Sunday, April 01, 2007

Storm In A Coffee Cup

There has been a surprising amount of investigation carried out in Spain this week into the price of a cup of coffee. The reason for the sudden interest in this issue was the appearance of Spanish Prime Minister José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero on a new format (for Spain) television programme where invited members of the public were allowed to question the politician directly.

The moment that captured the headlines was when Zapatero was asked if he knew how much a cup of coffee costs. He replied that he believed it to be 80 cents, and it was this somewhat optimistic estimate that provoked both the headlines and the investigation. First let’s deal with the price; 80 cents will certainly not buy a coffee in the larger cities such as Madrid or Barcelona where 1 euro would be the minimum price you could expect to pay. There are cheaper places, and there have been suggestions that Zapatero’s estimate was not too far below the national average.

The general consensus, however, was that politicians show how far out of touch they can be when they get asked this kind of question. It is not that likely that Zapatero actually pays for any of his coffees, people in his kind of position do not need to carry much small change with them. Or if they do order the coffee themselves, they do it in the subsidised comfort of the Spanish Parliament where the price is around 70 cents. In short, they are insulated from much of the reality that the vast majority of the population has to deal with. There were questions on much more important issues in the programme, but all of this was drowned out by the great coffee debate, even the citizen who asked the question was starting to get fed up with the attention it received after a few days. A much bigger issue for pressing the Prime Minister on should be the price of buying a home, something increasingly out of reach for many people these days.

Opposition leader Mariano Rajoy gets his chance to face the people in a couple of weeks. Rumours that he is currently busy memorising the price of every common household item are almost certainly true. We can also expect several contrived attempts by him to show how much more he is in touch with the man or woman on the street. In any case the new format has been a big success in a country where politicians generally receive very kind treatment in media interviews. The confrontation between George Galloway and a Sky News interviewer a few months ago attracted quite a lot of attention here precisely because that kind of robust exchange almost never happens in Spain.

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