Tuesday, May 28, 2019

Thoughts from Galicia, Spain: 28.5.19

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

Spain 
  • The socialist PSOE party was again the big winner in Sunday's EU elections, though it lost the Madrid and Barcelona mayoralties in the local elections. 
  • But our glad-handing camino friend in A Pobra de Brollón failed in his bid to become the PSOE mayor there. And I can't find any evidence that the winner - from the Galician Nationalist Block - shares his intention to convert the old Guardia Civil barracks into a 'pilgrims'' albergue and museum. Bang go my investment plans!
  • When I brought my border collie to Pontevedra in 2000, he was unique. He certainly wouldn't be now. And there seemed to be dozens of them in the rural zones of the camino last week. My fault?
  • I was passed by 11 'pilgrims' on the bridge into town yesterday. This is almost double the number we saw in 7 days 10 years ago on this Camino Portugués. It can only get worse. I might have to go and live on the Camino Invierno, until this gets popular too.
The UK and Brexit
  • A couple of the millions of observations on the EU elections:-
- The big winners were those parties with the least ambiguous stance on Britain’s future relationship with the European Union.
- A compromise Brexit deal looks increasingly untenable. This is now a fight to the end between an increasingly polarised electorate.
  • See the article below by one of my preferred columnists: After 3 years of sound and fury, bloodcurdling threats, diatribe and disputation the country’s position is – almost exactly where it was 3 years ago.
EU polls
  • It's not only in the UK that things are, well, messy:- For the first time since the creation of the European parliament in 1979, the centrist conservative European People’s Party and Socialists have lost control of the Brussels assembly, ceding 106 seats between them, with huge implications for how the EU works. It heralds months of fractious negotiations over this summer and a messy fight for top Brussels jobs, the political balance of the European Commission and policies. 
  • See the second article below on the would-be king in the crumbling castle.
Social Media
  • Snapchat is now a ‘haven’ for child abuse. Criminal use of the app has become so widespread that police are now handling about 3 child sexual exploitation cases each day. How much longer?
The Way of the World
  • Be concerned. Very concerned:-
- A single selfie from your social media could be used to create a video that appears to show you talking, laughing or shouting. 
- Algorithms can now be used to spread political disinformation or to blackmail people. Doctored videos are being use to destroy trust and undermine democracy. What was once the province of conspiracy theorists is now mainstream political currency. This spells disaster for the shared sense of reality that underpins democracy, the law — and civilisation.

The USA/Nutters/Shysters Corner
  • Here's a video which has left at least one blogger wondering why so many people take Christianity seriously. Well, at least the variety which believes we're entering the End Times, when some of us will be Raptured, I understand. BTW . . . I wonder what Bakker's nodding, muttering, wind-tunnel wife used to look like. And why the devil needs an instruction in Spanish.
Finally . . .
  • I went to one of our many Chinese 'bazaars' in the city last night, to get a small battery. It took me a while to figure out that the owner was asking me if it was for a watch. This is because he pronounced the word reloj as something like weloh. As opposed to the sound given here. The Chinese traditionally have difficult with an initial R. How much worse it must be when it's pronounced as a double R, as here.
  • Which reminds me . . . Years ago, in Hong Kong airport, I was trying to buy some perfume which a Japan Airlines stewardess had told me was called Koeh. Searching where the woman at the counter had told me it would be, I failed to find it and went back to ask again where it was. The conversation went:-
I can't find Koeh where you said it would be.
Yes, it's there.
Ah, do you mean Chloe?
Yes, Koeh.

THE ARTICLES

1. After three years of Brexit sound and fury, we are almost exactly where we were three years ago: Janet Daley

Message to all those demanding a second referendum: you’ve just had it. Or, at least, you’ve had the clearest possible indication of what its result would be. 

After three years of sound and fury, bloodcurdling threats, diatribe and disputation the country’s position is – almost exactly where it was three years ago. The share of the vote won by the brand new party which argues for the hardest possible Brexit is virtually identical to the combined votes of the two parties, the Lib Dems and Greens, who support Remain.

Since we must assume that at least some proportion of those voting for the two latter parties were actual Lib Dem and Green supporters as opposed to those who were treating them simply as proxies for the Remain cause, and that a proportion of those who voted Conservative or Labour would favour a softer kind of Brexit than the one advocated by Nigel Farage’s outfit the result is – almost weirdly – identical to the 2016 referendum: the Leave vote is a few points ahead of Remain.

So we are now precisely where we were then. As somebody once said, nothing has changed. The real news of the night is that Labour got a worse kicking than the Tories and that they have responded to it in a peculiarly stupid way.

The suggestion is that they should now belatedly demand a second referendum even though, as we have just seen, it would be a futile waste of time and money because it would produce the same outcome as the first one. Or else – even more cynically – that the party should endorse Remain so as to seize back votes that went to the Lib Dems and the Greens.

That move would bring a final, irrevocable rupture between the Labour party and its traditional core vote. They would become as extinct in the North of England as they are rapidly becoming in Scotland. And worse even than the consequence for the party would be the social and cultural desperation of those working class communities who would now see themselves as utterly abandoned by mainstream Westminster politics. (The predictable bad result for the Conservatives is less damaging because their chief liability is, mercifully, seen to be gone and they are about to re-invent themselves.)

So what about the future of government at Westminster? Will this triumphant march of the Brexit party continue through to the next general election? Answer: no. And will the Lib Dems – who have climbed out of their damp grave to walk the earth once more – return to a full and active life on the national scene? Answer: possibly, but probably not.

Has there been a dramatic realignment of national party politics that will alter the power structure of Parliament for a generation? Answer: almost certainly not. Virtually nothing can be extrapolated from this result about actual changes in national party politics because it wasn’t an election: nobody was voting for anyone who would take power, or even be expected to hold office.

The clever British electorate who are experts in voting tactically saw that this was a second referendum in all but name and used it for precisely that purpose.

2. Europe’s crumbling centre - why Emmanuel Macron is becoming kingmaker in a falling down castle: Peter Foster

It was not just in the United Kingdom that the mainstream parties had a sobering night in the European elections - all across Europe the traditional groups of the left and right saw their influence visibly waning.

On the Right, in Germany Angela Merkel’s ruling Christian Democrats (CDU) party suffered the worst night in its history for EU elections, while in Spain the traditional centre-right Popular Party managed only 20 per cent of the vote; in France the Gaullist Republicans, a shocking eight per cent.

On the left, there was some good news for the mainstream Socialists in Spain, but elsewhere the bad news kept coming - in Germany the SPD managed only around 15 per cent, in France the Socialists, the Party of Francois Hollande, barely seven per cent.

The result provides confirmation that Europe’s political centre is breaking under the strain of a multitude of competing forces - from the new technologies of the fourth industrial revolution, to immigration and a decade-long squeeze that followed the financial crisis.

This fracturing of the centre-ground has been forced in part by the flowering of alternatives on both the left and the right - from the ‘Green surge’ which will see them jump from 50 to 67 MEPs, to the Populist right which remarkably look to have topped the polls in both Italy and France.

These are truly seismic shifts which mean that the two big centre-right and centre-left groupings in the European Parliament have now lost their combined majority.

Most prominently, these results look to have broken stranglehold of the big-tent centre-right European People’s Party (EPP) which has held sway over Brussels policy making for nearly 20 years after being reborn under the influence of the former German chancellor Helmut Kohl.

It means both the EPP and the centre-left Socialists and Democrats (S&D) losing around 37 seats each - enough to mean they will now have to form a ‘grand coalition’ with the Liberals (ALDE) of Guy Verhofstadt.

It is into this space that the French president Emmanuel Macron hopes to interpose himself, even though his La République En Marche (LREM) party narrowly lost the national vote in France to Marine Le Pen’s National Rally party.

Mr Macron wants to break the old political monopolies (as he has in France) and reunite Europe in what he is calling a “Renaissance” - and yet he himself has become an increasingly divisive figure.

The broad centre-ground of EU politics may have held last night, but in its place there is a confusion of competing parties, including Mr Macron’s.

Weakened by both the Yellow Vest protests and Sunday night’s results, Mr Macron has at times sounded shrill and isolated in recent months, taking on the rest of Europe over granting the UK a Brexit extension or opening trade talks with the US.

So while, as Mr Verhofstadt observed, these results mean there will be “a new balance of power in the European parliament”, it is far from clear that Mr Macron has anything like the authority need to translate that into a new balance of power in Europe itself.

Mr Macron made this election a test of his personal authority, and while his narrow defeat is not a disaster for him, it unmistakably further tarnishes a crown that has been slowing slipping ever since his astonishing rise to power in 2017, which was itself built on a fracturing centre in France.

Because it is not only Mr Macron and the Liberals who want to change the face of Europe - those on both the populist right and left are themselves rushing to fill the emerging void left by the end of ‘old’ politics.

In Italy, Matteo Salvini’s anti-immigrant Lega won the national vote by a clear 10 per cent, while the internet start-up Five Star Movement - in many ways kindreds political spirits of Mr Macron - slumped to less than 17 per cent. New parties can come and go.

Elsewhere on the nationalist Right - in Poland and Hungary - the ruling nationalist parties used their populist messaging and their growing capture of the media and state to post big  winning results.

The margin of victory was starkest in Hungary, where Viktor Orban’s anti-immigration Fidesz party won a staggering 52 per cent of the vote, taking around 14 seats in the European Parliament, crushing his nearest rival on just 16 per cent.

“We are small but we want to change Europe,” said Mr Orban who during the campaign has been openly courting the likes of Mr Salvini to the fury of leading figures in the EPP, the centre-right bloc to which Fidesz still nominally belongs.

Whether Fidesz will quit the EPP will be one of the key questions in the coming days. Mr Orban has already been suspended from the EPP for his anti-European diatribes and disregard for fundamentals of democracy, like media freedoms, but he has not jumped ship yet.

Just as Mr Macron wants to lead his ‘Renaissance’, so Mr Orban wants to force the political centre of gravity of the Christian Democrats back to the right, and if he stays in the EPP (where his 14 MEPs would be a painful loss) he may yet succeed.

Alternatively, Mr Orban will join Mr Salvini or another right-grouping where along with other nationalist parties he will seek to frustrate the liberal project dreamed of by Mr Macron and Mr Verhofstadt.

In short, while the headlines might crown Mr Macron ‘kingmaker’, the reality is that the ancient foundations of the European political castle are cracking and there are plenty of enemies at the gates.

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