Thursday, January 02, 2020

Thoughts from Pontevedra, Galicia, Spain: 2.1.20

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

Spanish Politics/The Spanish Economy 
Spanish Life
  • For the first time since 2015, more Spaniards are pessimistic than optimistic. In fact, they're the most pessimistic people in the EU, after the Albanians. At 59%, the most optimistic are the Italians, who never seem to learn. Only 36% of Spaniards are positive about the future here.
  • One reason might be that, right from the get-go, 2020 is going to be more expensive than 2019.
  • But here's some good news for Brits resident in Spain. Will it last, though? (If not, will my Irish citizenship come through in time?)
  • More here on the issue of rural depopulation in Spain.
Galician Life 
  • Sitting on a terrace under the sun of the this week, I've again noted that most of the smoking these days is done by young women. Interestingly, I made my first observation on this in my diary of October 2000. Nineteen years ago. Plus ça change . . .
  • Here's one of a series of fotos of Pontevedra city scenes of 100+ years ago. This is Plaza de Leña, or Firewood Square. You can see why:-

And here's the same scene today:-

This building - once a bar called La Flor - is now one of several forming the museum complex. The only thing sold in the square these days is food and drink, as it's home to 6 or 7 restaurants. There'll be more of these contrasts over the next week. Stay tuned!

  • Tens of thousands of descendants of Jews tortured, executed, forced to convert to Christianity or expelled from Spain 500 years ago are taking up an offer of Portuguese nationality after a similar scheme in Spain closed. In 2015 Spain passed a law inviting people from the Sephardim — Jews with roots in Iberia — to apply for citizenship but set a deadline after receiving more than 132,000 applications. The Portuguese version has no time limit. No great surprise to read that: The Spanish law required applicants to pass tests in Spanish language and culture; Portuguese lawmakers realised that it would be absurd to impose such requirements on the descendants of people expelled centuries ago, and as a result they have received applications from over 60 countries.
The EU
  • See the article below, which looks both backwards and forwards. But mostly backwards.
The UK
  • From Richard North, a Brexiteer of many years standing: We've been looking forward to it for many decades: the year we get to leave the EU - at the end of this month, unless something seriously unexpected happens. For many of us who have campaigned for so long, when we do leave it will be a bittersweet moment. What should have been a new beginning for our nation has been so badly managed that the Brexit we face will be, to say the very least, sub-optimal – even if much of the economic damage will be delayed until next year. Thus, for those of us who know that Brexit could have been different and so much better, celebrations will be muted. But, at least be have the satisfaction of knowing that we are headed for the exit and we can, at last, put an end to the interminable debates about a second referendum. To that extent, we have made some progress. 
The USA 
- Since 2017, the USA has not only abdicated its role as a stabilizing leader on the global stage, but is also sowing unpredictability and chaos abroad.
- poisonous political partisanship.
- While exploiting the anger at the establishment that snowballed around the world in response to the 2008 financial crisis, Mr. Trump has also cruelly amplified existing divisions and resentments in America, fueling suspicion of immigrants and minorities and injecting white nationalist views into the mainstream, in efforts to gin up his base.
- Around the world, liberal democracy is facing grave new challenges, authoritarianism is on the rise and science is being questioned by “post-fact” politicians. 
- There's a sense of “heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy”. Its language is apocalyptic (Mr. Trump’s “American carnage” is a perfect example); its point of view, extremist. It regards its opponents as evil and ubiquitous, while portraying itself, in Hofstadter’s words, as “manning the barricades of civilization.”
- in paranoid style,

  • Word of the Day: Econar(se): To fester
  • Sharon Stone has called me. Again. I told her, yet again, that I wasn't interested in meeting up. Boy is she persistent! Which I suppose we could have guessed at, given her film roles.

That was the decade that was, and somehow the EU is still standing. Oliver Moody, Times.​
Crises over migration, sovereign debt, Brexit and rebellious eastern member states have tested the European Union in the past ten years — sometimes, it seemed, almost to destruction — but are there more over the horizon?​ 

On December 10, 2012, Herman Van Rompuy, an amiable Belgian given to writing haikus in his spare time, walked up on to a stage in Oslo for the proudest speech of his life.​ ​In the depths of its most serious economic crisis since the Second World War, as Greek protesters waved placards depicting Angela Merkel as the reincarnation of Adolf Hitler, the European Union had been awarded the Nobel peace prize.​ Mr Van Rompuy, then-president of the European parliament, cleared his throat. “If I can borrow the words of Abraham Lincoln,” he said, “what is being assessed today is ‘whether that union, or any union so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure’.”

Those words are as true at the end of this decade as they were in 2012. Over the past ten years the ideals of European integration have been tested to their limit, and in some cases broken, by a series of rolling disasters that have come to seem like one unbroken but shape-shifting catastrophe.

At the dawn of the 2010s the euro was threatened with dissolution. Greece owed its creditors more money than it could pay back if its entire economic output were to be turned over into their hands for a year. Its bonds were downgraded to junk status by several credit ratings agencies and there were deadly riots against the government’s drastic austerity reforms.

There were concerns that the rot could spread far beyond Greece to the likes of Italy, Spain, Ireland and even France. By early 2012, one in four Greeks was unemployed and a prominent economist had raised the concrete prospect of “Grexit” — an ignominious departure from the euro scarcely a decade after the first banknotes had entered circulation. It was profoundly unclear whether the young currency could survive.​ But it did. Greece was bailed out three times to the tune of €310 billion, more than 150 per cent of its GDP. Mario Draghi, the head of the European Central Bank, declared that it was ready to spend unlimited amounts of money to save the euro — “whatever it takes”, in the words of his famous 2012 speech in London. “The euro is like a bumblebee,” he said that day. “This is a mystery of nature, because it shouldn’t fly, but it does.”

Much the same could be said of the EU as a whole. The eurozone crisis was in some ways the template for the bloc’s semi-permanent state of emergency over the following years. A coalition of fundamentally very different nation states had bound themselves into a rigid supranational architecture without unduly troubling themselves over their mutual contradictions.
Under any serious strain, these internal stresses and fractures suddenly seem too much to bear and the whole structure wobbles over its awkward foundations. Sometimes it weathers the turbulence. Sometimes it doesn’t.

In 2015 the gently strengthening current of migrants flowing across the Mediterranean and the Balkans into Europe mounted abruptly into an irresistible flood. Driven by the civil war in Syria and the economic and political turmoil across north Africa and the greater Middle East, at least 1.8 million displaced people arrived in the EU over the space of 12 months.​ ​They died in their hundreds, drowning in the sea and freezing or suffocating in lorries. The Dublin regulation, which stipulated that asylum seekers were to be processed in the first member state where they set foot, soon proved inadequate to the challenge. The EU’s leaders tried repeatedly and fruitlessly to establish quotas for the equitable distribution of the migrants. The edifice of rules twisted under the pressure and buckled. Hungary pulled out of the Dublin system, effectively killing it in a single blow. Nothing was erected in its stead.

At the same time, Europe faced an equally momentous test from the other end of the continent. Britain was seeking what David Cameron described as a “new settlement”, including an “emergency break” on welfare for new arrivals from the EU, an end to child benefits payments heading overseas, and an explicit opt-out for the UK from the bloc’s aspiration to “ever closer union among the peoples of Europe”.​ ​Mr Cameron got much of what he asked for. But it was not enough. On June 23, 2016, Britain became the first member state to vote to leave the EU. Grexit had been transmogrified into Brexit. The tortuous negotiations that followed were shaped by a rare resolve and unity on the European side. The EU stuck to its rules — no special status, no fuzzy external borders, no trade talks before the withdrawal agreement was concluded— and Britain ultimately complied.​ ​From a purely technical standpoint, this strategy was a triumph. For the time being, support for staying in the EU is close to record levels in most of the remaining 27 countries. Yet Brexit has hardly prompted a blossoming springtime of concord and solidarity across the bloc.

As nationalist and populist movements have waxed in strength, the motto of ever closer union has seemed increasingly like an ironical joke. Poland and Hungary have cheerfully defied what is in theory the gravest disciplinary tool available to Brussels — the Article 7 proceedings — following their attempts to subjugate their respective judiciaries.

A creeping tangle of affiliations to Russia and China, including Germany’s Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline and the encroachment of Huawei, a Chinese telecoms giant, on Europe’s 5G mobile networks, has led the EU’s collective foreign policy to resemble one of Mr Van Rompuy’s haikus: “A fly whisks and hums, dipping and diving around a room. It hurts no one.”

This has been a decade characterised by two interlinked paradoxes. The first is that, with the notable exception of Britain, Europeans’ enthusiasm for the idea of Europe is undimmed, and yet their commitment to the things that would make the EU more than a merry-go-round of money and pretty sentiments is strictly limited.

The second is that the majority of the union’s member states are as united by their desire to turn it into a significant geopolitical player as they are individually unwilling to make the sacrifices that this would entail. Both paradoxes will be inescapable as the 27 nations prepare to wrangle over the next budget and the ambitious programme of climate reforms drawn up by the Commission under its new president, Ursula von der Leyen.

Europe has survived one of the most testing decades in its postwar history. As the Nobel committee recognised, in the grand scheme of things it has succeeded in its most fundamental objective, transforming disputes that might otherwise have found their expression in bombs and bullets into arcane altercations over wildflowers and deposit insurance.​ ​But it has also begun to stall. The trajectory of European integration is sometimes described in terms of a bicycle that is destined to keel over unless it can pedal forever onwards. As the founding member states find themselves increasingly at odds with their newer neighbours, though, the danger is now that one wheel could very well turn out to be spinning much faster than the other. A two-speed Europe with diverging sets of rules may in the end be the only way out of this dilemma.

Our continent,” Mr Van Rompuy said on that day in 2012, “risen from the ashes after 1945 and united in 1989, has a great capacity to reinvent itself.” He was quite right. But the next reinvention may not be wholly to his taste.​ 

No comments: