Tuesday, January 25, 2011

The Debate Goes On, But The Government Isn't Listening

Maybe I was being hopelessly optimistic when I thought that the emerging debate around the Ley Sinde was going to influence the outcome. The Spanish government spent much of yesterday in frantic last minute negotiations with the Partido Popular to resuscitate in the Senate what they had lost in the main chamber. The claim is that the new version of the law agreed with the PP offers more guarantees against the arbitrary closure of web sites accused of violating intellectual property rights, but this claim is hotly disputed by opponents of the law.

The reality is that the changes agreed do not substantially alter the nature of the legislation. The decision to proceed against a web site will still be an administrative one taken by a government appointed committee, with the role of the judicial system reduced to certifying that no breach of fundamental rights has taken place. The new version also contains some very dangerous ambiguous wording, allowing for the existence of a site to be placed under threat solely on the basis of an alleged "susceptibility" to cause financial harm to a claimant. This ambiguity opens the door wide to abuse of the new powers. 

The two main Spanish parties have continued to defend a model of intellectual property legislation which has been written in the interests of the large entertainment companies who seek to defend at all costs a model of doing business which is becoming unsustainable. The industry is being offered a bypass of the judicial system which is available to no one else with a grievance to pursue. Both the PP and the governing PSOE are demonstrating whose interests they act in here, with the recent Wikileaks revelations having shown strong pressure from the US government for Spain to crack down in this way. The PP, which has contrived to find a way to oppose every other government measure makes an exception when it comes to defending big business interests.

So what happened to the attempts to find common ground between representatives of the industry and opponents of the law? It was going quite well, despite occasional misunderstandings and disruptive efforts. A sign of how well it was going is that film director Alex de la Iglesia announced today his resignation as president of the Spanish cinema academy in protest at the way in which the government and the PP had just decided to ignore the constructive discussions that were taking place. No longer can they claim that the Ley Sinde has the full backing of the artists affected by piracy, there is a now a clear division of opinion between those who look forward and search for a new model to support creative work and those who simply try to hang on to the way things were before the internet.

It's all a sign that neither of Spain's major parties really understands the internet, except as a platform for propaganda or something which they need to try and control. The PP recently asserted the bizarre position that the data on Spanish citizens held by different internet companies should be treated as being part of Spanish territory and be held on servers based in Spain. They don't understand it. The politicians have treated all non-industry opinion on the intellectual rights issue with absolute contempt, and it's clearly going to take a bit more than people getting angry on Twitter to make them rethink their position. 

Monday, January 24, 2011

Will Spain See A New Generation Of Emigrants?

I went down to my 'quiosco' to buy my paper a couple of weeks ago. I know, I am one of those hopeless dinosaurs who still likes to buy a newspaper made of paper. Part of the reason why I still do it, apart from habit, is that the man I buy my paper from is a chatty, cheerful person even on the most miserable of days and we usually talk a bit about world affairs; from a footballing perspective. Focused especially on the fortunes of a club located down near Madrid's famous river.

On this particular day, though, we talked about something else. He said he was having a conversation with another customer about how Spaniards were emigrating in search of work because of the crisis. My first reaction was to ask "where to?". After all, there aren't that many countries on the search for immigrants at the moment with much of Europe still supposed to be attempting an exit from the crisis. My second reaction was to say that not so much has changed, the scarcity of work in Spain may be making more people think about leaving in search of opportunities, but the reality is that many were doing the same even at the height of the economic boom.

The issue has come to the fore this week with reports that Germany will be looking to recruit qualified Spaniards when Mrs Merkel comes to town in a few weeks to survey the wreckage. But leaving aside for the moment the effects of the crisis, why would many young Spaniards have left the country during the good times? The comparison with Germany becomes important at this stage. Germany's economy contracted almost as much as Spain's during 2009, something which many Spaniards find difficult to accept in their belief that the Spanish crisis was somehow unique. The big difference is that unemployment hardly rose in Germany, whilst in Spain it shot up through the roof.

The fault of the Spanish government, many argue, but if you want to understand why Spain didn't adopt something like the 'kurzarbeit' policy that saved many jobs in Germany you have to look beyond the government and include the employers in the overall picture. A scheme where the government pays a portion of what would otherwise just be paid as unemployment benefits so that workers don't lose their jobs seems like a no-brainer. The fundamental problem I think lies with the employment culture in Spain, and this is where the question of emigration even during the good times comes back into play.

The German companies wanted to keep their workforce, they had probably trained many of their employees and it makes long term economic sense to maintain stability if you can do it. Spain's boom, on the other hand, was dominated by short-termism. The search for the next 'pelotazo', which goes hand in hand with contracting people on a series of temporary contracts so that if you suddenly decide there is more money in jamón de bellota instead of solar panels you just get rid of one set of workers and recruit another. In the land of the Diaz Ferráns there was never much of an audience amongst employers for the idea of protecting employment, on the contrary.

Then there is a structure in so many companies which is frankly discouraging to anyone thinking of making a career. You might be very well qualified, you might even be really good at your job, but you can still find yourself dedicating years of effort in the same post to supporting a thick, immovable, layer of bosses and the associated 'enchufados' above you. Sure you'll get told how well you're doing occasionally, although your performance is unlikely to be reflected in the salary you get paid. That's why I work for myself and why many talented Spaniards have decided that they have better opportunities elsewhere, regardless of the macro-economic figures of the day. It's easy to criticise people for opting to become funcionarios, but not so easy to explain what better options are available for them.

Nor is there any reason to imagine that this will change dramatically over the years to come. The Partido Popular, feeling itself close to power again, is selling a seductive and in many ways comfortable notion that all that is needed is a change of government for the sweet smell of economic success to return. It's a tempting but cruel delusion for those unwilling to think too deeply about where that growth might come from. The 13 years or so of boom left behind no base of any kind for future economic growth, based as it was mostly on a variety of 'build and grab'. Spain's boom years were built on circumstances that no longer exist, and even if the PP want to give the lords of the ladrillo another run for other people's money there is the tiny detail of those hundreds of thousands of unsold dwellings. Emigration is a worse option now than it was a few years ago, but the difference is not as great as some would pretend.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

The True Costs Of Gallardón's Folly

It's time to unite the threads of two issues that I have posted about before on several occasions; Madrid's appalling pollution problems and the mega project to bury the M-30 ring road that has become the defining act of Alberto Ruiz Gallardón during his time as Mayor of the city. On the pollution issue a report in El País this week more or less confirmed what we already knew - Madrid continues to exceed the legally permitted maximum levels of emissions of nitrogen dioxide with all the effects this has for the health of the city's residents.

The overshoot of the contamination limits comes despite the city administration having had what they obviously thought was a very clever plan to sort out the problem; that of moving the measuring machines from zones with high readings to ones with much lower measurements like the Casa de Campo. This fraudulent trick did have the effect of achieving what looks like quite an impressive reduction in emissions between 2009 and 2010, but was still not enough to bring the city within the limits. The result is that the official figures are a significant underestimate of the real situation.

The difference now is that the maximum limit has changed from being a recommendation to being a European requirement. So does Madrid have a new master plan to make the city safer for those who breathe the air? It does indeed, the master plan is to ask for a moratorium in the application of the new legislation. Not because Madrid's rulers need more time for their extensive traffic reduction plans to take effect, they don't have any. The failure of the machine moving ploy to deliver the goods effectively leaves them with no ideas on complying with the law, so we are left with what will be a series of delaying tactics.

Which brings us to the M-30. I was walking down by the river last Sunday in the relatively warm sunshine we had a week ago. It was very pleasant to walk along the now pedestrianised banks of the river Manzanares. However, any idea that by burying the ring road the city has also managed to bury the problem of traffic pollution was soon dispelled by the sight of a familiar haze in the distance. It's important to remember that what many choose to see as an environmental project was in reality a road widening scheme, and a characteristic feature of new or wider roads is that they encourage yet more drivers to take their cars out.

People were not just walking or cycling by the river last Sunday. Men were working there too, planting regimented ranks of anaemic looking trees to replace some of the healthy adult specimens that were chopped down years ago at the beginning of the vast project. People working at weekends on municipal projects is a sure sign of impending elections, and there will undoubtedly be intense pressure for everything to be left at least superficially finished in time for Gallardón to run his re-election campaign in May.

What many voters may not be aware of is that the 'environmental' part of the project has been largely paid for by the national government, through the much maligned Plan E and its successor. It's unlikely that Gallardón will want to remind anyone of this at election time, but his administration has been effectively bankrupted by the crisis and the huge debt left over from the road-widening and pollution increasing part of the project.

Don't get me wrong, I think it's good that the river is a place where can people can walk or cycle without roaring traffic. I just take issue with those who regard this project as some great visionary work. "Visionary" would have been deciding that Madrid would benefit from not having a multi-lane ring road running through the interior of the city, and a fraction of the huge cost of the project could have been much more usefully spent on traffic reduction and diversion. Oh, and as a side effect it might just have been possible for Madrid to comply with pollution laws.

Instead we got more traffic, more contamination and a debt that will reduce the level of public services offered in the city for a generation. We are already seeing the start of the big sell off, as properties that were acquired with the intention of providing social facilities in areas that don't have them are instead being put up for sale. This after the city has spent a fortune on keeping them empty for years whilst the money got spent on the big road. Cuts will take place in all kinds of services over the next few years, as the city pleads with Brussels that it hasn't been given time to come up with any ideas to keep its citizens healthy.

Monday, January 17, 2011

From Tucson To Murcia

You don't normally get many people comparing Arizona to Murcia, unless they are studying low rainfall statistics. That has changed now, with the manipulation by the Partido Popular of an assault on a member of Murcia's regional government. Pedro Alberto Cruz, responsible for culture and tourism in the region, was beaten up by three men on Saturday and as a result he was hospitalised with facial injuries.

Although one man has been reportedly arrested today in connection with the assault it is still not known who the perpetrators were, but it has become an issue of national controversy because of the way in which the PP has attempted to use the incident to attack the national government. There is a tense situation at the moment in Murcia because the heavily indebted regional government has attempted to introduce severe cutbacks. This has naturally provoked protests from those affected, and the PP has immediately attempted to link the assault on Cruz to the local opposition.

The way in which they have done this has non-accidental echoes of the debate following last week's shootings in Tucson. The more fanatical elements of the Spanish right have been hugely offended by the suggestions that the Tea Party style of all-out confrontational politics may have created an atmosphere in which people who oppose them are placed in physical risk. The offence is of course that those who dearly want to imitate the Tea Party model naturally tend to use the same methods. So in the best traditions of their political philosophy they accuse others of doing what they themselves specialise in.

In the Murcian context this strategy has two advantages. In the first place they can try to criminalise any opposition to their policies by associating all their opponents with the actions of three individuals. Secondly, the PP could organise a masters course in presenting themselves as victims, so in this case the attack has happened because of the alleged negligence of the national government. We're still waiting for the formal accusation that Zapatero or Rubalcaba personally authorised the assault on Cruz, it can only be a matter of time. 

This is not the only recent case where the right has tried to present an assault on one of their supporters as a political cause celebre. Remember the alleged persecution last year of Telemadrid presenter Hermann Tertsch, who was also hospitalised amidst PP claims that he was the victim of political persecution. It eventually turned out that Tertsch had been involved in a bar brawl in the wee small hours of the morning that had nothing to do with politics, but this didn't stop the attempts of the right to try to pin the charge on their opponents. They never rectify. It was also, memorably, the incident that led to the unintentionally hilarious and bizarre case of a news bulletin being introduced from a hospital bed by a man wearing pyjamas

Returning to the case of Cruz there is still no evidence of a political motive for the attack, not least because we don't know who did it. There was one witness, who described the attackers as looking "normal", something which has no doubt forced the police to drop automatic suspicion of foreigners and people whose facial features fit the criminal profile designed by 19th Century criminologists. I've strongly resisted the temptation to suggest that it also rules out PP members as being possible perpetrators. I don't want this post to veer towards bad taste. There is, however, still no other reason to reject that possibility either. Murcia has lived for a good few years off construction and the culture of the 'pelotazo', and that can easily create all sorts of enemies for a politician.

The only thing we still missing is a Sarah Palin style video appearance from Esperanza Aguirre. Doesn't bear thinking about. In the meantime we get lectures on civic behaviour and political tension from those who idolise the heroes of hate radio and television.  People like Losantos, who probably gets paid per minute of crude abuse, or the creatures of the deep that insult so freely on digital channels like Intereconomía try to pretend that they are not the ones seeking a climate of tension. I can't resist the occasional feeling that the left should return the treatment they receive from the right, it only seems fair. I know, it drags you down to their level. But you wonder what other ways there are of educating them.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

The Ex-Prime Ministers Society

Just in case you were worried about how former Spanish prime ministers were coping with the economic crisis, I can assure you that they are not doing too badly. Hot on the heels of the announcement that Felipe Gonzalez had got a nice part time job with Gas Natural we've now found out that José Maria Aznar has got one too with Endesa. Both men will be very well rewarded for whatever it is that they have to do, although it seems that Aznar has cut the better deal to add to his other business activities.

It helps to explain why everyone else in the country has just been handed a 10% increase in their electricity bills. The industry minister Miguel Sebastian explained that the increase was the equivalent of a cup of coffee, which suggests he doesn't pop down to his corner bar very often. He seems to drink coffee as much as his boss. Now Aznar was in power when the privatization of Endesa was completed, but we won't hear any of that left-wing nonsense about conflicts of interest if you don't mind.

Aznar's administration was also the author of the law that explains much of the increase in electricity prices. The 'deficit tarifario' was a device that allowed the PP to hold down electricity price increases by introducing legislation promising that the companies would be fully compensated in the future. By another government. As someone recently observed, this is like farting in a lift and leaving the consequences for the next person who enters.

Today I read that both Aznar and Gonzalez receive a guaranteed €80,000 a year from the Spanish state. Given that they are earning so much money elsewhere, surely there is a case here for a bit of means testing? Especially as they both like to give lectures on the value of financial prudence. Let's say that those former leaders who choose to dedicate their time to earning money based on their former position learn to do without any contribution from the state, given the tough times in which other pensioners live. That will leave some money for those who dedicate their retirement to good works.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

What Happens If ETA's Ceasefire Is For Real?

The latest declaration by ETA of a general and permanent ceasefire doesn't seem to have done much to change the outlook on achieving an end to political violence in the Basque Country. The problem with the statement is that it attempts to take us back to 2006, when the group also promised a "permanent" ceasefire, one that was broken when they didn't get what they wanted from the negotiating process with the Spanish government and which led to the 2007 bomb in Madrid airport that killed two people.

Maybe ETA, recently under intense police pressure, want to try and pick up the thread of negotiation where they left it before that bombing. The Spanish government doesn't and it's not hard to see why; the possibility of a repeat of what happened in 2007 is a political risk they will be unwilling to take. Add to that the view that with ETA being so weak they are not in a position to demand concessions in return for abandoning violence. Despite this, there is for the moment one significant difference with the previous process; the international dimension. This has meant that the ETA declaration included a willingness for their ceasefire to be verified by the international community.

Potentially this difference could be very important, with its echoes of the Northern Ireland process where international observers supervised the destruction of IRA weapons. ETA hasn't gone as far as saying that this is what they mean by verification, and the international mediators who have been contacted will be understandably cautious about getting involved without certain guarantees of the process leading somewhere. The word that is really missing from the ETA statement has been taken up by their political wing, Batasuna, in the last 24 hours. That word is "irreversible", but it's still not one that the men who hold the guns have uttered.

The illegal Batasuna is said to have been hoping for a clearer declaration that would pave the way for the legalisation of the party in time for it to contest the municipal elections in May. That looks an unlikely prospect given the very cool reaction by the Spanish government to the latest ceasefire. Batasuna will probably test the Ley de Partidos that was introduced to illegalise the party, by proposing a new organisation with a constitution that rejects the use of violence. According to the law that would be enough for the new party to contest elections, but in reality the decision is a political one and a bad law will continue to be used until either of the two major national parties decides it shouldn't be.

At least one of those parties, the Partido Popular, can be relied upon to oppose any movement that even suggests that Zapatero's government could preside over an end to ETA. That's what they did the last time, and a party whose atrocious and repugnant manipulation of terrorism as a political tool has been a consistent feature since March 11th 2004 is not going to change now.  The first demonstration by the far right Libertad Digital/ Hazte Oir crew has already been called for the 5th February, and the insane myths about how Zapatero has pacted the handover of Navarra to ETA amongst other concessions have also been resurrected for the occasion. Expect far more shouting against the government than against ETA.

We can also expect the South African international mediator, Brian Currin, to become something of a hate figure for much of the right in Spain; even though his involvement is only going to have the intention of bringing about an end to violence. The same has already happened to the prominent Basque Socialist politican, Jesús Eguiguren, only for having the temerity to suggest that a ceasefire declaration would merit a response from the government. This is a man who has been an ETA target for years but such things matter little to the fanatics who have more or less branded him as being part of the group.

Whilst ETA and Batasuna are working hard on building up the international dimension of the process, the government is attempting to avoid this. But if it turns out that ETA really are willing to go the full distance then there will surely have to be some sort of positive response. The suggestion that the Spanish police will be the ones who verify the ceasefire is absurd, it goes along with those who say the only way out is for ETA to formally surrender. That's not the way these things happen, and it would be a serious matter if a chance for peace was turned down on the grounds that Spain rejects any international involvement.

It's very hard to have an accurate picture of what is going on inside ETA, but it's clear that there is intense debate in Batasuna and almost certainly inside ETA itself about the way forward. The rejection of the opportunity that existed in the last process has ended up with more of their prisoners drifting away from the cause, and with former supporters more or less openly questioning the point of ETA's existence in a way that didn't happen often before. It's still ETA's move, but that doesn't mean the other players shouldn't be preparing their response.

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

On Your Right You Can See The Garage Where We Park The Bus

If you're a tourist in Madrid today and you fancy a trip around the city in one of the open-topped buses of Madrid Visión then you're out of luck. The concession granted to the company by Madrid's town hall has expired and the service has come to a complete halt due to a dispute about whether the company should hand over its buses to the city. In the meantime it seems that the buses could be off the road for several months.

There are those who question whether the service is worth having anyway, a report I read last week in El País said that the buses sweep past many of the city's landmarks without so much as a word of explanation. Instead the tourists get music. It's a lucrative business though, according to this report the company made €62 million last year, of which almost a million goes to the almost empty coffers of Gallardón's administration.

A few years ago this service didn't exist at all, in fact Madrid had a pretty dreadful lack of services for tourists. Then suddenly it seemed as if there were several companies trying to operate tourist buses at the same time. In came the usual suspects, with their decrees that they and only they would decide who gets to operate such a service and awarded the contract to a single company. One of the major participants in Madrid Visión is none other than Gerardo Díaz Ferrán, already famous for having been simultaneously the leader of the national employers association and a contender for the prize of closing down the most companies in a single year.

Whether don Gerardo is about to lose what must be almost his last business is now open to question, as the tender for the concession is being prepared. The new contract will of course give more money to Madrid's administration, as well as requiring tourists to be shipped to such exotic and singular delights as the foaming white water of the Manzanares rapids as the river sweeps through the verdant parkland which er, might be ready for use in a few years time.

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

It's Torture Regardless Of Who The Victim Is

Last week a court in the Basque Country convicted four members of the Guardia Civil of torturing two members of ETA. It was ruled that the victims were beaten up after being arrested and subjected to an ordeal which included being ducked in a river. The ETA members concerned were subsequently convicted of being the authors of the bombing at Madrid Barajas Airport in 2007, which killed two people and marked the beginning of the end for the last attempt at reaching a negotiated solution for terrorism in the Basque Country. 

The accused officers claimed that the injuries suffered by the victims were self inflicted, but independent medical reports were consistent with the claim of mistreatment and the court accepted that torture had taken place, sentencing four of the accused to prison sentences. It's very unusual in Spain to get a conviction for police mistreatment of prisoners, above all if the case has any connection to terrorism. The Spanish government has a long standing policy of claiming that all accusations of torture form part of the training of ETA members for when they are arrested, the implication being that all such accusations must be treated as false. This case was no exception, interior minister Rubalcaba made a statement at the time of the arrests denying any possibility of torture, a statement which has mysteriously disappeared from the ministry website following last week's verdict.

In effect this automatic defence by the government against any accusations of police violence or mistreatment gives the police carte blanche to do more or less what they feel like doing. Those of us who lived in the UK during the cases of the Guldford Four or the Birmingham Six know only too well where tolerance of such actions eventually lead. To the conviction of innocent people. There are too many who will defend the actions of the officers concerned, and even claim that the conviction is a blow to the struggle against terrorism. It's even quite possible that an appeal to a higher court will find a judge who is not prepared to accept the idea that members of the security services break the law. I for one am very glad to live in a country where torture is a crime, even if it is difficult to obtain a conviction. 

Monday, January 03, 2011

Mariano Rajoy Y El Sueño Eterno

I've commented before on Mariano Rajoy's almost legendary capacity to put off taking any important decision, but with 2011 only 3 days old we already have another fine example of the syndrome. The former general secretary of the Partido Popular in Aznar's time, Francisco Alvarez Cascos, has been running a noisy campaign for several months to be selected as the PP's candidate for the regional elections in Asturias. Cascos has many enemies in the Asturian PP, and the party there has chosen a different candidate.

Finally, after letting the argument rumble on for months, Rajoy was roused from his deep slumber and the PP acted last week by ratifying the choice of the Asturian party. This decision has provoked Cascos to resign from the PP and there exists a very real threat of him forming his own organisation to contest the elections in May. Cascos has claimed that his resignation after 34 years of PP membership was prompted by a lack of support from the national party in the face of alleged insults that he received from prominent PP members in Asturias. However, it seems far more likely that his exit is simply the result of his campaign to be selected failing. The day is still far off when insulting people ceases to be a common practice in the PP.

What nobody understands is why the national PP took so long to reach their decision given that the Asturians picked their candidate months ago. The party has allowed Cascos to continue with his campaign to try and force the PP to overrule the local party's choice. He has received powerful support in this campaign, implicitly from Aznar and more openly from Esperanza Aguirre. To the extent that the Asturian PP told Aguirre recently to pay more attention to her own affairs, and stop interfering in their business. Fat chance of that happening, and in any case Madrid does better when Aguirre is distracted by other matters.

Rajoy could have taken the same decision a long time ago and even if that wouldn't have avoided Cascos resigning it would have been a far more low profile affair, with less risk of danger for the PP's chances of recovering power in the region. But Rajoy has acted in this case as he seems to act with all major problems, waiting to see whether it will disappear. This is how he has acted with the never-ending conflict between Aguirre and Alberto Ruiz Gallardón, and also with the different crises provoked by the progress of the Gürtel corruption case in Madrid and Valencia. It seems that the case of Cascos reveals another facet of Rajoy's behaviour - it is claimed that Rajoy led Cascos to believe that he had the support of the party's leader when they met. This is not the first time someone has left a meeting with Rajoy believing that he will do one thing, only to find he does the opposite.

Cascos has behaved like a regional cacique, believing that he could impose his will on a party that is hardly noted for the democracy of its internal processes. One of the points made by his critics is that he has effectively abandoned active politics during the bad times only to re-emerge when things start to look good for his party. Another factor, a notable indicator of just how bad his relationship is with the Asturian PP, is that Cascos did much of his campaigning in the place where he was registered as a party member....in Madrid.