Night’s candles are burnt out, and jocund day stands tiptoe on the misty mountain tops.
Spanish life is not always likeable but it is compellingly loveable.
- Christopher Howse: 'A Pilgrim in Spain'*
Sweden: A couple of articles on that 'renegade' state - here and below as Article 1.
Living La Vida Loca in Spain and Galicia
Says a Guardian columnist re Spain: Nothing has stopped the squabbling, abuse and point-scoring that has characterised much of the political reaction to the pandemic. See here.
Back in December 2016 I walked part of the Camino Espiritual. This is one of 4 alternative Caminos you can take from Pontevedra city these days. Compared with just one 10 years ago. All authentic pilgrim routes, of course.
This is my (amusing?) write-up, with fotos. I said then that I'd come back and walk down from the Armenteira monastery towards Cambados, along the allegedly beautiful Route of Rocks and Water. Well, I finally did this yesterday and it more than lived up to its billing, as this couple of fotos hopefully show:-
Both these fotos and those in my 2016 write-up give you a good idea of Galicia's beauty. The upside of more-than-average Iberian rainfall. Maybe I should add that it was 35 degrees and very dry, but the shade of the trees all along the route came in handy.
María's Dystopian Times, Day 30
The UK and The EU
For those zealots following the current argy-bargy, the second article below will be of interest.
Scoff-law/Scofflaw: Its original meaning was someone who mocks or ridicules anti-drinking laws, but has extended to mean one who flouts any law, especially those difficult to enforce, and particularly traffic laws. Only in Brit English?
Baliza: Beacon; Mark; Tag; A signal in the car of his (separated) wife which allowed a local man to find her and her lover in Ponte de Lima, prior to torturing and killing him and then throwing himself off Rande bridge on the Vigo-Pontevedra A9 autopista.
Finally . . .
A reminder: We all know that the lands around the Mediterranean have been a source of ambition, warfare and slavery, with empires rising and falling and constant bloodshed. But the most lasting impression of these times is in the architecture the Arabs left behind. The beauty of their buildings is beyond doubt, and even more impressive considering that most of Northern Europeans at this time lived in primitive huts.
1. Renegade Sweden plots its recovery
Growth has picked up but it is too early to say whether the country’s light touch has been a success: Russell Lynch. The Telegraph
In the minds of many motorists, the Volvo is synonymous with reliability, but even Sweden’s totemic national marque briefly succumbed to Covid-19 in the spring.
Almost 280,000 cars rolled off the production line of its vast Torslanda plant near Gothenburg last year before the pandemic struck, forcing the company to send home 6,000 workers in the first unplanned stoppage in the 56-year history of the factory.
No longer though. While Britain and other countries were languishing in lockdowns, workers were back on shift by the end of April after 15 days off. Now the plant is churning out virtually a car a minute, and, according to the country’s biggest company, production is now “roughly the same” as before the outbreak.
The revived fortunes of the emblematic brand are reflected across Sweden’s wider manufacturing sector, which has grown for two months running and in August expanded at its fastest pace since November 2018.
While growth has picked up, its Covid-19 infection rate has also plummeted as cases rise elsewhere in Europe, adding fuel to the debate over drastic economic shutdowns.
European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control figures show Sweden with a lower infection rate than Nordic neighbours who imposed tougher restrictions, which Johan Carlson, the head of its public health agency, claimed as a vindication of a “consistent and sustainable” strategy.
All through the crisis, schools stayed open, while Swedes could visit cafes and restaurants, go shopping or hit the gym even as the death toll rose. Volvos may not be at the racy end of the motoring spectrum, but the controversy over its light-touch lockdown – masterminded by state epidemiologist Anders Tegnell – was anything but boring.
Around half of the nation’s 5,838 deaths so far, for example, have been in care homes, which were locked down belatedly at the end of March. But while Christmas comes under threat over here, now Tegnell believes Swedish families will be able to celebrate.
So can Sweden’s falling infections and lesser economic blow be taken as a victory for its light-touch approach? According to economists, the answer is more nuanced, and it depends on comparisons. The country’s 8.1pc decline in GDP during the first half of 2020 looks good against the eurozone – which fell more than 15pc – but not so much against its Nordic rivals who had tougher lockdowns.
Denmark, for example, saw an 8.8pc decline, while Norway’s was similar, at 8.3pc. Finland, whose economy “only” fell 6.3pc, actually comes out ahead of Sweden despite a higher score on Oxford University’s stringency index, which measures the severity of lockdowns out of 100. Finland averaged 33.3, compared to Sweden’s 25 over the first half.
Sweden has also seen more than six times as many deaths per million as Denmark, underlining the stark human costs of the policy
By these yardsticks, the case is hardly conclusive. Tomas Dvorak, an economist with Oxford Economics, says: “The overarching picture is that I’m not sure whether the ‘no-lockdown light touch’ policy has been that beneficial economically.”
Sweden’s less dense population and the highest share of single-person households in Europe make it less likely to succumb to infections. But the characteristics of its economy are also more pandemic-proof than many European peers. Swedish consumption fell sharply between March and May, but the economy is less reliant on services and tourism than badly hit economies like Britain and Spain. As a major exporter, trade accounts for 90pc of its GDP. Three quarters of its exports are sent to the eurozone, with Germany alone accounting for 11pc of total overseas sales.
But while the domestic hit was smaller, the emphasis on exports leave it exposed to a resurgent virus overseas, if demand in major markets sinks. Those big manufacturers like Volvo and truck maker Scania, or Skanska – the world’s fifth biggest building firm – also have extensive supply chains vulnerable to Covid-19 disruption.
David Oxley, European economist at Capital Economics, warns: “I wouldn’t say Sweden is out of the woods. Domestically the economy has done pretty well. By any normal standards it has seen an eye-watering decline but in a comparative sense it has got off lightly. Activity is picking up.
“But Sweden is more open and oriented to exports than many. Being such an open economy, they are more reliant on what policymakers elsewhere do. That will be a great headwind for growth over the coming years if growth in major European export markets start to slow. Sweden won’t be immune from any of that.”
Also unhelpful to the export cause is an appreciating Swedish krona, which has recovered all of the ground in the early stages of the crisis when traders were spooked by high death rates and a laissez-faire lockdown. Alongside these headaches overseas, Sweden has its own internal pre-Covid challenges. Household debt is high, and like much of Western Europe, its population is ageing, putting up welfare bills.
Sweden also has issues with high unemployment, which has jumped above 9pc despite government support schemes to ease the pandemic. Even before the outbreak, the nation was struggling to absorb the record 162,000 asylum seekers it took from Syria and elsewhere in 2015.
The difficulty integrating the newcomers, which pushed the population above 10 million for the first time in 2017, fuelled the rise of the populist Swedish Democrats in 2018 elections and left Social Democrat prime minister Stefan Lofven at the head of a fragile coalition.
But the one major advantage the Swedes do have compared to many other nations is massive fiscal firepower, built up after years of balanced budgets since a banking crisis in 1992. That gave it the leeway to fire off an initial SEK300bn (£25bn) in aid such as deferred tax for companies as part of a stimulus worth 17pc of GDP, while Sweden’s central bank, the Riksbank, also made SEK500bn in loans available to companies.
The Riksbank also launched SEK300bn in quantitative easing and caught markets by surprise in the summer by extending the programme into the middle of next year with a further SEK200bn, although it is yet to take interest rates back into negative territory.
Next week Magdalena Andersson, Sweden’s finance minister, is set to add further ballast when she presents her 2021 budget on Sept 21.
Robert Bergqvist, a former Riksbank senior official and now the chief economist of Swedish bank SEB, expects stimulus measures worth a further 2pc of GDP as “aggressive” fiscal policy takes the strain again.
He says: “We are going to have tax cuts for low and middle-income earners – that is good as a kick-start. I also expect the government to spend more money on municipalities who will use the money immediately, so you will have a swift response. Hopefully we are also going to see more infrastructure investment, as we would like to see more green investment.”
Even after all that, Sweden’s deficit is unlikely to rise past 45pc of GDP and he reckons “there is lots of ammunition to support growth”.
The approach contrasts with the recent speculation over tax rises in Britain, which Bergqvist believes would be a “big mistake”. He warns: “Right now you want to stimulate the economy. If you start talking about it [tax rises] then the private sector will not spend the money.”
SEB forecasts Sweden’s growth will bounce back by 4.2pc next year and expand a further 3.1pc in 2022. But even as the country claims a Covid-19 victory, the global fight against a resurgent virus is entering a dangerous new phase. That could leave some potholes ahead in the Volvo economy’s road to recovery.
2. Europe’s refusal to offer its neighbour and security ally even a bare-bones trade deal is a hostile posture that has consequences: Ambrose Evans-Pritchard, The Telegraph
If the UK were about to violate international law and resile from the Northern Ireland Protocol, it would be a very grave matter.
But a potent allegation has been made that suggests something closer the opposite. We need to know whether or not the EU negotiating team cynically misused its stranglehold control over the Withdrawal Agreement to twist its intent, and in so doing breached the EU’s obligations of good faith and subverted the Good Friday peace accord.
If it is true that Michel Barnier “explicitly” threatened to obstruct exports and food supplies from Great Britain to Ulster by means of an extreme and malicious interpretation of the Protocol – as the Prime Minister asserts – it is the EU that is playing fast and loose with international law, and arguably crossing a line into geopolitical vandalism.
If it is not true, this country needs a new government immediately.
The facts will out.
What is already apparent is the collective insouciance of the EU elites over the fate of Ulster’s Unionist community, as if its cause were not really legitimate. One notes, too, a striking unwillingness by EU officials even to consider whether their own Rottweilers might be going too far.
One would hardly know from the public discussion that the underlying issue at stake is a conflict between two incompatible treaties and legal-political arrangements.
But before entering the legal thickets of the Protocol, it is relevant to point out that the EU is a practised abuser of international law. It frequently finesses or ignores treaty obligations that conflict with its core interest. Pacta Sunt Servanda tweeted Ursula von der Leyen last week. Well, quite.
The EU has systematically refused to comply with the judgments of the World Trade Organisation, flouting rulings on GMO crops, hormone beef, and Airbus subsidies, as if the matter were optional. It has repudiated the doctrine of legal supremacy and “direct effect”, the very doctrine that the EU now asserts in the Withdrawal Agreement.
It has eroded direct effect in a series of cases, culminating in Portugal v Council where the European Court ruled that the EU has no obligation to follow WTO law if it narrows the European Commission’s scope for manoeuvre. How delicious.
The ECJ ruled in the Kadi-Barakaat case that the EU should disregard the UN Charter, the highest text of international law, if the Charter is at odds with the EU’s internal constitutional order.
This is not to say that the EU is the most egregious scoff-law of the Western world but rather that it picks and chooses when it will be bound by international law like everybody else. It will not sacrifice core interests, and it is surely the UK’s core interests that are at stake right now as the Internal Market Bill heads for a its second reading.
The Northern Ireland Protocol was agreed on the assumption that Brussels would agree to an off-the-shelf ‘Canada-Japan-Korea’ trade deal with no bells and whistles – as Mr Barnier himself had offered – and therefore that there would be no more than a light-touch trade border between Britain and Ulster. On that basis the Unionists said they could live with it.
The EU has since moved the goalposts. The prospect of a no-deal rupture and intra-UK trade tariffs has constitutional implications for Northern Ireland, creating a much harder trade border in Irish Sea than the Unionists supposed. It therefore intrudes ineluctably on the Good Friday peace accord.
It is too glib by half to say that Boris Johnson signed up to the Agreement and therefore that it is his own fault.
It is equally glib to dismiss the invocation of the Good Friday accord as a canard. It takes some chutzpah to claim that a hard (electronic) tariff border on the island of Ireland is a grave threat to peace, but that a near identical tariff border down the Irish Sea is of no significance even though it severs constituent parts of the UK and covers ten times as much trade.
The Good Friday accord is also an international treaty. The Withdrawal Agreement cannot override it and impose a new constitutional regime on the Unionists without their consent. The UK internal market bill is therefore a necessary safeguard. It is to be activated only in the case of emergency, should the EU act on the Barnier threats and further weaponise the Protocol.
It beggars belief that Brandon Lewis should tell the world that the new legislation “does break international law in a very specific and limited way” when its deeper purpose is to prevent a breach of international law. Had he framed the matter with more skill – and more accuracy – he might have spared some considerable damage to the reputation of this country.
Article 5 of the Protocol states that Northern Ireland is part of the UK customs territory and that there should be no tariffs on goods shipped across the Irish Sea from Britain unless they are re-exported to the Republic, a trivial amount that could be ring-fenced easily.
But the sub-clauses take away this protection, giving the EU extraordinary powers, should it wish to abuse them. The default setting is that all shipments into Northern Ireland are to be deemed “at risk” – obliging HMRC to collect tariffs – unless the EU agrees to a narrow list. Furthermore, Article 10 gives the EU a lever of control over the UK’s entire state aid and industrial policy by tenuous linkage to Ulster.
The allegation is that Mr Barnier played these incendiary cards in an effort to browbeat Boris Johnson into submission on the broader trade talks. Once such a card is played, there is no going back to the status quo ante.
It is a near reflexive tendency in EU circles to argue that the UK brought this state of affairs upon itself (which I dispute, but that is to relitigate Brexit) and that as the smaller party it should expect to be pushed around, that ‘strong do what they can, and the weak suffer what they must’ as the Melians were told.
This has consequences. “If you start playing the relationship talks in the spirit of a geopolitical power game, don’t be surprised when the other side plays in the same spirit,” says Eurointelligence.
We now have a stand-off and an EU ultimatum of 20 days, and no flicker of recognition yet from any EU leader that their own side might be behaving badly.
German finance minister Olaf Scholz says a no-deal outcome will have “very harsh consequences” for the UK economy but that the EU will muddle through just fine. Up to a point, Count Copper.
The question is whether the EU is willing to jeopardise its £95bn trade surplus with the UK and inflict damage on its own industries, for which it is less prepared than Mr Scholz pretends, and to do so for an ideological purpose: forcing the UK to accept the EU’s extra-territorial supremacy over state aid policy and standards, a means of eviscerating British independence.
The UK is being offered extremely little in these talks, and is asking for extremely little. Mr Scholz is therefore misframing the equation. If the EU wants to save a deal and preserve its large export acquis on this island, it will have to give up this colonial demand.
At the end of the day, Europe’s refusal to offer its immediate neighbour and security ally even a bare-bones Canada trade deal is a hostile posture.
The EU could have opted for subtler statecraft, recognising that Brexit requires a fundamental rethink about the EU’s near abroad, a chance to create an outer ring of friendly trading nations that do not wish to be locked into an emerging unitary state. Instead it has driven the UK further away. Historians will judge this to have been a strategic failure of the first order.
This final squalid slide towards an acrimonious rupture is sad for those of us who love l’Europe des Patries. But the UK has to defend itself against predatory diplomacy, deal or no deal.
* A terrible book, by the way. Don't be tempted to buy it, unless you're a very religious Protestant.