Saturday, January 21, 2017

Pontevedra Pensées: 21.1.17

Well, there was snow in Torrevieja this week, for the first time in over 100 years. I suspect the residents won't feel there's been much global warming going on there this winter.

What would I do without The Local?:

Spain's unemployment news continues to be both good and bad. 

Regular readers will know not only that Spanish utility prices continue to soar ever upwards but also that the government stops you compensating by using the sun via solar panels on your roof. And that: The price of actual power to the end consumer is only around 35% of their bills, with 40% being the standing charge and 25% taxes and charges, meaning it is very difficult to save money by reducing use. It's interesting to hear there'll be an official inquiry into the possibility of a cartel. Though you'd have to be a supreme optimist to think it'll do any good.

I was delighted to read last night that a film about a surfing trip in Galicia had won first prize at a British festival. Until a friend pointed out it was only the London Surf Film Festival. But anyway, here's something on it, including a nice 7 minute video extract. It's called Road Through Galicia. And the scenery and sunsets look as great as they are.

To be even-handed . . .  Here's a few fotos of Asturias, where I was Friday and Saturday. Given the hills and  bends, you never know what's around corner in this adjacent region. Sometimes the town of Tineo. This is especially true if you go in the right direction, i. e. towards it:-

From the same place I took  a foto of verdant scenery last spring:-

Ditto, but looking upwards at a wooden floor that doesn't look any safer a year on:-

For those not familiar with the images I mentioned yesterday . . .  Here's The Madonna and Child:-

And here's La Pieta.

The difference is not terribly subtle . . . .

By the way . . .  My son-in-law later made the same mistake as my daughter and he's just as religious as she is. What on earth is the Catholic world coming to? I'm forced to ask. It was far more knowledgable when I was a part of it. Which stands to reason I guess. And reason is good enough for me.

Finally . . . An apt true story:-

A ship ran into trouble in the Persian Gulf.  
The captain ordered the crew to gather round. 
"Anyone one know the correct prayer to Allah to save a sinking ship?" he asked. 
"Yes, I do!" said one earnest-looking young man. 
"Good", said the captain. "You pray while the rest of us put on life jackets. We're one short".

Friday, January 20, 2017

Pontevedra Pensées: 20.1.17

As in other Western countries, Spanish partners are not procreating enough to secure the future of their grandchildren. One near-term result is the plummeting of primary school numbers. See here on this. This is a huge reversal from the Franco subsidised 'large family' era and, if you want to read a jeremiad(realistic?) view of how this and other nations will be affected, read this book.

The growth of the Spanish economy last year was 3.2% but it's forecast to fall to around 2.3% this year. If you believe this sort of thing, it'll fall further to 2.1% in 2018. Macroeconomically speaking, this is impressive relative to the rest of the EU but, as I keep stressing, down at the micro level things are far from good - structural problems, sky high unemployment, continuing corruption, etc., etc. Nonetheless, President Rajoy is adamant it's time for Spain to return to the top table and to tell everyone how to do things as successfully as he's done. Well, he would, wouldn't he?

In the political arena, the great hope of the (far?) left - Podemos - continues to suffer from a very public spat between its No 1 and its No 2. Which must make said Sr Rajoy smile a bit.

As noted yesterday, the UK bought into the EU for very different reasons from the old war-mongering, invasion-devastated enemies, Germany and France. And so has never been, to say the least, a comfortable subscriber to the political dream of a European federal superstate. The Brexit article at the end of this post starts with this premise but moves to stress that the factors which have finally driven the UK out of the EU will continue to have an impact on the remaining members. So, it should reform or die. But history doesn't justify much optimism as regards the former. Though you never know. Imminent death, as they say, concentrates the mind. Or should do, even among bureaucrats as well as politicians.

Today's cartoon, forwarded to me by an Anglo-German friend after it appeared in a German newspaper this morning:-

Finally . . . 

Kids! 1 : My lovely neighbours, Ester and Amparo, bought me a scarf for my recent birthday. I thought this was very sweet of them but worried it was a tad . . . well, feminine. But I checked with the staff of my regular bar and they all poo-poohed this notion. So, imagine my surprise when almost the first thing my daughter said to me when we met was: “I think you should ditch the scarf, dad. It's rather gay”. Kids, don't you just love 'em. Fortunately, my son-in-law disagreed with her but I suspect he was primed.

Kids! 2: Conversation with said daughter:-
Han, I love this foto of you with Gracie asleep in your arms. It reminds me of paintings of the Madonna and child.

Wasn't Jesus dead though? 
No, sweetheart. You're confusing it with the 'Pieta'.
Oh, yea.
The clue was really in the word 'child'. In the case of the Pieta, Jesus is very adult. And dead.
I hope you're not going to put that in your blog tomorrow!
Don't worry.

By the way . . . I'm the atheist; she's the Catholic . . .

Brexit Article

Eurocrats think Britain is an exception. But the forces that drove Brexit are coming for them too     Jeremy Warner, The Telegraph.

Rewind 50 years: it was 1967, and for the second time that decade, the French President, Charles de Gaulle, had said “non” to British membership of what was then the European Economic Community. Politically and economically, Britain was incompatible with the structure and ambitions of the common market, he said, and he warned that if British membership was imposed, it would lead to break-up of the EEC.

His fears look today to have been more than prescient; indeed, he was right on all counts. It might have saved everyone an awful lot of trouble had his view prevailed. What’s more, his suggested alternative of a purely commercial relationship with Britain – “be it called association or by any other name” – looks very much like what the May Government is asking of Brussels today.

For Britain, membership of the EU was never anything more than a pragmatic, or economic, endeavour; it was about little else than free trade and getting along with the neighbours. Few Brits ever shared the federalist vision of the project’s founding fathers. That’s always been a problem for the EU. For many Europeans, Britain has long seemed a difficult and reluctant partner, constantly frustrating the ever closer and deeper union of “manifest destiny”.

The loss felt by Europe’s established elites over Brexit is therefore mixed with a certain sense of relief, that finally after all these years a troublesome and disruptive cousin is about to leave the room. The lesson they are inclined to draw from Brexit is not that there is anything fundamentally wrong with the EU, but that Britain had never properly bought into it in the first place. The fault is seen to lie with the UK, not the EU.

This is a huge mistake, if also an entirely predictable one that reflects the still delusional levels of self-belief prevalent in much EU thinking. Like the House of Bourbon, the EU establishment seems blind to the discontents massing at its doors. There has been no obvious attempt even to understand what led to Brexit, still less to act on the lessons. The same concerns – immigration, economic failure, distant government and increasingly alien law making – are common to the whole of Europe, and yet the EU simply ploughs on regardless. Making Britain suffer for leaving is seen as more important than answering underlying concerns. It’s an almost wilfully self-destructive approach.

Even in Germany, which arguably benefits more than any other nation from the European Union, the pressure for change is at boiling point, with the Eurosceptic Alternative für Deutschland achieving 16 per cent support in recent polls. If sustained in an election, it would destroy the post-war German political contract, which has thus far made the emergence of any significant Right-wing threat to the centrist Christian Democrats and Christian Social Union party all but impossible.

The dangers are even more evident in France, where exactly the same forces that gave rise to Brexit and Trump are present in magnified form – de-industrialisation, increasingly insecure employment prospects, loss of national identity, and growing alarm over immigration. In Britain, the Tories have cleverly managed to harness these complaints to their own purposes. Theresa May calls it “change and conserve”, a long-standing Tory approach to upheaval which helps explain why the Conservatives have proved such a durable force in UK politics. There is no party more pragmatically adaptable than the Tories. Hey presto, a vote which was at least in part a scream of rage against globalisation, put through the Prime Minister's mangle, becomes reinterpreted as a vote for “global Britain”.

This type of bend-with-the-wind leadership is proving much more problematic for the established centre ground of Continental politics, wedded as it is to fulfilment of the European project. Angela Merkel, the German leader, has been quite visibly traumatised by the election of Donald Trump, a political leader who seems to desire the destruction of the European Union almost as much as Vladimir Putin.

Friendless and increasingly isolated, she is like a rabbit frozen in the headlights, incapable of answering the now evident insurgency sweeping the continent around her. Religious adherence to the EU’s “four freedoms” rules out any move backwards towards a Europe of more sovereign nations; by the same token, fear of the electoral consequences make it impossible to move forwards to the politically-integrated Europe necessary to salvage the Continent’s ill-advised experiment in monetary union.

Into this void step the vehemently anti-EU Geert Wilders of the Netherlands and France’s Marine Le Pen. We are told there is little chance of either of them gaining power, but exactly the same thing was said of Brexit and the election of Donald Trump. In both countries, there is a sneaking admiration for Britain’s willingness to grasp the nettle, as well as a growing belief that too high a price is being paid for European solidarity.

Something big is happening. For better or worse, the established political and international order, born out of the ravages of the Second World War, is drawing to a close. Only the EU’s high command seems stubbornly unwilling to listen, and change course accordingly.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Pontevedra Pensées: 19.1.17

Life in the UK 1: I go to the coffee machine in the café of a large department store. There is no decaff and no 'regular' coffee. But there is a 'White Americano', which is a an oxymoron. An Americano is long and black. (No tittering, please). And there's the inevitable Latte. So, I take take a White Americano and this, of course, turns out to be a regular coffee. Or café con leche.

Life in the UK 2:  I go to pay the (exorbitant) bill for 2 coffees and a scone and, when the lady is giving me my change, this conversation ensues:
Ah, while you have the till open, could you give me a 5 pound note for these 5 [ridiculously heavy] pound coins, please?
No, I can't do that. I can only take out what I put it. [???]. And - pointing to the ceiling - there's a camera up there watching me.

Life in the UK 3: Being more positive . . . I was able to get large prints of a foto on my camera via bluetooth from a machine in the cobblers-cum-key-maker's shop in the lobby of the store. And there was free internet throughout the store. And in the supermarket next door.

As it's Thursday morning, I can hat tip Lenox of Business Over Tapas for the following 3 items:-

Being badly treated as a guiri in Spain. See here for an example of this. I have to say that my experience is the very opposite. Most obviously because I'm a nice guy but also, I suspect, because we Spanish-speaking guiris are still rather exotic in Pontevedra. Or even in Galicia as a whole.

The Spanish Traffic Police: To regular readers of this blog - or even to those who only started on it a week or two ago -  it'll come as no surprise to read here - in Spanish - that the traffic police these days are far more interested in fining you than in helping you in any way. Or even just letting you off with a warning.

Good news here on discounts in Spain for those youngsters who are 65 or more

Is it only me or does anyone else keep sending watsap messages to the wrong person, because it's stuck on the last person whom you wrote to and not the person who's just written to you? Or vice versa. Perhaps.

Today's foto. Rolling Asturian hills:-

Finally . . . Mrs May's Monday speech on Brexit has been scorned throughout Europe and a vast array of negative adjectives has been chucked at it. Indeed - as I said yesterday - even such an avid Brexiteer as Richard North has dismissed it in very strong terms. But there is another way of looking at it and here it is. Surprisingly, perhaps, by Simon Jenkins of The Guardian. The unvarnished truth is that Brexit is a gamble and no one but no one has any idea whatsoever how the negotiations will go. It may well be that, if things look really bad in 2 years' time, Brits will be asked to vote again on exit. Meanwhile, though, all the dire predictions about the British economy after the referendum shock have proven wrong. Which, to say the least, is interesting. The pound fell, of course, but rose this week. It's all about sentiment. And that's what Mrs May was bent on affecting, in my view.

This is Brexit poker - and Theresa May was right to up the stakes

The siege of Harfleur was a disaster for the English. Henry V was humiliated and had to abandon his march on Paris, turning instead to confront the French cavalry at Agincourt. Here he faced overwhelming odds but decided to rely on bluff, cunning and Welsh archers to rescue a shred of glory from his European venture.

Theresa May must hope she is somewhere between Harfleur and Agincourt. She is embarked on a seemingly life or death project, its outcome wholly unpredictable. It was not of her making, but that of David Cameron and the British electorate. She has two months to go to invoking article 50, at which point she will find herself between 27 European Union devils and the deep blue sea. Small wonder that on Tuesday she decided on bravado and Shakespeare, goading her ministers “like greyhounds in the slips, straining upon the start. The game’s afoot.”

In setting out the terms of engagement, May had no option but to hang tough. That is what her EU opposite numbers have been doing for six months of virtual denial of Brexit. Much of Brussels still does not believe it will happen, while Europe’s elected politicians at least sense that anti-EU sentiment is growing in their backyards. There are stirrings of a peasants’ revolt, with votes for pitchforks. The last thing they want is a crowing, preening British leader seeking “to have my cake and eat it”. Hence their cursory treatment of May in her few EU encounters so far. To them, she is toxic.

That is why the prime minister clearly felt the need to lay the revolver of “hard Brexit” on the table, to tell the Brexit deniers that Britain would be just fine on the deep blue sea. She threatened them with a trade war and fiscal blitzkrieg. She threatened an offshore Singapore, a Grand Cayman, a 51st state of America, a thousand City traders unleashed on Europe’s banks if “passporting” is denied. Much of this was bravado, but jingoism was the tactic of the moment.

There is no way Brexit can avoid going “soft” in the course of negotiation. As the veteran historian David Marquand said last week, Britain is “part” of Europe in so many ways that amputation is not an option. But there are reckless forces behind hard Brexit, on the right in Britain and among EU finance houses that might benefit from it. The fanciful timetables in May’s speech, notably on trade, may serve to spur her troops into battle, but the spectre is not of hard or soft Brexit but of shambles.

Behind the poker table bluff is realism. The prime minister has already indicated flexibility on migration, on which topic all Europe, left and right, is in a state of panic. She regards membership of the single market, even of a customs union, as going beyond her referendum mandate. But she still wants a “comprehensive, bold and ambitious trade agreement”, something called “associate membership of the customs union”. This sounds like a one-sided Platonic affair, which is nonsense. And it will soon have to be resolved.

Britain will need to avoid a “cliff edge” in two years’ time on matters such as finance, fishing and agriculture. This means markets that may require British payments to join. It may mean European court judgments Britain will have to accept. May knows this. Nor is it realistic to rely on a deal with Donald Trump as substitute for open trade with Europe. Britain will need some association with the EU. Beyond that platitude, all is up for grabs.

The reaction of Europe’s leaders to May’s speech was significant. Most welcomed a sight of even vague red lines. The EU’s Donald Tusk acknowledged her speech as “realistic” and “pragmatic”. The official response from the president, Jean-Claude Juncker, was full of bland words such as fairness, respect and hope for “good results”.

The chief EU negotiator, Guy Verhofstadt, warned against cherry-picking, but it depends which cherries he is talking about. Picking cherries is precisely what May feels she has been told to do. If she gets none, the British people will eat their own. But deals there will be, slithering backwards from hard towards soft, not as far as the single market, towards what I imagine will be called an “accommodation”. Wheels are starting to turn. Money talks. [As it always does]

Commentators pretend to clairvoyance. They supposedly come unencumbered by prejudice or tribe, confronting the options of those in power with fierce scepticism. They can seem glib. But I have never thought politics easy. Elected politicians must forever wrestle with “the crooked timber of mankind”. For them to succeed is rare, to fail normal. I admire them for it.

In that light, I cannot recall a tougher peacetime task for a modern politician than now faces Theresa May. Europe had blighted British leaders for six centuries or more. The most successful, such as Elizabeth I, Walpole, Pitt the Elder, Gladstone and Salisbury, struggled to avoid its snares and were stronger for it. The EU ultimately wrecked three recent prime ministers – Margaret Thatcher, John Major and David Cameron. It would have done the same to Tony Blair if Gordon Brown had not saved him from the euro.

Membership of the EU was never necessary to British prosperity. The country’s overall trade in goods with the EU is not large, and the much larger trade in services is mostly unregulated by Brussels. Britain could survive hard Brexit, and if some of the gilt is shaken off the flatulent City of London it might be no bad thing.

The politics of Europe are a different matter. They have always been fragile, and are more so today than for a long time. I voted to remain in the EU because the eurozone is a disaster and Germany needed an active British presence to help rescue Europe from this ghastly mistake. The threat to Europe is not of war but of nastiness, of a fractious turning in of states on themselves and degenerating into poverty and anti-German hostility. Europe needs Britain’s diplomatic engagement never more than now.

For all the drum-banging, May’s performance on Tuesday was not unfriendly to Europe. It was the first sign she has shown of coherent leadership. No one – I doubt if even the prime minister – can know where this leadership is heading. That is the curse, and the glory, of referendums. 

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Pontevedra Pensées: 18.1.17

The EU's Court of Justice recently ordered Spanish banks to pay back to their mortgage customers the billions of euros swindled from them via a 'floor clause' in their contracts. This would seem to be good news but as, Don Quijoñes illustrates us here, Spain's banks don't have their appalling reputation for nothing and will do their utmost to vitiate this judgment against them. Worse, the Tax Office (La hacienda) has announced it will be levying tax on at least part of the repayments. As if they were bloody gifts. Sometimes it's very hard to believe what's happening in Spain. And how powerless consumers/citizens are. As DQ points out: As usual, the banks have the Rajoy government firmly on their side. Que va!

It's a natural sashay from this scandal to the subject of corruption, which I've left alone for a while. But one clearly can't ignore the case of the 5 board members of a Galician bank who - just prior to a merger - made themselves millionaires at the expense of shareholders and taxpayers. See here for details. None of them has returned a single cent and each of them will be free in a matter of a few months to spend their -ill-gotten gains. Possibly after they've made a contribution to the PP party.

Which reminds me . . .

To absolutely no one's surprise, the ex-Treasurer of the PP party has admitted - during his trial - that it did indeed operate a slush fundfinanced by bribes from companies anxious to get government contracts. Details here.

If all this makes you, as a resident of Spain, feel a tad depressed, then cheer up! According to The ineffable Local, there are at least 11 reasons why you should be happy to live here. Find them here.

Having listened to Mrs May yesterday, the most knowledgable pro-Brexit commentator, Richard North, pronounced that “We're fucked”. So, not very impressed. Here's what he says in more detail today about what he sees as a Jumbo jet crash of a statement. To point out the obvious, not all Brexiteers want a 'hard Brexit'. Or a flounce out. By the way . . . This is a very true comment I read last night:- Because the British joined the old Common Market principally on economic grounds, we have never been able to understand the quasi-religious status that the EU has in many continental countries. Which is certainly true of Spain. Though it has to be stressed that the EU has been fantastically profitable for Spain, as well as super-hyper symbolic in the context of an emerging democracy.

Which reminds me . . . 

There are probably more than a hundred reasons why Donald Trump shouldn't be the US president - the most obvious being that he didn't win the popular vote. But for me the clincher is that the man doesn't know how to wear a tie. I mean, if you're going to sport one, don't let it dangle below your waist. As if you're trying with the sharp end of it to draw attention  to your penis . . . 

The only thing worse would be to have the other end sticking out just a few inches below his collar. Which, to be honest, I think I've seen but can't get a foto of. But I have found on Google Images a whole web page dedicated to the long tie gaffe. And this spoof . . .

Finally . . .   I've talked about growing officiousness in Spain but how about this from the UK?: A pensioner has been fined £80 by Ealing council for pouring her coffee down a drain before binning the cup because, if she had put it in the bin, it would have flooded it. In the council’s eyes it was “littering”. Firing squad?

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Pontevedra Pensées: 17.1.17

Today's post comes to you from Manchester. Or, as they say in the USA, from Manchester, England.

If you drive as much as I do in both Spain and the UK, you'll quickly notice that, whereas British motorways are dominated by trucks, Spain's autovías aren't. These clog the National or N roads, the equivalent of the UK's A roads. There are probably several reasons for this but one is surely that there are tolls on most of the autovías, turning them into autopistas. Another reason might be that the concept Time is Money might not be as well-grasped here as it is in Anglo-Saxon cultures. Where the extra cost of the tolls might well be more than offset by the factor of speedier arrival. But I'm just guessing. You have a lot of time to do this when, for example, you're stuck on the N550 to Vigo behind a truck and trailer slowly taking tons of eucalyptus trunks to a cellulose factory somewhere in Portugal. And, to your right, you can see the parallel and virtually empty AP9. Anybody got any other theories? Down in North Portugal, by the way, the contrast is even greater. Even cars tend to avoid the toll roads there, making them an absolute delight to use.

The national, regional, provincial and municipal search for new sources of revenue has led to a proposal that utility and telecommunication companies be charged for everything above and below public land - pipes, pylons and the like. The Supreme Court has blessed this idea, with a suggestion that the cost be between €3,000 and €12,000 per linear metre per year. This, of course, will end up as another fixed charge for consumers.

Which reminds me . . . . There actually is a consumers action group in Spain - FACUA - but I have the impression it's a pale shadow of those in other countries. With not much clout against, say, the monopolistic utility companies who levy massive fixed charges. That said, the group has recently inveighed against J&J for an ad for Frenadol, a cough and cold remedy, which shows a sufferer downing a sachet and then taking his kids somewhere in his car. While the small print at the bottom of the screen says This medication can cause drowsiness and driving is not recommended. I'm not sure where my sympathies lie.

To deal with this sort of action from FACUA, it's rumoured that the producers are setting up an organisation to act on their behalf. It's to be called FUCU, apparently.

You might recall there are plans to build a vast €2.2bn entertainments complex - Eurovegas - on the outskirts of Madrid, near the airport. Astonishingly, this has hit bureaucratic hurdles and planning permission has yet to be granted. I fear I might be writing this annually for the next few years.

Finally . . . An amusing video on Spain's frontiers. HT to Lenox of Business Over Tapas for this.

And 2 fotos taken from my hotel room in Campiello on Saturday morning - the first at the break of day and the second around 11am. Neither shows the snow of the previous night. By the way, these are considered foothills in Asturias:-

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