Wednesday, August 24, 2011

A Constitutional Nightmare

It was planned to be one of the final parliamentary appearances by José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero as Spanish prime minister, and we knew in advance that yesterday's session was likely to include some new economic measures. What we got was a mini bombshell. The decision, announced by Zapatero, to change the Spanish constitution to include a budget deficit cap was a well kept secret, or perhaps that should be well kept from the Spanish people. It's going to be an express change, pushed through parliament in a matter of days using the combined might of the PSOE and the Partido Popular.

Others were in on the secret in advance, we know that opposition leader Mariano Rajoy was told previously by Zapatero. The constitution cannot be changed by a simple parliamentary majority, which Zapatero doesn't possess anyway; the votes of the PP are essential to get the change through. So what was going on? The general consensus is that the measure forms part of a secret deal with Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy, in return for the European Central Bank intervening in the markets on behalf of Spain. We don't know whether this deal has been documented and nothing has been admitted by the government, but little else can be found to explain the apparent urgency of a measure which we are told won't even take effect before 2018.

This is no trivial measure, although it is in many ways a bizarre one. Enshrining deficit limits in the constitution is simply stupid, it's not the place for such a measure and almost more than anything else that has been done so far it represents beautifully the dogmatic, senseless policies that have already taken Europe back to the brink of another recession. The irony is that the lunatic policies of the Tea Party are having more success in Europe so far than they are in the USA. One country after another is being pushed into depression all so that a bought out political class can forget all the promises they made 3 or 4 years ago not to let it happen again. I used to wonder a bit how Europe stumbled into depression and war in the 1930's, the mystery has now been solved for me.

Countries need deficits, not all the time but they need them. The idea that a budget deficit should be legally banned is the dogma of idiot ideologues unable to learn anything from history. Unable to learn from failure either, as things get worse the only solution they offer is more of the same. The medicine isn't working, it must be because we haven't cut the other leg off. Pushing secret deals through parliament without any proper explanation and with half the country on holiday typifies the distance between the political class and the people they occasionally still claim to represent. A movement has already started to demand a referendum on the change, a logical and perfectly practical step with elections coming in November. 10% of the parliamentary representatives can force this to happen, but that seems unlikely to happen in the world of closed lists where dissent can mean no future.

But let's leave that aside and examine how the measure might work. Taking into account the recent history of Spain's Tribunal Constitucional let's ask what happens if the constitution is changed and the country exceeds the budget cap? Unless they're going to change the procedure too the next step is that someone (the opposition?) has to present a case to the Tribunal. Based on past experience they then sit on this for a couple of years, perhaps with a bit of inter-party wrangling over court membership involved to pass the time, before issuing a decision. By this time the deficit may be smaller or bigger, so what effect does it all have? None. That's why it's a pointless, ideological trophy. Of course changing the constitution back to stop wasting the time of the judges becomes incredibly difficult without PSOE and PP agreement to do so. There are some perfectly sensible constitutional changes which have been gathering dust for years because the PP refused to touch a document that they originally opposed but now regard as sacred. 

One success of the announcement has been that the constitution issue completely overshadows quite a dramatic reduction in the already precarious rights of young workers in Spain. Employers are now going to be allowed to indefinitely string together temporary job contracts. Meaning of course that the contract is not really temporary at all, except as far as the protection of the employee is concerned. At the same time a "training" contract previously designed for employees aged 21 or under is now extended to those aged 30. I'm waiting to hear the loud cries from those who constantly bemoan the two-tier labour market as this is a significant widening of the gap. I'll wait in vain, because we know what the solution proposed for that problem will be.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

It's Not Over Until The Fat Cardinal Sings

I was hopeful when I arrived at Madrid airport late on Sunday night, the place seemed full of weary "pilgrims" queuing to check in or sleeping in the corridors. Many wearing the same T-shirt and carrying the same little rucksack. "Good timing" I thought to myself, Ratzinger has gone home and his followers are on their way too. But I was wrong, as I found out yesterday when I ventured out into the city centre. 

The Pope had already put away his red shoes back in Rome, but Madrid was not free yet. One of the multiple ultra-conservative sects that the Catholic Church produces with regularity was awarded the centre of the city yesterday. The ministry of defence, in charge of the Cuatro Vientos airfield donated free of charge for the Pope's visit, refused to extend the free rental for the sect known popularly as the Kikos. No problem, said Madrid's allegedly centrist mayor Alberto Ruiz-Gallardon. They can use Cibeles. So yet another day passed with a major part of the city centre blocked by private religious activities. Of course with the now obligatory noise for those living in central Madrid of what Twitter has baptised as elputohelicoptero. 

 Late last night they were still parading through my barrio, singing and waving flags. This was Madrid as a catholic version of Tehran or Riyadh. The right-wing here have loved it, a full-scale takeover of the city as what they hope will be the prelude to a suitably theocratic Partido Popular government come the general election. Apart from the lie (see previous post) over the papal visit not costing anything to the public purse, there are astounding claims for the profits that "Madrid" receives from the event. What they mean is that the usual suspects will do very well out of it. It's worth remembering that one of the main "pelotazos" of the corrupt Gürtel companies was the papal visit to Valencia a few years ago. That money didn't stay in Spain very long, and didn't end up in the collection plate either.

I've also had time to view some videos of yet more police violence, this time directed against some of those who took part in the march protesting against the Pope's visit. Or perhaps that should be just walking up the Calle de Atocha. Or doing their job as journalists. One shocking assault on a woman, followed by an equally outrageous attack on the photographer capturing the moment, has finally forced an official response with an investigation being opened into the easily identifiable officer leading the group of riot police concerned. It seems that journalists have become a common target of riot police in Madrid in recent weeks, with some 7-8 victims. There is much talk of how digital technology makes it easier to show what is really happening, but much of the mainstream media continues to shun the abundant evidence of events they are clearly not comfortable with.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Run For The Hills, The Pope Is Coming!

August is normally such a peaceful month in Madrid, but this year has been different. Following on from, and almost certainly related to, the idiotic attempt to push the 15-M movement out of the city centre we are now about to receive a papal visit. The contrast could hardly be starker, whilst 15-M are forbidden to erect any kind of structure in the city's squares, the Pope's visit is seeing a massive occupation of public space. Retiro park has been filled with confession boxes, can there really be so many sinners coming to Madrid to see an elderly German priest? Cibeles has got a grand structure put in place to receive his holiness. 

It's not just that a private religious event is taking over public spaces either, the generosity of the city and regional administrations also has to be taken into account in these times of austerity. Despite an insistence that the papal visit isn't costing anything to the public purse, the reality is very different. Hundreds of public schools and sports centres have been handed over free of charge for visitors to sleep in. The armed forces have have offered an airfield for the big mass. For private companies the event becomes a handy way of doing tax-deductible advertising. Then there is the 80% reduction in the cost of the tourist transport ticket for the faithful. Announced in the same week as the 50% increase in the single journey Metro ticket for everyone else that will help to pay for this generous concession. 

Then we get the closure of some of the city's main thoroughfares to traffic for the duration of the visit. Great, about time. But why does it only happen when Mr Ratzinger is in town? Every year we get a farcical day without traffic where no streets at all are closed but the mayor gets his picture taken on a bicycle. Transport services that normally broadcast information in Spanish only are suddenly equipped to do it in other languages. Again, why only now? 

There will be a protest against the visit. The government's representative in Madrid tried to divert it away from the city centre, without really having any legal justification for doing so. Ironically, they wanted to send the protest on a route through Lavapies that they prohibited back around Easter when there was a proposal for an atheist procession. The excuse then was that the route would pass too many churches! Finally they have given way and the fragile right to protest has been restored for the moment. It's the only thing about next week that I regret missing, because I'm out of here today; off with my rucksack to do part of Corsica's GR20.

Friday, August 05, 2011

La Plaza Privatizada

The exaggerated and senseless government campaign to keep the 15-M movement out of the Puerta del Sol reached new heights last night, with riot police baton charging protesters outside the interior ministry in Madrid. Meanwhile the massive police presence, ever present helicopters and frequent closures of the Puerta del Sol to anyone are just causing constant disruption in the centre of Madrid.

Leaving Sol aside for the moment, let's take a look at the new model use of public space which a cash strapped city administration is promoting. The Plaza de Soledad Torres Acosta was subjected a few years ago to one of the least lovely remakes that Gallardón's administration has inflicted during his "hard rock" period. A sea of granite, with deliberately uncomfortable benches. It was done in a huge hurry after a murder in the square highlighted the degradation of the area.

At least the new square provided a play area for kids, and the slightly silly fountain with jets of water shooting out of the stone paving became hugely popular in summer with children and dogs. Not any more. The fountain doesn't seem to have worked at all this summer, and the whole of the centre of the square has been taken over by a privately run terraza. The newly installed police station uses the square as parking for police cars, even though there is a spacious underground car park. They even shifted some of the benches so that more cars could be parked there. As we can see, there is no problem at all as long as Madrid squares are not taken over by people who want to protest.
Anyway, enough about the squares. Let's take a walk around the wider, historic, barrio of Malasaña. Several buildings in the barrio display plaques commemorating famous people who have lived there. Including heroines of the 2 de Mayo uprising against Napoleon's troops, or feminist pioneers like Clara Campoamor.
More recently, there have been some new additions on different buildings around Malasaña - celebrating a different kind of uprising. My favourite combines the stencilled face of Aznar on the lamp post with the message on the wall.

Wednesday, August 03, 2011

La Plaza Tomada

It was a pathetic sight last night in Madrid. Circling the (police) wagons in the Puerta del Sol, all entrances to the square blocked by fully equipped riot cops. The police helicopter had been flying low over central Madrid for hours. At one point, over the heads of those in front of me, I caught a glimpse of the barrel of one of those guns the police use to fire gas canisters or rubber bullets. Preparing for a major assault, obviously. But it wasn't going to happen.

"Estas son nuestras armas" (these are our weapons) has become one of the standard chants of those taking part in protests organised by the 15-M movement. Shouted with your empty hands raised in the air. The authorities just don't get it, and the kind of over the top policing that converts many a peaceful protest into a public order problem found itself unable to cope yet again with a movement that refuses to play by the traditional rules. 

Last night, following the clearing of the square yesterday morning, the Puerta del Sol was closed to everyone except the police. Metro trains didn't even stop there. At first the police allowed some to enter the square, based it seems almost entirely on the appearance of the people who wanted to pass. Although well-dressed journalists were not admitted. Again they don't get it. Five "indignados" in a taxi dressed in business clothes were able to pass the barrier the police had put last week around the Spanish parliament. Eventually last night they decided they had to close the square to everyone. 

People came to protest against the eviction that had taken place earlier in the day. The authorities might have calculated that August was a good time to do it, but Madrid is no longer as empty in this holiday month as it used to be. Yet again a miscalculation by those in charge turns out to be a boost for 15-M. The streets around the Puerta del Sol filled with protesters, but the outcome wasn't going to be just a sterile stand-off for hours between demonstrators and riot police. Once again, the old rules didn't apply.

We arrived a bit late, to find crowds of people moving down the Gran Via, but not walking on the pavement. "Where are you all going?" we asked someone. "For a walk" was the reply. Half the Gran Via closed to traffic was much better than none of it. Down in Cibeles, where they are already building the stand for the Pope's visit, there were thousands of people and Real Madrid hadn't won anything. Nobody stopped long there, and soon the whole of the Paseo del Prado was occupied by protestors. The police were still busy recreating Custer's last stand inside the city centre.

Nobody gave any orders, another thing the idiots who govern us fail to understand. Everyone more or less knew where we wanted to go, so the Calle de Atocha ended up closed to traffic too as the ever bigger crowd turned back towards Sol, observed by bemused tourists. "Esto es lo que pasa por echarnos de la plaza" was probably the chant of the night. But Sol is not the only square in Madrid, after stopping for a while at the police line where the man with the gun was probably feeling anxious to test his weapon the protest moved onto the nearby Plaza Mayor to celebrate a mass assembly. Custer's men spent the night in the otherwise deserted square, protecting their wagons. They're still there this morning. Was it worth it?

Tuesday, August 02, 2011

Haven't You Got A Home To Go To?

As I write this post the police helicopters are still clattering over the centre of Madrid. They've been there since early this morning, as part of a huge police operation to remove all traces of the 15-M protest movement from Madrid's Puerta del Sol. All this overkill in reality is just removing the wooden information post that was set up when the camp was dismantled in Sol a few weeks ago. Today's operation follows a failed attempt to do something similar last week which ended with police charges against peaceful protesters in the Paseo del Prado. August, when the city is at its quietest, is no doubt seen as a good time for moving against 15-M after the relatively lighter attitude adopted by the authorities in May and June. After all, the Pope is due to arrive soon.

The Madrid police have been complaining recently about not being able to take on 15-M, following some incidents where protesters have interrupted the identity controls that police operate in selected Metro stations around the city. These controls are aimed against immigrants, as the targets are inevitably those who do not look like locals. Officially they do not exist, as the government has consistently denied that they take place. Photographers and journalists who have challenged this denial of reality have ended up being arrested and having their equipment seized. So we are left with the somewhat surreal situation where the police complain about not being able to carry out a task which their political bosses claim is not carried out anyway. Stopping something which doesn't happen can hardly be a crime?

Another cause of tension between protesters and police has been the campaign to stop people being evicted from their homes for mortgage arrears. Several judicial evictions have been stopped by protesters in recent weeks, leading the authorities to respond by massively increasing the police presence at these events. 120 police were used to evict someone owing a couple of thousand euros in Madrid last week. The cost of this operation? We're not entitled to know. In Barcelona, where the police are allowed to use as much violence as they like, we were treated to the ridiculous sight of the Mossos de Esquadra using ladders to force entry into an apartment and evict a family. Accompanied by the now familiar baton charges that they seem to use against any protest in the city. 

It's become almost commonplace for people to see a busy restaurant in Spain and remark "Crisis, what crisis?". There is a contrasting reality, the annual rate of home repossessions is running at around 90,000. Although the issue of Spain's mortgage legislation has been debated in recent months, the true scale of what is going on has only become apparent since 15-M took to the streets. Spanish mortgages promise a win-win situation for the banks who enticed so many people into huge mortgage commitments and who get to chase these same people for the remaining debt even after they have repossessed the property and in many cases sold it on at a knock-down price. There is no strong incentive for the banks to try and get value for money out of the property if they know they can continue to pursue the mortgage holder.

The government and the opposition Partido Popular have both come out in clear opposition to the idea that those who can't pay their mortgage can hand back the keys to the bank and clear the debt by doing so. Neither party is comfortable with any idea that involves doing something that the banks don't want to contemplate. It's just not enough that we all assume the debts of the banks. Some recent concessions on the amount of a person's salary that the banks can seize as part of the eternal mortgage recovery process were a nod in the direction of 15-M, but the movement will continue to highlight the cases of thousands of people being removed from their homes with no evident alternative and with only a debt to the banks to take with them. The victims of the crisis are no longer hidden from sight, and ever heavier policing is unlikely to solve that problem.