Tuesday, June 30, 2009

The Basque Weather Forecast

You wouldn't have thought that the weather forecast on television could really be that great a source of controversy, but with the change of government in the Basque Country comes a change in the map that viewers will see when they want to know how hard it will rain tomorrow in Bilbao. When the nationalists were in power someone decided that viewers of ETB, the Basque regional TV channel, should see a weather map that includes Navarra and the French Basque Country too. In other words, the entire area of what nationalists regard as historically being part of Basque territory. With the change of administration comes a change in those who run all of those organisations that depend on the regional government, ETB included. The winds of change mean the weather map should also change, but then the dilemma has been how to make the change without completely offending nationalist sentiment by excluding Navarra and the French areas. It seems the solution adopted will be to show half of northern Spain and the frontier area with France on the grounds that Basques also want to know about the weather in La Rioja or Burgos for their weekend getaways. Expect sunny intervals with frequent showers if you're near the coast.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Turn Left, Turn Right, Then Go Back To Where You Started

The problems of running a minority government were on display for all to see last week in Spain. The government got itself into a mess over taxation as it became clear that measures which suit one potential parliamentary ally can make some of the others withdraw their support. That nice sounding phrase "geometria variable" has been overused as an attempt to spin the reality that Zapatero's administration still has no reliable understanding with other parties to guarantee that it wins votes.

Last week's fiasco came with what seemed to be an agreement between the PSOE and Izquierda Unida on the need to make the tax system more progressive and deal with some of the more blatant inequalities. In the end the agreement lasted about 6 hours, it seems that the right wing Catalan nationalists weren't going to accept it and they have enough votes to give the government a majority. The government is starting to prepare the budget for next year and is looking for support. With income declining because of the crisis, and spending rising for the same reason, taxation has become a key issue and there have already been recent increases in some indirect taxes.

Zapatero famously claimed a few years ago that reducing taxes "es de izquierdas". There are of course circumstances where this could be true, for instance with measures specifically designed to reduce the tax burden on low incomes. However, getting rid of a tax only paid by the wealthier sections of society (the impuesto de patrimonio) and replacing it with increases in indirect taxation that affect everyone equally doesn't fit this description. The short lived agreement with IU wasn't very specific but focused attention on a number of areas. One candidate for change is the general €400 rebate which was introduced prior to the last election and which was never a very effective measure in any case; in the light of what has happened since it no longer seems to make much sense.

Then there is what is known as the "Ley Beckham". This is a very special tax rebate, David should be proud to have it named after him. It means that a top ranking and high earning foreign footballer in Real Madrid or Barcelona ends up paying the same percentage rate of income tax as someone who only earns €17000 a year. The Spanish finance minister, Elena Salgado, came up with the rather silly justification that the law is intended to help those whose professional career is short. Most Spaniards will not earn in their entire working lifetime the amount that Cristiano Ronaldo will save in a single year from the application of this measure. There would be no shortage of volunteeers to have a short working life with that sort of benefit, form an orderly queue.

For the moment the government has parked the issue for later in the year, but a lot of commentators are starting to wonder whether the lack of a stable majority is going to mean that we have a government notionally in power but unwilling to take any risks or present measures that might expose the lack of support. The fear of losing votes has already seen the PSOE vote with the opposition on some occasions rather than face defeat. The reality of Spanish politics is that minority governments are more common than majority ones, but with as much as three years still to go before the next election has to be held the geometry needs to be a bit less variable.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

The Police Reveal All

Here's one of those stories that couldn't really be invented. Madrid's municipal police held a demonstration last week calling for better retirement conditions. All those years they spend sitting in their patrol cars takes its toll. As the demonstration began, a couple of hired strippers set about doing the job they were paid to do. At least they did until the protests of some of the demonstrators forced the performance to come to a premature end. The explanation offered for the surprising turn the demonstration had taken was that one of the organisers had requested "speakers" and the person on the receiving end of the message had heard "strippers". Why they were trying to organise the event in English has not been explained. Perhaps they were worried about being spied upon, this is Madrid after all.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Once, Twice, Three Times A Loser

I often have to get up a bit too early on Monday mornings these days to catch a flight to Germany. This morning I was clearly on autopilot, and it wasn't until I was almost inside the security check at Madrid's Terminal 4 that someone kindly pointed out that I wasn't flying with Iberia today and that my Spanair flight would leave from the old terminal. As I say, it was early in the morning and it's been very hot this weekend.

Now I know there are buses connecting the terminals but I just turned around and went back into the Metro station. Of course, to get back into the Metro with my normal bonobus ticket I had to pay the infamous Aguirre tax, the €1 supplement that we have to pay at the airport so that this privatised stretch of network keeps the Lideresa's friends from the brink of starvation. I'd already paid it once to get out at the wrong terminal! I was too concentrated on getting to the right place to catch my flight to even think that on arrival at the other terminal I was going to have to pay the same supplement a third time.

I know there are probably still some sentimental people out there who think that travelling between two terminals of the same airport should be free. Welcome to Madrid. After all of this I hope that in whichever sun kissed Caribbean tax haven they use to store the profits of this extortion they can at least name a palm tree in my honour. Or maybe it should be a cocktail. I'll have another Barajas Rip Off, but go easy on the ice because I like that long lasting bitter after taste.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Credit Crunch? Not In Madrid

Something happens when Florentino Pérez is in charge of Real Madrid that means that most of what is written about the club is only incidentally about football. As Pérez assembles his latest random collection of galacticos, the press is full of reports on the commercial benefits of having players like Kaka and Cristiano Ronaldo. Florentino himself seems confident that these expensive purchases are going to pay for themselves. He'd better be right because otherwise the club he runs is eventually going to have its own financial crisis. Pérez himself got elected as Madrid president without any rival candidacies, apart from one disastrous venture that lasted 24 hours. Interestingly, for a club that is supposed to be owned by its members, any candidate intending to stand was required to deposit 55 million euros to be able to stand for election. Now that's what I call an open contest.

This time around there is no massive property deal to fund the new signings, and it appears that most of the cash is coming from fresh loans from the banks. Caja Madrid, said to be one of the Spanish cajas facing problems because of its involvement in the construction industry has nevertheless managed to loan Pérez 75 million euros. This is surprising at a time when most individuals or small businesses looking for loans are finding them hard to obtain. Even more surprising was the revelation that the loan is interest free for the first two years. Caja Madrid justified the generous deal by saying that they loan money to those they know will pay it back. An odd statement when you consider that Real Madrid is already estimated to owe 4-500 million euros and we have businessmen climbing up cranes in Madrid to protest that the club doesn't pay them. Never mind, the rest of the customers will pay for it.

Looking at the team itself, so far it is not all going as Perez wants, despite the capture of Kaka and Ronaldo. It is said that Manuel Pellegrini was not his first choice as coach for the team, and although I think Pellegrini did great things at Villareal I don't see Madrid as being his kind of team; especially as Perez will be calling the shots on team selection, mostly motivated by the shirt sales of each player. The signing of David Villa from Valencia has stalled, despite the reported eagerness of Villa to go to Madrid. Valencia are in a desperate financial situation, provoked by their own attempts to ride the construction bubble. They need to sell players and their problem is that everyone knows it, so whilst they prefer a bidding war between Chelsea, Manchester (*2) and Madrid for Villa, Perez is trying to use the preference of the player to force down the price. It will be interesting to see how the survivors from last year's Madrid team will react to the new arrivals, especially with Ronaldo set to earn almost twice the salary of captain and club icon Raul. Not that Raul is having problems paying the rent.

Elsewhere, 70000 people took to the streets of Sevilla last week in a huge protest. Perhaps they were marching to demand action on unemployment and the economic crisis? No, instead the protestors were supporters of Real Betis marching to demand the departure of Manuel Ruiz de Lopera, the businessman who is the main shareholder in the club. The club was relegated to the second division at the end of last season and the fans are furious at Lopera. This, however, is the same Lopera who a few years ago the same fans would call "Don Manuel" and acclaim as a hero. Presumably if they get promoted again next season all will change again? Much as I like football as a sport, there are times when you wonder whether it is worth it.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

When Hospitality Can Become A Crime

Whilst the immigrant whose appalling treatment at the hands of a Gandia bakery owner looks like he will get his residence papers as a consequence of the publicity the case received, many others will continue to face an uncertain future. Slowly making its way through the parliamentary process is a reform of the Ley de Extranjeria, the law that controls immigration in Spain.

The initial draft of this law contained a shocking proposal that would make the act of hospitality towards an illegal immigrant an offence on the same level as that of the employer who exploits the situation of the sin papeles by not giving them a contract or paying social security. Showing hospitality could result in a fine as high as 10,000 euros. This proposal rightly provoked a significant protest, very well expressed in this article from El País by Soledad Gallego-Díaz. As a result of the protests it looks as if this clause may not make it into the final version of the law, but you can't help wondering about the mindset of the people who come up with such proposals in the first place. A Berlusconi would be very happy with the notion that those who offer assistance to illegal immigrants can be treated so harshly.

The same law looks likely to maintain an extension to the maximum time during which the illegals can be held in detention centres awaiting probable deportation. When the Spanish government supported the European move to prolong detention times, they then sent envoys to Latin America to placate those countries protesting at the measure. We may have supported the change, but we won't implement it in Spain was the reassuring message delivered. Yet here it is, a 50% increase in the maximum detention time. Yet all of this is happening when the signs are that the economic crisis has effectively put an end to recent trends in immigration. The Canary Islands recently went two months without a single boatload of immigrant hopefuls arriving from the African coast.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

The Age Of The Mileurista

I usually read the salmon coloured economic supplement that comes with El País on a Sunday fairly quickly, just skimming to see if there is anything particularly special. This article (entitled Adiós clase media, adiós), published a couple of weeks ago, makes interesting but not very encouraging reading. The article describes how what might be called the Spanish Dream has evolved into a much starker reality where almost 50% of the country’s workforce belongs to that new social category popularly known as the mileuristas, those who earn less than €1000 a month.

As the writer points out, the phenomenon of the mileurista is not just a Spanish issue, it’s something that has emerged in several economies. It forms part of the trend towards greater inequality and insecurity as many well qualified members of the workforce come face to face with a reality that leaves them both poorly rewarded and in permanent fear of not having a job at all. This is not something that is a product of the economic crisis, but the situation as we emerge from that crisis will be even worse if those who enjoy the benefits of it get their way.

One of the most shocking statistics in the paper version of the article came from a table showing the evolution of average salaries in Spain. You would have thought, following several years of economic boom, that at least some of the benefits of that boom would have reached the people who actually do the work. Not so, there was some increase in the average salary between 1995 and 2002 (from €16,416 to €19,808). Since then the average has declined slightly to €19,680 in 2006, even though it would need to be around €24,000 a year if it had kept pace with prices since 1995. Forget the tired mythology of the trickle down effect, if it works at all it goes in the opposite direction. You have to remember that the average salary calculation includes those at the top end who have of course not done quite so badly over the last few years. Then they tell us that the problem is that workers have too many rights in Spain.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Hard Times For Spain's National Parks

Life’s not always easy for a national park. Even more so if the resource on which the park depends can be removed by people without even entering the park itself. Take the example of Las Tablas de Daimiel, a once important area of wetlands in Ciudad Real province and a national park since 1973. I visited Las Tablas a few years ago on the way back from a trip to the town of Almagro, and it was a sorry sight then with only a small area covered by surface water. Now it seems that the situation has got worse, and UNESCO has warned the Spanish government that the area could lose its status as a biosphere reserve if they don’t do something to protect it.

The situation is not a result of drought or other natural circumstances. It is instead a consequence of the over exploitation of water resources, particularly for agriculture. Las Tablas de Daimiel have always relied on the excess water of underground aquifers but now these have been drained of much of their water. The only solution the Spanish authorities could find to continue justifying the description of wetland was to transport water into the Tablas. In fact this is what they thought they had done but the villagers of nearby Villafranca de los Caballeros had other ideas, and diverted the water intended for Las Tablas into their own lagoons! The Guardia Civil had to be sent down to close off the diversion to the village.

Meanwhile there is the equally sorry case of the area that should be a national park but which never quite seems to make it. The Sierra de Guadarrama, the range of mountains just a short distance from Madrid, is a hugely important natural wilderness. Yet the project to convert the area into a national park has been systematically obstructed by the regional authorities for years. Just in case you think I’m going to put all the blame on Madrid’s Esperanza Aguirre, let me point out that her party allies in Castilla y León also deserve their 50% of the blame. Neither of these administrations is happy with a project that would limit their ambitious plans to replace once savage wilderness with the neatly tended lawns of the now compulsory golf course that comes with every new urbanisation. Although, when you look at Las Tablas de Daimiel, you can’t help wondering whether it’s worth it to have the park declared in the first place.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Employer Of The Year

He worked twelve hours a day in a bakery for the grand daily payment of €23, without a contract or social security. At least he did until the 28th May this year. On that day Franns Rilles Melgar lost most of his left arm, cut off by one of the machines in the bakery. The employer in question drove him to the hospital, well almost. In reality he left him some 200 metres from the hospital, drove back to the bakery, cleaned up the blood and....tossed the amputated limb into the rubbish so that production could continue. The spirit of free enterprise.

Monday, June 08, 2009

European Elections 2009....The PP Smells Blood

Yesterday's election in Spain had a clear winner, and that was the Partido Popular. With a margin of over 600,000 votes there is little doubt about the victor. In percentage terms, the PP had an advantage of around 3.7% over the PSOE, which is at the higher end of what the opinion polls had predicted. This was the PP's first electoral victory at national level since the year 2000, and the party leadership will be doing all they can to try and present it as the turning point in the electoral cycle; the beginning of the end of the Zapatero era. A general election producing the same results would not give the PP a parliamentary majority, it would simply reverse the current positions of the PP and the PSOE leaving the former to seek an alliance with one of the conservative nationalist parties.

Despite the claim by PP leader Mariano Rajoy that this was their best ever result in European elections the reality is a bit different. Jose Maria Aznar secured more votes and a much bigger advantage over the PSOE in 1994, a result that was seen as the prelude to the PP gaining power in the following national elections. A closer look at yesterday's results suggests that the PP's advantage relies much more on the declining vote for the PSOE than on any significant increase in support for the PP. Rajoy's internal opponents had suggested that he needed to win by a 10% margin, although obviously if they thought he would get near that then the target would have been placed even higher. For the moment Rajoy's quiet strategy of letting the economic crisis erode support for the government is producing results, but perhaps not as much as many in the PP had hoped for.

Both the major parties based their campaigns around convincing their own supporters to turn out and vote, there wasn't really even a token effort to attract other voters. The result demonstrates what many already suspected, that the PP is finding it easier to mobilise their electorate, whilst the PSOE has lost a significant section of its support due to the crisis. Regardless of what anyone else might think, this was a big win for Mariano Rajoy. Unless something fairly dramatic happens to affect the PP's support it looks as if Rajoy has achieved his aim of consolidating his position within the party and remaining as leader. Even Esperanza Aguirre was there on the balcony for the victory celebration last night, although the ranks of party supporters on the street below looked a bit thin.

One depressing aspect of the vote is that the PP are trying to use their strong support in Madrid and Valencia to pretend that the voters have absolved them of any involvement in corruption. This is a Berlusconian strategy, that says you can do what you want as long as the electorate is prepared to vote for you. We just have to hope that the courts don't decide to go along with it. It is further evidence of what we have already seen in previous elections, corruption seems to have no impact on the willingness of PP supporters to vote for their party. Meanwhile, Zapatero needs to combat the idea that the tide has turned against him, and to try and stabilise his parliamentary support so that the talk of a motion of censure being presented doesn't become anything more than a wish on the part of the PP. The key to this will be Cataluña, which yesterday had a significantly higher abstention rate than most of the rest of Spain, and recorded a dramatic drop in PSOE support.

Of the other parties, Izquierda Unida will be pleased to have kept two members of the European Parliament but the fact that they have made no impact at all in terms of attracting disillusioned PSOE supporters means that their result is not being celebrated. The new party UpyD failed in their objective of overtaking IU as the fourth party, although they did get a single representative elected. Madrid still provides one third of their total support in the country. The regional nationalists maintained their representation and the PNV in the Basque Country will be pleased to have maintained their position as the largest party in the region. The almost illegalised Iniciativa Internacionalista failed to get anyone elected, but they did take over 100,000 votes in the Basque Country; just 600 short of the PP's total there.

Saturday, June 06, 2009

European Elections 2009....The Results From Spain

These are the votes of the Spanish jury. Oh sorry, wrong contest. Where there's a widget there's a way, and I've taken advantage again of the skills of the soitu.es technical team to offer the full results of the European elections in Spain as they are announced. According to the widget, this should start happening some time after 20:00 (Madrid time) on Sunday June 7th. In the meantime, you can check out the results of the equivalent 2004 election.

A neat summary of the campaign between the two biggest parties from Peridis in El País.

Update June 7th 19:00

The figures released on participation so far show it to be almost exactly the same as the elections in 2004 - which ended up around 45%. It seems there won't be any official results before 22:00 tonight because they don't get announced before the polls have closed in other countries. By that time much of the Spanish vote will already have been counted. All we will get before then will be exit polls.

A Judge On Trial....Manos Limpias Versus Garzón

Spain's most famous judge, Baltasar Garzón, is facing the possibility of having to appear at the other end of the court following the acceptance of a case presented against him. He is accused of prevaricación, an offence which I'm unsure how to translate directly into English but which seems to come down to the deliberate issuing of unjust resolutions. The case has been presented by an organisation known as Manos Limpias, which as the name suggests likes to present itself as fighting against corruption in public life. They have brought the case against Garzón over his unsuccessful attempts to take forward a judicial case concerning the victims of Franco's repression and the thousands of bodies that continue to lie in unmarked roadside graves around the country.

Manos Limpias is in reality an extreme right pseudo trade union which dedicates almost all of its resources and time to clogging up the Spanish courts with a series of cases brought against figures associated with the left or regional nationalist causes. Its leader used to be part of the leadership of the Francoist Fuerza Nueva and it's hardly surprising in this context that they would take offence at Garzon's efforts. This is not the first time they have tried to get Garzón either, far from it. Other targets of the organisation have included Barcelona footballer Samuel Eto'o, Guardia Civil officers who have revealed their homosexuality and last but not least, childrens TV favourites Los Lunnis. I'm not making any of this up.

Most of the cases brought by Manos Limpias don't get very far. However, in this instance it seems that the judge leading the panel studying the accusation against Garzón is an honorary patron of the DENAES (the Foundation for the Defence of the Spanish Nation), another far right organisation which has been critical of any attempts to re-examine the events of the Civil War and the dictatorship. So the case has been put in motion, although it seems that the state prosecution service will not be lending their support to it.

Whether or not Garzón had the right to take the case as far as he did is a controversial legal issue, eventually it was ruled that he was not competent to proceed with the case. Even though his fellow judges ganged up against him to more or less bring an end to the issue, there were still a significant minority of judges who voted against this move. The real target in this case is not necessarily just Garzón, it is a message to any judge who might get the idea that crimes committed under Spain's dictatorship are as worthy of judicial investigation as those committed in countries far from home. That those who attempt to lift the lid on what happened during that period should be subjected to judicial persecution is surreal.

Thursday, June 04, 2009

Scandal In Madrid....Aguirre Obeys The Law!

Although some think that I do it with malice aforethought, it's not for nothing that Madrid's president is known as Santa Espe (de Mumbai). Esperanza Aguirre came to the rescue today of those who have fallen on hard times recently, by announcing in a press conference that the unemployed who were no longer eligible for their unemployment benefit would still be allowed to receive free healthcare in what remains of Madrid's formerly public health service. Sounds almost excessively generous, perhaps she will pay for it from her own meagre salary or from the abundant resources of Fundescam? Annoying though details can be, it seems there is a tiny flaw behind this apparent act of generosity; the law states that those who have exhausted their unemployment benefits cannot be denied health care. It's not something that the autonomous comunidades can decide for themselves. Much as she will probably hate it, The Outlaw Espe has been caught in a rare instance of obeying the law. Let's hope it's not the beginning of a trend.

Via NetoRatón 3.0

Monday, June 01, 2009

European Elections 2009....Still Unsure How To Vote?

The opinion polls published over the weekend in Spain show the Partido Popular with an advantage over the PSOE with only one week of the campaign left. Whether this advantage is big enough to give the PP a clear victory is open to doubt, especially now that El Mundo has decided that anything less than a five seat advantage for Mariano Rajoy will be considered a failure. The estimates on participation suggest that it will not be much over 45%. Europe doesn't get mentioned very much, and the main campaign issue between the two major parties is whether flying to your campaign meetings in a military jet is better than using the same service to go on holiday or to your daughter's wedding.

For those who are intending to vote but still unsure who to support, South of Watford comes to the rescue by recommending the EU Profiler. Unfortunately, in my case I didn't end up very close to any of the parties, but maybe you'll have better luck.

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via A Sueldo de Moscú