail. BTW . . . The letter is only in Galician. Gone are the days when official communications came in both official languages. P. S. My neighbours rejected the film as my choice for an evening's viewing.
Brexit, the UK and the EU
  • Hey, it's Brexit Day! Except it ain't.
  • Richard North senses that the EU is now more than ready/willing/anxious to see the back of the UK and is frantically preparing for a No Deal Brexit. 
  • In the UK, though, prominent Brexiteers seem to think the contrary, viz. that the game has been lost and that eventually there'll be either a very soft Brexit or no Brexit at all. Meaning, in the latter case, a betrayal of the millions who voted for a Brexit.
  • The rest of us - having suspended belief  - just wait on events and get on with life.
  • Meanwhile, an alarming a development in Brussels?
  • Britain’s leaders had been shown to be both inept and dishonest, and had been humiliated before the world and, perhaps more. Importantly, before their own people.  . . . . No, not 2019 and Brexit but 1956 and the Suez crisis.
  • See below for a nice article from a disappointed Brexiteer who shares my view that the Establishment has won and that Brexit should be abandoned. Before we stumble into a No Deal exit.
The EU
  • Interesting to see that on the EU's home patch - Belgium - an even-further-right party is gaining significant popular support, meaning that the electorate is now severely divided 2 ways - Left and Right and Flemish-French. A dangerous recipe that is surely worrying Brussels. How long before it realises its key policies are responsible for right-wing populist backlashes in Western as well as Eastern Europe? And that Brexit is a harbinger.
The UK
  • If there's anything worse than the prospect of the Spanish media being dominated for a month by the end-April elections, it's the prospect of weeks/months dedicated to a leadership election in the Conservative party. Witness this disheartening paragraph: The mêlée has started. Campaign teams are being assembled and activity grids drawn up. Donors are being tapped, headquarters rented, attack lines polished and signature policies devised. The canvassing of colleagues, until now discreet, will soon break into the open and every media interview will become an audition for the top job. 
Finally . . .
  • Lugging a heavy suitcase, an (empty) child's buggy and a loaded shopping bag, with a full rucksack on my back from our rented flat to my elder daughter's place was hard work yesterday. Once again, I was impressed by - and grateful to - the 5 young people who offered to help me on the metro. Not so the older woman who walked right across me as was dragging everything up a hill, forcing me to stop in my tracks. At the risk of ruffling feathers, I'll add that my impression was that all the young folk were South Americans. And the woman, a pija madrileña. Who probably didn't understand my non sotto voce "FFS!"

Tonight we should have been toasting our independence - instead we face more time-wasting by the House of Clowns.  Alison Pearson. Daily Telegraph.

I dearly wish we could be toasting Britain’s freedom with champagne at 11pm on Friday, just as we’d planned. Under the  circumstances, half a glass of Tizer and Nurofen is more like it.

Two years and nine months ago, on a day that was shocking and euphoric in equal measure, our country decided that the European Union had intruded quite far enough into our affairs, thanks very much. In the biggest vote in our history, we voted Out and March 29, 2019, was to be our designated Independence Day.

As midnight chimed, we would know we were a sovereign nation once again, with the right to make our own laws, fish our own seas and control our borders. It would be a moment of trepidation, undoubtedly, but also a new dawn of excitement and possibility. Three cheers for democracy!

Instead, we are confronted with a powerless prime minister who has had to promise to resign to command the support of her own party and a Parliament so useless that they can’t even organise their own coup this week against that referendum result of June 23 2016. What was meant to be a great crossroads in the story of the United Kingdom has turned into Swindon’s seven-circle roundabout of Hell.

It could all have been so different. Had David Cameron, the man who gave us the referendum, decided to stay on to implement the result I have no doubt he could have used his expansive powers of persuasion, that emollient Etonianness, to build a cross-party consensus. But Cameron left Downing Street within hours, causing a Conservative leadership contest. Obviously, the winner had to be someone with enormous enthusiasm for Brexit, a charismatic strategist who could buoy up the country through the fraught negotiations while overcoming the reasonable doubts of the 48% who had voted Remain.

It turned out to be one of those freak contests, like Wimbledon women's final 2013, where the strongest contenders knock each other out and the weaker player takes the prize. A Brexit with Boris Johnson on the bridge would have been very different from the drab, defeatist process the lukewarm Remainer Theresa May made of it. From the moment Mrs May entered Number 10, Brexit was in trouble. A calamitous general electionwith a Tory manifesto which managed to repel even its staunchest supporters pretty much sealed its fate.   

The Establishment, which was accustomed to getting its way, did everything in its considerable power to clip the wings of that great, existential leap of daring made by 17.4 million people. We were too thick to know what we had voted for, apparently. Nobody voted to be poorer, they claimed, although we had been warned repeatedly by Project Fear that we would soon be destitute if we voted Leave.

The Brexit people thought they were voting for soon became Hard Brexit, a very bad and undesirable thing compared to Soft Brexit, which was favoured by the BBC, the majority in a Remainer Parliament and all the civil servants in the secret, parallel Brexit department set up to undermine the Exiting the EU Department which was, you know, run by actual elected politicians.

See how they wore us down? Over the months and years, with their backstops and their tariffs and their Customs Union. What felt like a simple human right, to have control of our own affairs, was ensnared in complexity. That wily silver fox Michael Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator, said: “I will have done my job if, in the end, the deal is so tough on the British that they’d prefer to stay in the EU.” Brilliantly played, monsieur. Our team were rubbish.

So, today, on this much anticipated 29th of March, this is what it has come to, ladies and gentlemen. Here we are; disbelieving, disgusted, slack-jawed at the antics of MPs who granted themselves the pick of eight indicative votes on the shape of our future relationship with the EU. All eight options were rejected.  

Britain deserved so much better than this. Anything has to be better than this mess. No Deal. Revoke Article 50. Replace the entire Labour frontbench with the professional dancers of Strictly. Put Bercow in a straitjacket and escort him to The Priory’s Narcissistic Personality Disorder Unit. Anything, dear God, literally anything except a “longer extension” and another two years of time wasting by the House of Clowns.

So, no champagne toast tonight. No three cheers for democracy. Not even half a cheer. Brexit, you were betrayed.  Most people now just want it to be over, one way or the other.

Thursday, March 28, 2019

Thoughts from Madrid, Spain: 28.3.19

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

Note: As it's Thursday, some of the items below have been borrowed from Lenox Napier's Business Over Tapas 

  • More on the prospect of a clock-change in Spain.
  • There can be no doubt that eating out in Spain can be/usually is a less formal experience than in the UK, especially if you have 2 small kids and a baby in tow. That said, my elder daughter commented yesterday that a couple of senior ladies at a nearby table were rather frosty-faced about behaviour at ours. I explained that they were Portuguese. "Ah", said my daughter, as she knows that, if anything, our neighbours are even stricter about their children's behaviour in public than the British. Which is one reason why the Spanish think they're even duller than we are.
  • Talking of eating 1: Spain's 15 best cheeses.
  • Talking of eating 2: Vegans rising.
Brexit, the UK and the EU.
  • Well, British MPs last night had a series of 'indicative votes' around 8 possible ways forward. Which didn't include Richard North's longstanding Flexcit. Not one of the options got majority support, leading one Guardian commentator to say it wasn't so much a case of Bollocks to Brexit as Bollocks to Everything. RN adds that: It all rather confirms Jean-Claude Juncker's observation that the MP's know what they are against but have no idea of what they favour. See his blog post of today  - Britain: train wreck - here. RN's I mean, not Junckers' . . . 
  • By the way, I highly recommend a reading of the Guardian article cited above, for a tremendous hatchet job on Mrs May and one or 2 others. And some lovely metaphors. P. S. The Four Pot Plants reference. 
The UK
  • The article below purports to give a scientific explanation for why Brits - or some of them at least - behave so badly when abroad. Or are widely reputed to do so anyway.
  • So, Mrs May really is going soon . . . .

  • Fart has surely kept one group of folk very busy over the last 2 years - psychiatrists. Both professional and amateur. The view of one of the former is that the root of Fart's pathology is 'emotional fragility'. As one blogger puts it this morning: The problem is that, instead of containing his sickness, we as a nation have enabled it, allowing him to put in place individuals and structures that echo his distorted view. Notwithstanding this, I wonder how many people are betting against him getting a second 4 years in office. An odd country.
  • Meanwhile, here's one take on 'emotional fragility'.
Nutters Corner
  • A Republican Representative in the USA has claimed Democrats are socialist and, therefore, akin to Nazis. Because the latter word was short for National Socialists. More on this here.
Finally . . .
  • I leave today for Galicia, where it's hotter than Madrid and where the first big forest fires of the year have already broken out.
Fancy doing a camino
  • Anyone interested in joining a small group doing a camino of 7-10 days in May should write to me at doncolin@gmail.com


The science behind why British tourists behave worse abroad than at home: Annabel Fenwick Elliott. Daily Telegraph

Cast your mind back and answer this honestly: have you ever done something on holiday that you probably wouldn’t have on home soil? If so, join the club.

Granted, bad behaviour tends to be worse in youngsters and at certain holiday destinations over others, but we can all agree that the combination of time off, day-drinking, and that air of anonymity one has in a foreign land can set the stage for looser morals.

But there’s more to it than that. We spoke to a panel of psychologists, sociologists and travel experts about tourists playing up, where in the world they’re most bothersome, and why Britons in particular have such a bad reputation on the Continent.

Why do tourists misbehave?

“Being away from home, travellers tend to lower their inhibitions, standards and behaviour,” tourism scholar Dr Peter E Tarlow writes in his paper on the subject. “Because many travellers enjoy their feeling of anonymity, they are more willing to engage in rude, semi-legal or even illegal activities about which they would not engage at home. The problem of low inhibitions is one that runs throughout almost all aspects of tourism policing.”

In agreement is Dr Denis Tolkach, assistant professor of hospitality, hotel and tourism management at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University, who has studied this in depth. “Tourism is a predominantly hedonic activity,” he tells Telegraph Travel. “Many people travel to escape their daily routines and pressures in a way which can lead to irrational behaviour. There is also an absence of the social norms and the judgement from peers that govern how we conduct ourselves at home.”

Notable too is that feeling that you will (probably) never have to interact with the people you come across on holiday, and that you’re less likely to get in trouble in a far-off place. “Overall, we find that people who consider morally dubious behaviours to be acceptable are driven by consequentialist ethics, meaning they are likely to undertake actions that are personally beneficial and for which they are unlikely to be punished,” Dr Tolkach says.

Is alcohol involved, by any chance?

Of course. Booze lowers those inhibitions even further, to put it simply, and is undoubtedly an aggravating factor when it comes to bad behaviour aboard. It’s also an element that often comes into the equation before travellers have even boarded their departure flight - airports providing one of the few environments in which drinking is socially acceptable at any time of day.

In Britain, it would seem that drunken airport antics are only getting worse with time. Airlines UK, which represents 13 carriers including British Airways, Ryanair and Easyjet, points to a 66 per cent rise in the number of drunk and disruptive passenger incidents between 2015 and 2018, as recorded by UK carriers.

Ryanair has previously suggested passengers should be limited to buying only two drinks each at airports; while low-cost holiday airline Jet2 was one of the first to ban alcohol sales on its early morning flights.

However, some European holiday destinations report the opposite: that restricting tourists’ access to alcohol has a negative effect on their behaviour and that disorderly conduct lessens when clubs and bars are open longer. In the same way that extending opening hours at pubs and bars in the UK was supposed to lead to a more relaxed drinking culture.

In 1987, Holland introduced a set of ‘free closing’ experiments that allowed bars in certain regions to close whenever they wanted to. Dr Peter Marsh and Kate Fox, from the Social Issues Research Centre in Oxford, compiled a report which addressed the study, writing: “The police remarked on the distinct decline in late-night public disorder which they attribute directly to the changes in licensing regulations.”

Today in the Netherlands there are no national regulations as to opening and closing hours of bars. Elsewhere in Europe, closing time in the early hours of the morning, when hoards of revellers drain from various bars into the street, is when much of the trouble brews.

What seems to be problematic, according to the same report, is British tourists specifically, and their relationship with drinking. Sociologists studied booze culture in several European countries and found that the French, Spanish and Italians broadly associated alcohol with meals and within positive social scenarios rather than bingeing and fighting. “The research in Italy, in particular, shows clearly that the associations between drinking and aggression which we find in Britain, are almost completely absent in that country,” it reads. “Virtually all of the [subjects asked] failed to understand how or why the British could ‘blame’ drinking for youth disorder.” It goes on: “The same sentiments were expressed by our French and Spanish informants. The Dutch, in contrast, took a view which, in some ways, is similar to that found in Britain [...] and information from Germany, Belgium and Austria lead us to conclude that there may be a very general north vs south divide in European attitudes to drinking.”

Why else do British tourists get such a bad rap?

Foreigners often complain of the arrogance displayed by the worst UK tourists, and that goes beyond their typical refusal to speak anything but English. “It is the negative qualities of the British empire rearing its head in the boorish Brits and their attempts to impose their own cultures on others,” etiquette coach William Hanson says. “Boorish” was a term used too by Londoner Ellery Hanley, who remarked on a forum about Britons behaving badly in Benidorm and Magaluf: “I think somewhere in the British national psyche is a feeling of superiority that is subtly ingrained in us from a young age.”

Dr Tolkach, who has studied Western tourists against those from Asia, weighs in: “British tourists are a large market for these Spanish party destinations. Naturally, they get a lot of attention. Similarly, in much of Asia it is tourists from China that draw a lot of criticism, at least partially this is because they are the largest market.”

He argues that much of the problem is overtourism, and the uncontrolled mob of foreign visitors who descend upon otherwise peaceful areas during the summer holidays, bringing their lowered inhibitions with. “Conflicts between tourists and local residents usually occur in places where tourists spread en-masse to residential areas, rather than stay in tourist enclaves. Short-term rental accommodation in residential suburbs of Barcelona, for example, has greatly contributed to the anti-tourism protests in the city. Partying holidaymakers living next door to locals who go to work every morning are much more disturbing than similarly behaving tourists in out-of-town seaside resorts.”

Why do Chinese tourists have a poor reputation?

In the first year of the new millennium, a modest 10.5m overseas trips were made by Chinese residents. Fast forward to 2017 and the figure was 145m – an astounding increase of 1,380%. So first, tourism is relatively new for the Chinese, and second, there are a lot of them.

A succession of bad apples have, over the years, been reported for incidents including the AirAsia passenger who attacked a flight attendant with a boiling cup of noodles, and a teenager who carved his name into an ancient relief at a temple in Egypt.

In response, the Chinese government was moved to issue citizens with a code of conduct manual under the title, Guide to Civilised Tourism and Travel. As well as condemning behaviours including spitting, vandalism and queue-jumping, other choice tips include: “Don’t lie down in public” and “Don’t cough, sneeze or pick your nose or teeth in front of others.”

But it’s not just the Chinese (or indeed the British). So aware were French authorities of its country's reputation for rudeness, that in 2015 the tourist board launched a multimillion-euro drive to improve their “difficult relationship with service and by extension our relation to others”. In 2013, the Paris tourist board distributed a “politeness manual” for service industry workers; and three years earlier, the city paid “smile ambassadors” to be friendly to tourists at the city’s main attractions – to little avail.

Where do the best behaved tourists come from?

By many accounts, Japan. “The Japanese are not only distinct for their group photo-loving antics, they have also acquired a reputation for being among the world’s most well-dressed, tidy, punctual and polite of travellers,” says our Japan expert Danielle Demetriou, based in Tokyo. “They behave impeccably, if a little restrained. They will queue politely, tip with precision and never turn up late, raise their voices or try to sneakily take a photograph in a gallery when they know they’re not allowed.”

How much can we really rely on stereotypes?

We’ve had a lot to say about tourist stereotypes in the past, on where they originated and whether they stand up to scrutiny. In addition to the defence of our own British travellers, previous articles have looked at German, Italian, French and American holidaymakers. But at least one social experiment casts doubts over such generalisations. Wind the clock back to 1998, and to one of the first ever forays into the “reality TV” genre: Channel 4’s Tourist Trap.

It what was billed by its producers as a “large-scale psychological experiment to observe human behaviour and test out notions of national stereotypes”. Four nationalities (British, American, German, and Japanese) were invited for a week at a Turkish hotel, then secretly filmed while being subjected to set-up disasters that made Fawlty Towers look like the Ritz - staff burning national flags, drunk bus drivers, boats breaking down mid-river, and the like. Despite the producers’ best attempts, the narrator was eventually forced to admit: “The problem with this experiment is it really seems to depend on the individuals... not their nationality.”

Wednesday, March 27, 2019

Thoughts from Madrid, Spain: 27.3.19

Spanish life is not always likeable but it is compellingly loveable.
            Christopher Howse: A Pilgrim in Spain
  • Spain has not reacted well to the demand from the Mexican president that it apologises for what it did in and brought to South America back in the 15th and 16th centuries. Which is odd because, as I've said, the Spanish have a gift for apologising. Specifically when some self-regarding action has (justifiably) annoyed someone else. Me, for instance.
  • Here's El País, in English, on reactions to this development.
  • On a more recent visit to South America, the Spanish monarchs had to sit on the Argentinean tarmac for 50 minutes, while a staircase was found that would fit the door of their plane. Still, this was not as bad as the experience of one dignitary, who had to climb down a domestic stepladder there:-
  • Just reverting to that demand for an apology . . . Someone has written: Spain has shown little contrition about its colonial past. Last November, the leader of the rightwing Popular party, commented that: “We didn’t colonise, what we did was to make Spain larger.” Spain does, though, bang on and on about the 'last colony in Europe', viz. Gibraltar. For obvious reasons, this phrase is preferred to, say, 'the last colony of a European state', or something similar.
  • Reader Eamon has confirmed my suspicion that the article cited yesterday was wrong when it said the EHIC cards for Brits are issued in the EU state in which they reside. In fact, they're issued in the UK, which pays Spain, for example, a per capita sum for each Brit resident here.
  • Here's a bit of worrying news, if you live in the south of Spain. Not so bad if you live in the cooler, wetter - for now - north.
  • A fascinating article on Civil War Madrid.
  • The flat we're in is fine but my son-in-law has suffered from the fact that a series of 3 alarms starts at 5.45 in the adjacent flat and continues until 7.15. We've tried a a number of things to get this stopped but without success. So, 2 mornings ago - having heard how, years ago, I got a neighbour to get rid of a cockerel that crowed at 5 every morning - he went and banged on the flat door at 6. Gratifyingly, there were no alarms yesterday morning. But, alas, they returned today. . . 
Brexit, the UK and the EU.
  • Execution, they say, concentrates the mind. And so we suddenly have a number of prominent Brexiteers  saying they'll now back Mrs May's deal because, if not, the way will be open to either a 'softer' deal or no Brexit at all. This, of course, is a point which some people have been making for weeks, if not months. As to why it's taken Messrs Reees Mogg, Johnson, et al so long is anyone's guess. Perhaps they really did believe Brussels would cave in at the last moment and accede to their demands for a modification of the Withdrawal Agreement. And/or they realise that their continued opposition is likely to trigger a snap general election and hand over government to the Labour Party. Which would immediately seek at least a softer Brexit. Anyway, as of this morning, there now seems to be the possibility that the May deal will get enough support in parliament before the end of this week, though the Northern Irish DUP faction remains averse. Much, it seems, will depend on whether Teresa May this evening offers to defenestrate herself in the near future. If so, this will have more to do with emotion than logic. 
The UK
  • It's reported that 7% of the British public believe the government has handled the Brexit negotiations well. These, I guess, would be the folk with an IQ of 80 or less.
  • A nice, new-to-me monicker for Fart - The Mango Mussolini.
Finally . . .
Fancy doing a camino?

  • Anyone interested in joining a small group doing a camino of 7-10 days in May should write to me at doncolin@gmail.com         We are now 4.  Only a couple of places remaining . . .

Tuesday, March 26, 2019

Thoughts from Madrid, Spain: 26.3.19

Spanish life is not always likeable but it is compellingly loveable.
            Christopher Howse: A Pilgrim in Spain
  • More on the proposal to end the system of changing European clocks twice a year. It's all up in the air, apparently. Especially in Spain. Which, technically, should be on the same clock as the UK above it and Portugal below/alongside it. But possibly never will be.
  • Which reminds me that little has been heard recently on the Spanish government's 'plan' to change the unique (crazy?) Spanish work timetable involving a long break in the middle of the day and late working hours. Probably Vox is against it, meaning that both the PP and Ciudadados parties have followed suit, for fear of losing right-wing support.
  • The EHIC card - A timely warning.
  • Londoners should get along to see this. One of my own favourite artists.
  • So, if it doesn't reflect government-corporate collusion and/or weak consumer protection, why is gas in Spain 30% higher than in the rest of Europe?
  • I might have been critical of the web pages of both the national train operator Renfe and Madrid's EMT, but it has to be said that they both provide very good transport systems. At least the equal of those I recently experienced in Germany, and better than those of the UK. When one looks at the latter, one wonders why the privatised systems were created, if they couldn't be as good as public services on the Continent. And then, if one is old enough, one recalls just how bad the public services were in the UK in the 1960s and 70s, and remembers that privatisation was an attempt - in some ways very successful - to improve the situation. The current Labour Party's policy is to re-nationalise at least the national rail system and I guess this might work, if a European model really could be followed. On the other hand, one fears not.
  • We've been in the wonderful Retiro park several times. Something that 'gets' me is that people will applaud performers by the lake who, for example, play a tune on glasses of water and walk off without putting as little as 50 cents in the box.
  • I say 'wonderful' but the service in at least one of the cafés falls well below normal Spanish standards. Too many tourists, I guess. Plus, I suspect, the waiting staff are not Spanish.
Brexit, the UK and the EU.
  • After witnessing more 'madness' in the British parliament yesterday, Richard North concludes that this week MPs will coalesce around an exit plan labelled - I think - Norway Plus or Common Market 2.0 or just CM 2.0. This he regards as pie in the sky, unacceptable to Brussels. Vamos a ver. We won't have long to wait.
  • Meanwhile, the Times this morning reports that: Parliament seized control of Brexit last night as three government ministers quit to give MPs the power to tear up Theresa May’s deal. I wish I knew what that meant, given that, if there's no deal accepted very soon, the parliament won't be able to stop the UK automatically 'crashing out' of the EU in April. For what it's worth, the Times claims it means that: MPs will take control of the Commons agenda tomorrow to begin a process that could result in parliament backing a softer Brexit.
  • One observer has scoffed at these parliamentary goings-on and commented that, in the real world, there are still only 2 options: Either Parliament chooses to cancel Brexit, or it accepts no-deal. Everything else is just an attempt to cloud that choice, to try to confuse voters so they do not understand what is really happening. Which I fancy is the truth of the matter. As I recall, I said months ago that, all things considered, it would be best to go with cancellation. I still think that.
  • Meanwhile . . . Interestingly, in his history of the English, Roberts Tombs points out that, back in the 1970s, it was the left-wing Labour Party which was very against 'entering Europe'. While the Conservative party - stuffed full of, well, conservatives - was then the most pro European party not withstanding the inevitable loss of sovereignty. Tory Euroscepticism, writes Tombs, is a recent phenomenon, not a hangover from imperial nostalgia. This gives the lie to the claim I've always rejected that an aversion to the European project was born of a desire to retrieve imperial glory. As I've said, my own generation knows little of the empire - and cares less - while my daughters' generation knows nothing about it. And the latest generation has been taught to despise it and feel guilty about it, not yearn for it. Folk who might fit this false bill are now in their 90s or, in the case of the vast majority of them, somewhat incapable of voting. Or doing anything else, in fact.
The EU
  • In 1973, the EU represented 40% of world trade but by 2018 this had fallen to only 16%. There must be some other big players out there.
The UK
  • Take this NY Times quiz to determine where you were raised in the UK. Or might have been raised, speaking the way you do. For the record, it was reasonably accurate for me.
  • There's a good article on the latest developments below.
  • And here's another one from Politico Europe: There are many aspects of Trump’s behavior toward Russia, both as a candidate and as president, that remain baffling.
Finally . . .
  • For getting chewing gum off the back of your jacket, brown paper and a steam iron might still be the best option. Though it's of no help in explaining how it got there in the first place.
Fancy doing a CAMINO?
  • Anyone interested in joining a small group doing a camino of 7-10 days in April or May should write to me at doncolin@gmail.com    So far we are but 3.

Democrats can no longer rely on conspiracy theories to explain Donald Trump's appeal: Tim Stanley, the Daily Telegraph.

At first glance, the Mueller affair looks like a pretty odd “exoneration”. Yes, a summary of the report into Russian involvement in the 2016 election says Donald Trump didn’t collude with Vladimir Putin – but the investigation did lead to 34 indictments and seven convictions, and special counsel Robert Mueller draws no conclusion on attempted obstruction of justice.

On top of which, the president faces other probes related to business, charitable and personal conduct. “The best day of Trump’s presidency,” said the BBC. Kennedy had the Cuban missile crisis; Reagan had Reykjavik. Trump’s best day is being told that he’s not a Russian puppet.

But politics isn’t about detail, it’s about grand narratives – and Mueller has almost mortally humiliated the president’s critics.

“It will be a reckoning for President Trump, to be sure,” wrote the New York Times, but also for, “Congress, for Democrats, for Republicans, for the news media and, yes, for the system as a whole”. Blink and you’d miss it: the Times was saying sorry.

Trump’s enemies made three huge mistakes. First, they overshot. They focused on the biggest, most outlandish claim against the president when a mixture of the smaller ones would’ve been enough to damn him in the eyes of the average voter.

Think of that moment in the OJ trial when the prosecution asked Simpson to try on the glove he allegedly wore to kill his wife. “If it doesn’t fit,” said the defence, “you must acquit” – and the glove didn’t.

Never mind that the rest of the evidence appeared compelling, by placing so much emphasis on the glove – or this ridiculous Russia connection – the prosecution walked into its own trap.

Second, too many liberals thought they could make Trump go away by impeachment rather than by beating him at the ballot box. This is turning into a psychological trait of our age.

I note that Cambridge University has backed down from hosting the conservative thinker Jordan Peterson following student opposition – the vice-chancellor has since said that the Divinity Faculty rescinded the offer of a visiting fellowship after it came across a photo of Mr Peterson with his arm around a youth in an offensive T-shirt.

In a sense, what liberals hoped Mueller would do was no-platform the president: don’t engage with him, don’t tolerate him, just find a photo of him in flagrante with a KGB agent and – boom – we can impeach the old man out of office. “America is our safe space; haters not wanted.”

Third, and this is the biggest mistake of all, the American Left has obsessed too much about the past, neglecting to build a winning strategy for the future.

This is understandable. To Democrats, the victory of Trump over Hillary Clinton was so unlikely and so devastating that they assumed he must have somehow stolen the election. Otherwise they’d have to confront the uncomfortable possibility that Mrs Clinton was less appealing to working-class Americans than the most radical Republican since Barry Goldwater. Conspiracy theories abounded: Russia was an easy explanation.

In fact, the Mueller report concludes that Moscow did try to influence the 2016 election, which itself should put Republicans on the back foot: what is it about Trump that, by inference, made him more attractive to the Kremlin as a presidential candidate than Mrs Clinton?

But while any foreign interference is obviously important, Trump has been in the White House now for two years and has a record – some good, some bad – that demands adult scrutiny. At what point are Democrats going to start dealing with Trump as a concrete reality rather than Trump as the existential psychodrama of 2016?

The same error has been made here in the UK. Millions of words have been written about why Britain voted for Brexit. Class war, culture war, or how about those crazy Russians?

It’s an interesting subject: it would make a great PhD. But all the while we’ve been arguing over why Britain voted Leave three years after the fact, we’ve had precious little talk about the more relevant question of “how” we’re going to leave – and that’s why we’re in this present mess.

Politicians are to blame; so is the media. I went on telly shortly after the Withdrawal Agreement was published and got all of about 90 seconds to debate its contents. Most of the rest of the conversation was taken up with personality politics, democracy and treachery, which, as the choice of “no deal” or “no Brexit” comes screeching towards us, suddenly seem relatively unimportant.

It’s as if Britain and America have gone into shock. Something big has happened to us and we can’t get over it. We just stagger about asking if we can replay the past and do it differently.

Can we impeach Trump? Can we have a second referendum? No. Both were democratic choices that we have to learn to live with. Criticise them on the merits, by all means, but don’t retreat into conspiracy theories.

Russian spy fiction is fun, no doubt, but not an acceptable escape from reality.