Monday, April 30, 2007

Here in Spain, we bag our rubbish daily and drop it in central containers which are emptied in the early hours of virtually every night of the year. Over in the UK, collections are made from outside individual houses or flats. These have long been merely weekly but central/local government is now threatening to make them two-weekly. As happens these days in Britain, this deterioration in service has been accompanied by a lot of guff about responsibility to the planet and – even more inevitably – by a determined attempt to levy an additional ‘green’ tax or two. It’s remarkable this has become a national issue but, in today’s Daily Telegraph Janet Daley suggests this is because it’s “a totemic symbol of the Great Public Services Scam in which you are consistently charged more and more for less and less. Because the efficient removal of household waste should be the most minimal expectation of a competent society. And because it is one more facet of the political tendency to make people feel guilty for things over which they have no control (in this case, the amount of superfluous packaging they must dispose of) and to use this putative guilt as a ruse for raising tax revenue through additional charges. Rubbish is, in other words, the final straw: it is the ultimate outrage which captures the essence of what people feel to be wrong about the way they are governed”. The same newspaper also reports the abysmally low regard in which Tony Blair and his government are now held. Is it any wonder?

Yesterday’s El Mundo didn’t contain its usual ad for an expensive but useless product to help you slim or improve your sex life. Or both. But it did run an ad for the current edition of the magazine, OKS. This has presumably been financed by Spain’s booming cosmetic surgery industry as its front page features Ana Obregón claiming that having her breasts done is the best decision she’s ever made. La Obregón is one of those Spanish blonde[?] beauties[?] whose fame is in inverse proportion to her talent. And whose facial skin looks like that of a 12 year old. I can’t speak for her breasts. Possibly they are now quite capable of speaking for themselves. Shouting, even.


Here’s the compilation I threatened yesterday, on The EU. For political and economic reasons, the Spanish are understandably fond of this institution. So what follows will not please many of them. But it might strike a chord with others. Personally, I was quite amused re-reading my caustic views on the EU Constitution developments in 2005. I apologise to those readers who feel some of these comments should have appeared under a different heading. Doubly so where they already have . . .


2003/4


Who won at the recent EU summit? According to the UK’s Daily Telegraph, Tony Blair gave way in a number of his ‘red line’ areas. Whereas El Mundo here tagged him the big winner as he went home with everything. A game of two halves, it would seem. Or different stadiums, even.


The UK also fares badly in the EU fraud stakes. According to the Audit Office only a piffling 6% of Britain’s agricultural claims were found to be false in 2003, whereas Italy managed something like 23% and Spain 21%. Some pathetic Scandinavian countries could barely achieve 1%. Unimaginative Calvinists, obviously.


This week Spain celebrates its return to democracy in the late 70s. So it’s fitting that El Mundo today reported that 75% of Spaniards are against Catalunia being given ‘separate nation’ status via any reform of the Constitution which enshrines this democracy. Less comforting for the government was the finding that only about 40% of the population is likely to take part in the upcoming referendum on the EU Constitution. Even if 90% of these vote in favour, this will scarcely amount to a ringing endorsement by the first country in Europe allowed to take a view on it. Brussels must be even more disappointed. Not that this will change anything since – ask Austria – the will of the people counts for little against politicians with grand designs and little, if any, accountability.


The Spanish President, Mr Zapatero [Shoemaker] has made much of a desire to take Spain back to the heart of ‘Old Europe’. We now know what this means; Spain will support the softening of the Stability pact which France and German have made a habit of ignoring. And, in return, these two stalwarts will ensure that Spain suffers less than it should from the accession of new members who want to get into the EU trough. As the biggest beneficiary of German, British and Dutch taxpayers’ largesse, this is important to Spain. So, business as usual.


2005


Spain’s referendum on the EU Constitution is on 20th February. As Spain has been the biggest beneficiary from Brussells’ largesse, it’s hardly surprising that there’s no opposition whatsoever to the proposal. And to say that there’s no debate raging in the media would be an understatement of traditional British proportions. For one thing, the Spanish have a way with rules and laws which they find inconvenient.


As for said referendum on the EU constitution, the government has announced the star team that will promote a Yes vote in all the media. This consists of reporters, footballers, actors and just one ‘intellectual’. Yes, it’s true – in Spain reporters have a status even higher than that of footballers and actors. This is because there’s no real tabloid press here. As for the No team, well there isn’t one. The impression one gets is that no one in Spain believes there is anything at all wrong with the EU. Except the proposed ‘draconian changes’ that will have the effect of pushing Spain’s snout out of the trough a little bit, in favour of the poor new entrants.

The government kicked off its pro-EU Constitution campaign by distributing a laudatory leaflet at yesterday’s Madrid derby football match. Most of the fans apparently thought it was something to do with the proposed Basque referendum on secession from Spain.


I regularly wonder how the Spanish economy can continue to boom when levels of efficiency are low by international standards. The answer perhaps came in an article today, which reported that, whilst the domestic market [fuelled by Brussels handouts?] continues to thrive, exports don’t. EU largesse is destined to reduce from 2007 so I guess we can party for a while yet.


At the other end of the age scale, the Youth Council has distributed thousands of cans of an energy drink called Referendum Plus. The apparent purpose of this is to persuade young people to get out and show their support for the EU Constitution in next month’s referendum. As I’ve said, if there’s any opposition to this, it’s invisible. The only question is whether the turnout will be merely embarrassingly low or laughably low. Hence the expenditure of taxpayers’ money on schemes such as this one.


To point up the lack of dialogue around the EU Constitution, the government here has criticised the opposition for being insufficiently supportive of the document. If you thought this might amount to a suggestion that the opposition was damning it with faint praise, think again. But what would you expect from a party which campaigned at the last election on the theme ‘We Love Europe”? It’s all a universe away from the UK.


Same document – different prism. A member of the government has recommend support for the EU Constitution on the grounds that it embodies all fundamental socialist principles. Meanwhile, a Catalunian politician has demanded rejection as it not only enshrines atavistic, Anglo-Saxon capitalist dogma but will also render Catalunia invisible. All this raises two suspicions – firstly, that no one has ever read the document; and, secondly, that you can make it mean whatever you like. For his part, the President has castigated the opposition party for being insufficiently fulsome in its support of a Yes vote. Now, there’s real criticism for you.


We’re now being regaled by glossy TV messages from all the political parties telling us to vote Yes in the imminent referendum on the EU Constitution. These are shown one after the other in a truly mind-numbing sequence that should do nothing for the turnout. There is, to be honest, a contribution at the end suggesting that we vote No but, as this is entirely in Catalan, its effect is likely to be minimal. A poll in today’s papers suggests that 67% of Spaniards are not remotely concerned either way with the result and that only 3% will be upset if it goes against their preference. One can see why the government might be worried that the turnout will be embarrassingly low. The truth is that almost everyone in Spain loves the EU for the money it has poured into the country but no one feels much inclined to demonstrate any gratitude. Only annoyance that the Eastern European countries will soon have their [bigger] snouts in the trough.


The Presidents of Spain, France, Italy and Germany met yesterday to give a boost to next week’s Spanish referendum on the EU Constitution. Or, rather, they didn’t as the last two cried off because of ‘a cold’. Strangely enough, this didn’t prevent the German President [alright, Chancellor] from appearing at a domestic event. Meanwhile, matters in Spain have reached the point where some EU body has decided that the government has overstepped the mark in spending taxpayers’ money to persuade them to vote Yes. As if this will change anything. And today there was a complaint from one of the minor parties that an encouragement to vote was even appearing on the national lottery tickets. Desperate times, desperate measures.


A cartoon in El Mundo summed up the EU referendum ambience – a young woman holding a copy of the Constitution is saying that Sunday will be a day of great emotion for Spain. Yes, says her male companion, thanks so some technical problem most of the bars won’t be able to show the big football match on TV.


As for the referendum itself, I see that I have been less than brave in forecasting a turnout of less than 40%; some are predicting around 20. And this in a country where you’d be hard pushed to find anyone to say anything negative about the EU – an institution wedded, in Spanish minds, to democracy and rapid economic growth. The only [mildly] interesting aspect of the campaign has been the attempts by the government to persuade people to vote but, if they do, not to vote NO as a punishment for its domestic policies. Vamos a ver.


President Chirac of France has declared the Spanish EU referendum a ‘magnificent triumph’. As less than one in 3 Spaniards bothered to register their Yes vote, one wonders what flights of fancy would have been provoked by something better than the lowest turn-out in a national election.


It’s a little late now but what I should have written on the eve of the EU referendum result was The Spanish Ayes Have It. Or perhaps Chirac bedazzled by Those Spanish Ayes. Or possibly neither.


The Spanish government has rejected the long term EU budget on the grounds that it’s unacceptable [to them at least] that Spain should become a net contributor to EU funds by 2013. Who said the Spanish are averse to forward planning? One wonders when they think it would be fair for the increasingly wealthy Spanish to stop being the biggest takers from the Brussels coffers and start giving something back.


Spanish productivity is forecast to grow by 0.9% this year, the lowest rate in Europe after Malta’s. Even so, this is 50% higher than the rate of the last two years. This must be profoundly worrying for the government. And it probably helps to explain why they’re fighting tooth and nail to keep Spain’s EU subsidies for as long as they can. Which will probably make the problem even worse in the long run. But which politician ever worried about the long term?


The EU has said it will do its own investigation into allegations of widespread corruption on the part of the previous Catalunian government. This has led some prominent politicians to label their whistle-blowing colleague irresponsible for bringing this out into the open just when Spain is negotiating retention of its munificent EU subsidies. What a thoughtless, unprincipled cad.


Since it joined the EU in the mid 80s, Spain has proved the most successful of all members in negotiating grants and subventions. So I guess it shouldn’t come as a surprise to hear that the EU Commission has accepted that the run-down of these should be delayed for two years. God knows what they’d have done if economic growth hadn’t been steaming away at 4% a year.


The Spanish President, Mr ‘Bambi’ Zapatero, has said that he will address the final rally of the No faction, just before next month’s French referendum on the EU Constitution. The French being harangued by the Spanish? That should do the trick. One way or another.


Mr Zapatero is finding out the hard way that anti-American rhetoric and unsolicited protestations of love for Old Europe don’t necessarily butter any Franco-German parsnips. Led by France and Germany, a group of five EU countries has quashed the Commission’s acceptance of the case for decelerating the run-down of Spain’s enormous grants. Tough talking ahead, then. Subject to there not being bigger things to worry about after the French referendum in May.


You may or may not know that today was the Feast of the Holy EU. A flier in my newspaper advised that – as well as an anthem, a flag, a currency and one or two other things, the EU now has this fiesta day in commemoration of the Schuman Declaration of 9 May 1950. I suppose we can look forward to a EU Catechism next year.


In an editorial yesterday, El Pais noted that, whereas the EU couldn’t continue without
France, the “British people need to know that it certainly could survive without the UK”. I think this may have something to do with Britain’s [partial] rebate from Brussels, which El Pais has somehow convinced itself is damaging to Spain, the EU’s largest beneficiary. Whatever, it sounds like an invitation to me.


One of the major accountancy firms has announced that, when you adjust average disposable income for the cost of living, the Swedes are the poorest in Europe. And the Spanish are the richest. So… the lion’s share of EU funds goes to the country with the richest inhabitants. No wonder we have such good roads. And just as the [apparently] wealthier countries are demanding that they pay less into the EU coffers for the future benefit of the likes of Spain, the government here has admitted that economic growth was higher than previously reported because the black market was understated. Meaning Spain wasn’t entitled to everything it got. So, what odds on some of it being given back?


Well, The Battle of the EU Trough is warming up and getting personal. Britain has refused to countenance a reduction in its rebate and said it ill behoves Spain to demand a postponement of the agreed cuts in its grants when it hasn’t paid a single penny into the EU coffers in 25 years. France, Germany and 4 other countries insist on reducing their payments into the till and show no sympathy whatsoever for Spain’s claim that its economy will be hard hit by these reductions


There was a wonderfully vitriolic article in El Mundo today by a director of a Spanish think tank. Addressing the looming French referendum, he heaped scorn on everyone in sight – Chirac for protecting ETA terrorists for 2 decades; Giscard d’Estaing for being, well, an arrogant bastard with the blood of thousands on his hands; France and Germany for not supporting an easing of the reductions in Spain’s EU grants; Brussels for being an undemocratic hotbed of corruption; Zapatero for naively presiding over both the break up of the Spanish state and the resurgence of a crushed ETA; and a few others I can’t recall. His basic conclusion what that it would be an unmitigated blessing for Spain if France and Holland said No to the constitution. This is because Spain has a stronger negotiating capability under the Treaty of Nice, which would continue to guide EU processes and procedures. Plus funds might not then flow to the East for the new members. One is used to seeing this stuff in British papers, of course, but never here, where the impression is given that criticism of the EU is a mortal sin. But I believe I’m on record as saying that things would surely change once the money stopped flowing this way. Or even before, it seems.


For those in search of irony, the struggles over the EU constitution are fertile ground. The French populace believes it enshrines 19th century capitalism [‘ultraliberalism’] which will destroy the comfortable, self-important way of life they’ve enjoyed for decades at everyone else’s expense. Ditto the Spanish, at least from a purely economic point of view. The British, however, see the 400-odd page document as an attempt to foist discredited French dirigisme on the successful Anglo-Saxon socio-economic model. They can’t possibly all be right, of course, and may all be wrong. But most amusing of all, the British eurosceptics are praying that the French don’t say No next Sunday and hole the project below the waterline; for they fear this will allow Tony Blair to wriggle out of his commitment to a UK referendum which they’re confident of winning. On a local scale, the French No camp is said to be delirious that President Chirac will appear on TV to make a last minute appeal to the French to do what their betters have instructed them to do; such is his unpopularity, on each of the previous 3 occasions he’s done this their support has then leapt upwards. What fun. My prediction – the French will narrowly say Yes and the Dutch will say No. But then I thought Liverpool were dead and buried at half time in last night’s match and told Andrew we might as well leave the bar in which we were watching it. And then I left after extra time rather than see Liverpool lose the penalty shoot-out.


So, another impressive forecasting failure on my part, this time in predicting a narrow success for the Yes vote in the French EU referendum. Mind you, I can't feel as bad as President Chirac about this; on TV this morning, he had the look of a startled turkey about him. And now we await developments, as both Paris and Brussels struggle with the new problem of a disobedient electorate in a major member. First signs are that President Chirac is pushing Prime Minister Raffarin in the general direction of an upturned sword.


Intriguing to see the early fallout from the French and Dutch referendums. The Spanish President and the leader of the opposition share the objective of maintaining the funds flow from Brussels but are poles apart as to strategy. The former has nailed his colours firmly to the mast of the Franco-German axis [unfortunate term] and demanded that the ratification process continues regardless. The latter, on the other hand, has said Old Europe’s day is done and Spain should ally with what is now being called the UK-Poland axis. Vamos a ver. Interesting times ahead. I just hope I don’t get caught with Spanish euros if and when the EU currency implodes into its constituent parts.


Meanwhile, the Dutch Prime Minister, bless him, has said that the big positives from the experience were the robust national debate and the high turnout. Not here, mate. In the country which is the greatest beneficiary from the EU’s coffers, the No camp abjectly failed to put in an appearance of any sort and precious few bothered to register a vote. No coincidence, I suppose, but it has all clearly gone to Mr Zapatero’s head and he has departed from Planet Reality. Why, even President Chirac has endorsed Tony Blair’s disingenuous call for a period of reflection. On how to stay in office and out of prison in his case, of course.


Back to the EU – some astute commentator has said that the French have actually moved beyond the eurosceptic Brits and become euronihilistic. Who would have thought it? Well, me for a start. And the French chap who wrote a year or so ago that, once it dawned on the French they could no longer run the EU entirely for their own benefit, they would pick up their bat and leave the pitch.


A remarkable effect of the French and Dutch No decisions is that it’s suddenly fashionable, even in Spain, to make the sort of eurosceptical comments that have been dismissed for years as British nonsense. There can surely be no clearer sign that the EU superstate dream is effectively dead, though it may a while for the Euro-elite to fully grasp this. Meanwhile, one article in the Spanish press this week bemoaned the fact that none of the leaders of the larger members was fit to lead Europe out of this crisis. So, step forward Mr ‘Bambi’ Zapatero, it suggested. On second thoughts, this must be an even clearer sign that that the EU is moribund.


A reader has introduced me to the Spanish dictum ‘Try to live off your parents until you can live off your children’. This is a joke, I think, but with more than a grain of truth in it. So you can imagine how willing the Spanish have been to seek grants from the EU structural funds and how hard they are going to fight to retain them. One angry view gaining ground here is that Spain will be financing the eastwards expansion of the EU by gradually losing these cash allocations. As it won’t actually be contributing a single centimo from its own national coffers, I suspect this is the reverse of my sister’s view that you can increase your cash by buying products with huge discounts.


Has anyone else noticed how ironic it is that Messrs Chirac and Schroeder - the very men who tore up their own EU Stability Pact when it didn’t suit them – should now be telling the rest of Europe that rules count and the show must go on as if nothing had happened in France and Holland?


Talking of out-of-touch politicians, you have to hand it to President Chirac. There he is, the discredited [and possibly criminal] head of a faltering economy and one of the chief engineers of the destruction of the EU Stability Pact and yet he is calling on Tony Blair to make ‘a [financial] gesture of solidarity towards the European Union, while adamantly refusing himself to accept even a centime’s cut in the agricultural bonanza which flows to France under the egregious CAP. What panache!


The UK Sunday Telegraph suggested yesterday that all the European media had fallen for President Chirac’s blatant [and successful] attempt to distract attention from the impact on the EU of the French No by making the British rebate the centrepiece of the imminent summit. This is rather unfair to Spain. Since the quality press here devotes far more space to serious issues than in Britain, they usually present both sides of a case. They have certainly reported the British view that, although the original logic for the rebate remains in place, there’s a case for reviewing it in the context of wider-ranging reform of the EU’s finances. I rather get the impression that no one here is in much doubt that this spat is a proxy for the real battle between France and Britain for the economic soul of the EU over the next decade or two.

Meanwhile, the French Foreign Minister has said that the British stance ‘defies logic’. This won’t come as a surprise to anyone with any experience of Gallic logic but I suppose she might be right, if by ‘French logic’ she means that the EU always has been and should remain a vehicle for subsidising a high quality of life in France via transfers from Germany, the UK and Holland. Under this version of logic, the UK has paid 2.5 times more than France into the EU coffers over the last 20 years and would have paid 7 times more without the annual rebate. One can see why it has a certain appeal for the French.

As for Spanish logic - this is that the UK rebate ‘costs’ them 700m euros a year. What this means is that they get 700m less than they believe they deserve, not that they actually pay 700m more into the central coffers. Or, indeed, anything. Different from French logic but just as appealing.

Very subjective, this logic thing.


A Spanish friend and I have been corresponding on the issue of the work/life balance. I’ve had no difficulty in agreeing that the Spanish model is superior to the Anglo-Saxon version but have made the point that things can’t go on forever when someone else is paying for your high quality of life. The genius of the French founders of the EU was to get others to subvent their country’s lifestyle. But the British have never been as willing as the guilt-ridden Germans to featherbed French farmers and this is what the current EU row is really all about. With the German economy now in serious trouble and with the current generation of Germans feeling rather less guilt than their parents/grandparents, the days of the French boondoggle are surely numbered. No wonder Chirac is fighting such a tough rearguard action, especially as he’s desperate to create some goodwill in his own backyard, if only to stay in power and out of prison.


As for the Spanish boondoggle, well the government has taken advantage of the current crisis in the EU to reopen the issue of when Spain’s funds will begin to run down and to demand a delay of 4 years, from 2008 to 2012. Cancellation of the British rebate [or el cheque britanico as it’s called here] would certainly help to finance this.


Interesting to see the Spanish papers didn’t blame just Britain for the acrimonious collapse of the EU budgetary summit. One paper also pointed the finger at Sweden, Finland and Holland; and another even added Spain to the list, on the grounds that the President has stood firm on his demand for a 4 year delay in the run-down of grants. The most eloquent comment, though, was in the form of a cartoon which showed Captain America knocking an enemy to the floor and Captain Europe punching himself in the face.


Meanwhile, recriminations rumble on around the aborted EU summit. The Spanish media sees Tony Blair as the – possibly Pyrrhic – victor but also think it was clever of the Spanish President, Mr ‘Bambi’ Zapatero, to keep his powder dry so that he can join whichever camp eventually emerges victorious from what I’ve called the battle for the economic soul of the EU. Apart from the many examples of the mathematics of the madhouse, what fascinates me is the way nations distinguish between themselves and others. So, whereas Spain ‘justifiably’ held out for a delay in the rundown of its enormous grants, Britain and France succumbed to ‘destructive egoism’ in refusing to countenance increased contributions.


Perhaps the most depressing aspect is that, humiliated both by his own voters and Tony Blair, President Chirac will now spend the next 6 months undermining Britain’s stewardship of the EU asylum. I wonder what the French is for ‘pique’. Can anyone imagine a real political entity being run like this?


Quote of the Week:I really believe the French and the Dutch did not vote No to the constitutional treaty. - Luxembourg's premier Jean-Claude Juncker, outgoing President of the EU.


The French have just been heavily fined by the EU for continuing to catch small fish despite a ban dating back 13 years. It was the biggest fine in the history of the EU. So God only knows what the Spanish are in for when the EU gets round to them.


The French President yesterday confirmed he wants France to again be great, under the umbrella of the European superstate he says he’s always dreamed of. On the same day, the French government announced it’s going to stop foreigners taking over what it considers to be companies in vital national industries. The Spanish press has pointed up the ‘flagrant illegality’ of this, set against to backcloth of government assistance to French companies [such as France Telecom] wanting to take over Spanish companies [such as Amena]. Brussels has pronounced sternly that it ‘trusts that the French government will comply with EU law’. And that flying lessons will shortly be compulsory for all EU pigs. Plus ça change….


Of course, it’s all very ironic that the Spanish are at the same time both lovers of their patria chica as well as the most positive people in Europe about the EU superstate. But, as I’ve said, this will all change when the goose stops laying golden eggs in the Spanish coop.


Given that one of Spain’s greatest joys is its uncrowded motorways, I was astonished to read today the country has the lowest ‘spare’ road capacity in Western Europe and faces gridlock within 10 years unless there’s massively increased investment in tarmac. My guess is this is either a reference to roads other than motorways or a bargaining ploy for more EU funds.


Average inflation in the EU reached 2.6%pa at the end of September. The most you can get on your money in Euroland is 1.6% which is OK if you live in Finland or Sweden [1.1%] but less than enticing in Spain [close to 4%] and a bad joke of you live in Latvia [7.4%]. ‘Structural irregularities’ – e.g. an overheated property market – are the inevitable result of this attempt to make one size fit all.


Today Mr Zapatero tried to persuade his EU colleagues that the borders between its African enclaves and Morocco are really those of Europe and not just Spain. I suspect he had a hard time. The argument that these aren’t really colonies but part of Spain possibly played less well at the summit than it does in Spain. But you can’t blame him for trying; the number of illegal immigrants coming into Spain exceeds those entering Germany, France and the UK put together. Only Italy comes close.

A second demand, this time at the Budget-fest in November, will be that Spain continues to receive EU funds for another 8 years. This is despite [because of?] the fact the Spanish economy is growing at almost 3 times that of Germany and France.


Well, Mr Zapatero came away from the summit with a commitment to double the budget for immigration measures. More likely ‘anti-immigration’ measures, I suspect. Mr Blair, meanwhile, came away with less than nothing. Or, to put it how the UK Daily Telegraph did this morning in a headline which probably didn’t appear in French papers - ‘Chirac wrecks summit’. In fact, not content with this, the French president promised to do the same at the November budget meeting, if anyone threatens the sacred cow of the ruinously expensive Common Agricultural Policy. On this, he can surely rely on the support of Spain, the second largest beneficiary after France. I wonder how long it will be before Mr Blair accepts there’s no Third Way in Europe, just naked national interest.


The Spanish press says the British government has tabled proposals for the imminent EU budget summit that don’t even mention contentious issues such as the British rebate, ‘the Spanish problem’ or Chirac’s threat to veto any change whatsoever to the CAP. But, then, Mr Blair possibly has other things on his mind at the moment. Like his survival, for one thing. ‘The Spanish problem’, by the way, is the call to rescind an earlier agreement that their grants/subventions would start reducing from 2006.


It’s funny how the fight for EU funds can change perspective. Galician politicians think its unforgivable of the British to want to cling to the rule that gives them a rebate, whilst loudly demanding that the rules be changed to ensure continuance of subventions to Spain. They accuse Mr Blair of destroying the cohesion of the EU but seem to have no qualms about endorsing changes in the relationship between Madrid and the regions which might just destroy domestic cohesion. Strange business, politics.


The ‘modernising’ socialist Spanish government is holding a conference for the presidents of all the country’s 17 regions [‘autonomous communities’]. The agenda includes the financing of the communities, amplification of the powers of their governments and [yes!] their participation in the EU. At the same time, the central government is presiding over a debate on the construction of the Senate. So, if you are a community president, these are exciting times - which possibly explains why one of them had a heart attack last night. But one can’t help wondering whether the lid has been taken off Pandora’s box. Will the Spanish government really have any rationale for its existence once its power has been lost to Brussels on one hand and to the regions on the other? Or will it be the first country in the world to have both a constitutional monarchy and a constitutional executive?


There is a Europe-wide consensus that the EU finances Britain, something which is very far from the truth. This results from the regular prominence given by the French to the British rebate – or El cheque britannico, in Spanish. For my Spanish readers [and others] who share this view, here are a few facts to chew on…

- The ruinously expensive Common Agricultural Policy was negotiated between France and Germany in the 60s. Because the CAP would be particularly bad for the British, they were kept out of the negotiations by the French. The latter, of course, ended up as the main beneficiaries of the CAP.

- When the French veto was eventually lifted in the 70s and Britain was allowed to join the EU, they took a gamble on the genuineness of a French promise they’d be compensated for the CAP via regional funds. The gamble was lost and the funds never materialised.

- So, in the 80s Margaret Thatcher negotiated the annual rebate in place of this failed French promise.

- In 2002, France [Chirac] and Germany [Schroeder] agreed to maintain CAP spending levels until 2013. They did this without consulting any of their ‘partners’ in the EU.

- Over the 30 years since Britain joined the EU, it has paid [despite the rebate] a net €64bn. This is more than twice as much as France.

- In the middle of this year, in an attempt to recover from the disastrous French referendum on the EU Constitution, Chirac again raised the smokescreen of the British rebate. But he was outsmarted by Blair [not a man I usually admire], who expressed a willingness to negotiate the rebate provided something was done about the CAP and its disastrous consequences for everyone except France and [more recently] Spain, Portugal and Greece.

But all this is history. What we now face is a pitched budgetary battle between the northern European countries, fed up of subsidising their ‘partners’, and the southern and eastern members who benefit from the CAP. In this context, France is far more southern than northern. The decisive contribution will come from Germany, whose new government will surely prove less willing to prop up a France that looks increasingly like a country which is imploding after years of high living at the expense of other countries. Or maybe they will want to subsidise France, fearing the spread of revolution from their decaying neighbour.

Whatever, the EU budget for 2007-2113 must be concluded by mid 2006. So, it’s handbags at dawn, ladies.

Meanwhile, the EU Audit Commission yesterday declined to approve the EU’s annual accounts. For the 11th year in a row. You couldn’t make it up, could you?


The opposition party has accused the President of having a secret meeting with the head of the EU Commission so as to agree Spain will soften its grant demands in the imminent budgetary bun fight. The quid pro quo, it’s claimed, is a decision by Brussels to stay out of a Spanish takeover battle in the utilities area. Strangely, this also involves a Catalan organisation. I suspect there’s not a lot of hard evidence for this accusation but one can hardly blame the Spanish for being major conspiracy thinkers when they’re constantly hearing of such deals as that mentioned in the previous paragraph. Especially when the government seems to be in hock to the Catalan coalition whose support was critical for them in the last elections.


As I’ve said, the issue of the British EU rebate is never presented on the Continent in its full light and the picture invariably painted is that of the EU financing Britain, rather than the other way round. That said, truth is of little value when all your 24 colleagues are against you and not averse to whipping up their electorates with partial and self-serving propaganda. So it will be very interesting to see if Mr Blair can get himself out of the corner into which Mrs Thatcher and Mr Brown have painted him.


And talking of the EU, evidence has now emerged that the initial view taken by the Commission of the proposed utilities takeover in Spain was that it had international ramifications and couldn’t be left to the Spanish government to adjudicate. So maybe Mr Zapatero did do a deal with the President of the Commission when he came to Spain last week to ‘take his son to see the Real Madrid-Barcelona game’.


Spain has decided to ignore US protests and sell armaments to the Venezuelan dictator, Chavez. The Minister for Foreign Affairs, playing the popular anti-American card, says the only relevant factor is Spain’s economic interest. Funny, but when Tony Blair defends the cheque británico for, one assumes, similar reasons, the same minister accuses him of selfishly ignoring EU solidarity. But then circumstances always change principles. At least if you’re a politician they do.


The Basque terrorist group, ETA, may or may not be on its last legs. But it’s still holding out against demands it abandons its weapons and enters the democratic process. However, its latest wheeze is a proposal that the EU intervenes and initiates discussion of the future of the Basque regions of both Spain and France, along with nearby Catalunia. Presumably the hope is that new, independent entities emerge from this process. I rather doubt this is what the founding fathers of the European Community had in mind. Naturally, Brussels has said it’s having none of it. As, indeed, has Catalunia. I guess the latter have enough problems of their own these days without being tarred with the ETA brand image. I haven’t read anything about the French response but it’s not hard to imagine.


In an incident which I can’t imagine happening in Spain, a UK milling company has been instructed by a court to install heating in its outside loading area as a Health and Safety inspector felt the lack of it contravened EU regulations. This was despite the fact the company’s offices were all heated to the required levels.


You might think the bickering 25 members of the EU have enough on their plate without getting involved in even larger negotiations. But, no, they’ve all been meeting along with 10 other countries in a Mediterranean Summit in Barcelona. I suppose, if the Catalunian government had had their way, this would have been 11. Anyway, they were there to discuss the challenges of immigration and terrorism and they finally decided they were all against the latter. Or they would be, if they could only agree on a definition. You can tell just how a big a failure the event was from the conviction with which Mr Blair insisted it had been a huge success. I wonder if that man would now recognise reality if it jumped up and hit him in the face with a wet kipper.


Perspective and principles. El Pais today opined that, if Tony Blair succeeds in his attempts to reduce the EU budget and preserve most of the chequeo británico, this will be to the detriment of the ‘strengthening, cohesion and internal solidarity’ of the EU. In contrast, Spain’s attempts to reverse previous agreements to reduce from 2006 the subsidies flowing this way will, it seems, only redound to the eternal benefit of the EU. What really seemed to upset the leader writer of El Pais was the prospect that, unless Mr Zapatero gets tough, Spain could become a net contributor to the EU budget by 2013, a mere 35 years after first getting access to the trough. God forbid.


Mr Blair and his EU budget proposals continue to get a very bad press here in Spain but it’s warming to see one of two commentators saying it’s time Spain recognised it no longer deserves handouts from other countries and, in the interests of a larger, stronger Europe, should move gracefully to the status of a net contributor. Maybe so but I can’t see Mr Zapatero taking this line.


Can anything be more illustrative of EU madness than the name under which Macedonia now goes – ‘The ex Yugoslavian Republic of Macedonia’? Whatever it’s called, it seems that France is about to veto its membership of the club, in a knee-jerk reaction to its failed referendum on the EU Constitution. Hardly worth becoming independent.


Mr Blair’s latest proposal for the EU budget secures Spain’s subventions until 2014. Suddenly the media here seems full of articles admitting Blair is not really the Devil incarnate and suggesting France is now isolated and heading for defeat. And the finger of blame for obstruction is now being pointed at Poland. Perhaps this because they’re about to take over from Spain as the biggest beneficiary of Brussels’ largesse.


The Spanish press seems well-satisfied with what Spain got from the EU budget negotiations. These include the continued status of net beneficiary until after 2013 and a new fund just for Spain. But the formulae being as arcane as they are, the opposition party is able to argue the talks were a complete failure for the President as ‘Spain will ‘unfairly finance 25% of the EU expansion’. There seems to be a widespread view that every country conceded something in order to achieve a compromise but, for the life of me, I can’t figure out France gave beyond a vague promise to have talks in 2008, after Chirac has departed the scene. Maybe they withdrew some outlandish demand that was never going to be met. Perhaps that Tony Blair be hung, drawn and quartered. Talking of Chirac, he seems to have offended Spanish sensibilities by ditching his alliance with Spain in favour of one with Germany only 24 hours after forming it. What on earth did they expect?


Just in case you were still wondering, the general view in Spain is that what she got from the EU budget fight was better than anything previously forecasted or expected. The opposition, on the other hand, is still trying to convince us the outcome was ‘worse for Spain than the battle of Trafalgar or the Cuban War with the USA.’ The former saw the destruction of the entire Spanish fleet and the latter the loss of Spain’s last colony. Frankly, I think they’re urinating against the wind.


The German Chancellor, Mrs Merkel, says she wants to increase the powers of the central
government at the expense of those of the regions. Spain, of course, is trending in the opposite direction. I guess the aim of both governments is to make their countries stronger and more efficient. The difference, perhaps, is that Germany is a net contributor to the EU and has a sluggish economy that needs to be revitalised. Spain, on the other hand, has a booming economy, benefits from a bank rate which is inappropriately low relative to its economic fundamentals and [for reasons beyond me] will be a net beneficiary of EU funds until 2014. So I guess there’s a stronger case [or, at least, opportunity] here for playing constitutional games that could well render Spain even less able to compete with, say, China and India. Time will surely tell and it will be interesting to see where the two countries are – especially their economic rankings – in 10 and 20 years’ time. Meanwhile, the great irony is it’s largely unhappy German taxpayers who are funding the grants to happy Spain. Not to mention the Dutch and those dastardly British who won’t give up their rebate.


2006


Brussels has told Spain to stop being nasty to non-resident foreigners who have a taxable income here. This includes those taxed on the notional rental value of their holiday home. In contrast to Spanish residents, these pay a [much higher] flat 25% but this turns out to be illegal under EU rules against differential treatment of EU citizens. I’m sure the Spanish government will desist from penalising foreigners in this way but probably around the same time the country shifts wholesale to European working and eating hours. All tax authorities love such soft touches as ‘rich’ people who are not in a position to take effective action against inequity.


Surprising Quote of the Week: The USA, which did not sign up to the Kyoto Treaty, has actually reduced its emissions since then. The EU, which did sign up, has increased them.
‘Prospect’, a left-of-centre British magazine.


Well, the Spanish government decided to go the whole hog to prevent the takeover of Endesa by the German utilities giant, Eon. Not only have they introduced measures to reduce the profitability of Spanish companies [to lessen their attraction] but, by Royal Decree, have changed the remit of the relevant monitoring body so as to give it the power to judge transnational mergers. The EU has pronounced this illegal and said ‘measures will be taken’ if Spain continues along the path towards the ‘protectionism of the 1930s’. But this is not a country where much notice is taken of laws which are personally inconvenient, so this threat is unlikely to butter many parsnips, even if Spain has been the greatest beneficiary todate of EU largesse. Unsurprisingly, the initial reply has been that what is sauce for the French and German goose is also sauce for the Spanish gander. It will be interesting to see whether the British government joins the throng and starts barring the acquisition of UK companies, freely permitted in the past. To ‘level the playing field’, of course.


The EU is taking legal action against Telefonica for abusing its position as monopoly supplier of ADSL connections. Couldn’t happen to a nicer company. If anything does.


What an empty partnership the EU really is. While the Commission whinges but stands idly by, the French government announces a list of 12 strategic industries which it won’t even let its close politically ally, Germany, buy into. And the Spanish government plays protectionist leapfrog that makes a mockery of the ‘single market’ goal which was the fundamental basis of the whole enterprise more than 50 years ago.


So the EU ban on importing beef from Britain has now been lifted in full. I wonder if France will take any more notice of this than she did of the 1999 partial lifting. Or whether the EU Commission will, this time, fine them if they don’t. As if.


So the EU Commission is demanding that France and Spain stop being nationalistic about their energy companies and participate in the development of a Common Energy Policy. Well, far be it for me to take the side of France in this spat but, when you consider the consequences of the Common Agricultural and Common Fish Policies, you begin to feel a twinge of sympathy. Perhaps the best answer is just to stop the French buying British companies. What is French for ‘gander’?


Yesterday’s headline was that France and Spain would combine to defend their national companies against the EU Commission’s demand for a free energy market. Today’s was that France and Spain would unite to defend the execrable Common Agricultural Policy that benefits them both so much. The odd thing about this is that the Spanish government is left-of-centre, whereas the French government is to the right. This may tell us a lot about the country’s problems.


Carving a leg of lamb roasted by my mother on Sunday, I noticed it was missing not just the knuckle but also the wonderfully tender piece of meat that used to be just alongside or below it. As this was always my [self-bestowed] reward for carving, I asked my mother why it wasn't there. 'EU regulations!' she said. Can this really be true? If so, it's surely high time to quit the doomed enterprise.


It’s emerged the Strasbourg council has overcharged the EU to the tune of hundreds of millions of euros for the buildings rented to if for the monthly sessions that take place there. Since these involve the wholesale, massively expensive transfer of the entire Commission and hangers-on from Brussels to this Alsace city, this is piling madness upon madness. One is tempted to say it can’t possibly go on. But, of course, it will.


A Europe-wide survey shows reveals the Spanish to be amongst the least ‘Community minded’ citizens of the EU. Well, no one worries about a golden goose until it dies, do they?


From 2007, Spain will lose its number one position at the EU trough to Poland but, notwithstanding its recent economic growth and apparent widespread wealth, it will remain in the second position until at least 2013. That other poor country, Italy, is at no. 3 and Germany ranks no. 5. And it’s not pennies we’re talking about. It must make sense to someone.


The Spanish Automobile Association is going to the courts for a ruling that the imminent points-based licence system conflicts with EU regulations. So does much of Spanish life but this usually doesn’t make any difference.


Spanish wine growers say they’re not at all happy with EU proposals to pay them to uproot their vines. This policy is, of course, a reflection of the fact there’s too much expensive French wine lying around and the producers there would rather be paid for doing nothing than lower their prices. Spanish growers, though, would prefer to maintain their strategy of improving both productivity and the quality of their wines for sale at competitive world prices. But this is a nonsensically over-commercial idea for Brussels.


If, like me, you’d wondered how come Spanish companies were making so much money they could afford to buy up major British banks, phone companies and airport operators, here’s the explanation - the Spanish government has effectively been giving them 25% of the purchase price. This, of course, is illegal under EU regulations but, astonishingly, Brussels has given Spain until 2010 to cut it out. So I guess we can expect a few more takeovers.


Referring to the demands of the EU that Spain’s government get out of the way of a takeover by a German company of one of its energy operators, the relevant minister has pointed out it’s not true to say the EU has a free market in this area. Only the UK and Spain, he claims, have liberalised their markets. The question implied is why should Spain allow a German company to do what a Spanish company wouldn’t be allowed to do in Germany. It’s a fair point. And surely one which can rely on French support.




The EU has ordered Spain to repay 46m euros of grants ‘misapplied’ to wine growers. This is a lot of cash but it pales against the 86m demanded of France. Neither country has a good record of taking any notice of these ‘fines’. Which is hardly surprising, given the blatant maladministration of the funds in the first place.


The UK is famous for implementing EU regulations in full, even if this leads to nonsensical situations such as the treatment of clean soil as ‘waste’. Today, I read this legalistic practice is called ‘gold-plating’. I wonder what the Spanish practice is called. ‘Lead-plating’? ‘Tin foil plating’?


It seems the Spanish government has been forced by the EU to make a complete climb-down over the takeover of a major energy company by the German giant, EON. Not only will it take place but also without the conditions Madrid tried to impose. My initial view that this was a good thing has been rather tempered by reading in a UK paper that the EU rules on energy competition are seen by German companies as only applying to other countries.


The EU has again ordered the Valencian government to repeal its law giving local councils the right to steal properties from their owners and hand them over to corrupt developers. What are the chances that the response will be the same as last time - a new law with a different name but much the same content and effect? And where is the Spanish government in all this?


Fact: Between 1986 and 2005, Spain received 86 billion euros from other EU taxpayers, making it the EU’s largest beneficiary. Opinion: Commentators here are now forecasting Spain will have a higher per capita income than Italy by 2010 and will eventually overtake France and Germany. This is despite the fact productivity here is, with each passing year, further below the European average. Can any economically literate reader explain this for us? Is it all be down to massive flows of dirty money and an unsustainable property boom, neither of which are very productive?


If you’re British, feeling very chipper and in need of something to bring you down a bit, get hold of a copy of “The Great Deception” and open it anywhere. This fascinating book catalogues the disasters which have hit the UK since it entered the EU and contrasts this with what’s happened elsewhere. In France and Spain, for example. If you’re a fisherman or farmer, you’ll be particularly depressed at what you read. Not that you will have been feeling too good in the first place. Any page will do but p. 416 would be hard to beat.


Between 2007 and 2013, Spain will receive 19.5 billion euros in EU subventions. This is 24% of the total, for a country which has a booming economy and which seems far from poor. Some senior Brussels functionary has appealed for more control of where all this money actually goes. Which might cause a few problems.


The death was announced today of a woman who was Spain’s Minister of Agriculture in the late 90s when a massive flax fraud implicated several of her underlings. She was subsequently booted upstairs to the EU Commission, where she gained a reputation for being rather anti-British. I wonder if either of these aspects will be mentioned in her obituaries but rather doubt it. I think I’m right in saying, firstly, that the fraud led to a huge fine and, secondly, that Spain – a la France - is refusing to pay it. The most interesting aspect of the case, as I recall, was that the Spanish factories claiming to produce huge quantities of [worthless] flax were suddenly all destroyed in an astonishing outbreak of fires. Assuming they ever existed. Nobody had checked.

Sunday, April 29, 2007

Are the Spanish rude? The answer to this depends on whether you’re an absolutist or a relativist. My own experience is they can be the politest, most charming and, best of all, the noblest people on the planet. On the other hand, I object to being walked into 5 times a day by people who appear to lack the slightest awareness of the existence of others. In a nutshell, my own advice is that, if you want to be treated well in Spain, the onus is on you to force yourself into the consciousness of others. This is not a place for shrinking violets. Or introverts. Or even British reticence. But that’s enough from me; here and here are the views of a couple of other Brits with experience of life in Spain. They appear to be relativists. As they should be.


Still on Spanish society – I regularly say Spain is a more sane place than Britain. In evidence, here’s another post from Kalebeul on Spanish attitudes to the sort of ludicrous directives that are ignored in Spain but not only slavishly implemented but first ‘gold-plated’ in Britain. In case you don’t know, this is the practice of adding further [job-securing] proscriptions and requirements to those emanating from Brussels. The very opposite of what happens in fellow EU states.


In today’s Sunday Telegraph, the head of a think tank says “Membership of the EU's political and economic union now holds Britain back. The EU's regulations damage business competitiveness, its protectionist policies restrict trade and Britain's increasing net budget contributions could be far better employed domestically by cutting taxes or improving public services”. Probably true but much of the blame lies with the country’s own civil servants and with the exaggerated British notion of the Rule of Law. This was a fine concept for nation states but is utterly misguided in the Age of the Bureaucrat.


Tune in later this week – tomorrow even – for my latest 3 year compilation. On the EU of course.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

As it’s Saturday, I’ll confine myself to:-


1. Highlighting the story that, in the UK, a man was arrested for barking back at two dogs who were annoying him. The judge eventually threw out the case but you can understand why the Daily Telegraph suggested the police were also barking,


2. Recommending you check out the 26.4 entry of Iberian Notes for one of those driving stories one reads rather too often in Spain, and


3. Giving you my latest 3-year on compilation - on FOOTBALL . . .


2003/4

The papers today feature David Beckham getting his gong yesterday at the Palace. The way they report it, he has joined the British nobility and is now only a hop, skip and kick away from the knighthood he so richly deserves for scoring one goal this week and making another, ensuring that Real Madrid went through to the next round of the Champions’ League.


Spain has at least two daily, national newspapers dedicated entirely to sport. Well, I say ‘sport’ but most of their pages are devoted to football [soccer], with the also-ran sports getting a brief look-in towards the back. These papers provide tremendous analysis of football matches in particular, including no-holds-barred ratings of each player’s performance. Reading these recently, I have noticed two words cropping up regularly, usually in articles about which mega-star Real Madrid are going to try to poach next, after Beckham. The first is crack but as a noun, not an adjective. So ‘un crack’ is a star player. The other word is galactico, which speaks for itself and seems to mean much the same thing. Or possibly mega-star.


The other word which jumps out from these reports is ‘Mister’. This is what trainers [or coaches] appear to be called in Spain, especially by the players. So, really it is ‘Meester’. I suspect the Spanish think it is equivalent to Sir, as in Manchester United’s Sir Alex Ferguson.


Has there ever been a soccer match with worse statistics than the UEFA final of Wednesday night between Oporto and Monaco? First half: A solitary shot at goal. Score 1-0, to Oporto. Second half: A total of 2 more shots at goal by Oporto. Final score 3-0. The cost of season tickets to Chelsea must be plummeting, if the Oporto coach really is on his way there.


At least the rain is appropriate for the gloom that has settled on the country after Spain’s early elimination from the European Cup. [A soccer tournament, for my American reader]. Yesterday’s papers were vicious in their condemnation of a team that was, once again, only a bridesmaid. ‘A Hell of Cowards’ read one headline. Others were less complimentary.


The much vilified Spanish football coach has said that he is staying on as he ‘has the support of the football world’. If the [somewhat adverse] opinion polls published today are anything to go by, this would seem to mean merely the President of the Football Association, the man who appointed him. And who extended his contract for two years before the European Cup competition. Since both gentlemen are Basques, this has given the regionally-obsessed Spanish plenty of scope for conspiracy theories. And fury.


Well, the Spanish football coach has decided that he is not as popular as he thought and tendered his resignation, just as he was about to be lynched.


But the England coach looks safe, despite a defeat brought about - a few of us think - by misguided strategy and tactics. The English fans clearly don’t feel as humiliated as the Spanish. But neither group can possibly feel as bad as the Germans, whose coach fell on his sword rather more quickly than his Spanish counterpart, after their defeat by the Czech Republic’s B team. I would have liked to give you the Spanish word for schadenfreude but there is nothing in my dictionary. Interesting that the Germans invented the concept.


Watching the tense late stages of the England match on Thursday evening, my elder daughter and I shared the irreligious hope that my younger [and rather more Catholic] daughter was praying sufficiently hard for victory. If so, she was convincingly out-prayed by Louis Figo. Today’s El Mundo reports that he responded to his substitution by nipping straight along to the ground’s shrine to the Virgin of Fatima to put in a few impassioned pleas for a Portuguese victory. Down on the Catholic farm, it seems, some animals are more equal than others.


Final word on that bloody match….. Very near the end, I suggested that a free kick on the edge of the Portuguese penalty area demanded a ‘Johnny Wilkinson moment’ from David Beckham. It did come, of course. But only when he took the first penalty.


Let’s hear it for Greece. They managed 2 shots at the goal in the European Cup final against Portugal and won 1-0. This was even worse than the team [Oporto?] which won the Champions’ League 3-0 after achieving a miserly three shots at the goal. One [apposite] cartoon in today’s El Mundo showed the Greek captain raising the trophy whilst a football below him committed hari-kiri. You can’t, in all fairness, deny credit to the Greeks for the scalps they took en route but what a dire state European soccer must be in for them to emerge as winners. They racked up only 7 goals in 6 matches and came away with more yellow cards than any other team. Let’s hope they fade away as quickly as they rose to prominence.


The local press here often print syndicated reports on national and international matters. Today they re-printed a ‘perfect European team’ I had already seen in the national press. Only they got it the wrong way round, suggesting that Andy Cole is Europe’s best right back. Which may come as a surprise to him as he has never been near the right side of the pitch.


Among many others, Ashley Cole has written to advise me it was him – and not Andy Cole – who’d been included in the Best European soccer team as Left/Right Back. Sorry, Ashley. As Andrew has pointed out, Andy Cole was left back in the UK.


Two days ago David Beckham was trumpeting that he suspected everyone thought he was too stupid to think up the deliberate-second-yellow-card-strategy. Well, David, if we didn’t think so before, we certainly do now, given that – quite predictably - the entire football world has dumped on you and you’ve been forced to make a grovelling apology. Asked today on Spanish TV about the possibility of Beckham deliberately provoking a second card, Zinedine Zidane said that he didn’t believe he could have done such a thing. And then blushed to his roots when the reporters told him that he had already admitted to it. “And I thought he was a nice guy”, he muttered. So, two idiots in the Real Madrid team, then.


I went to a football match in La Coruña tonight, to see Liverpool play Deportivo. Although I went with Andrew, who is a Liverpool supporter, I wore my blue and white Everton scarf. This was to both annoy Andrew and to show solidarity with Deportivo, who sport the same colours. Treading our way carefully through the happy band of Liverpool fans near the ground, it wasn’t long before I was given my first friendly Scouser greeting. “Hey, you fucking twat” were, I think, the exact words. Oh, how I miss the Liverpool wit and repartee of my youth.


Late night note: After the truly appalling performance of the England soccer team in Madrid tonight, I am consoled by the fact that I only have to wait another 6 years to take out Spanish nationality. That said, despite the woeful inadequacy of their witless and skill-deficient opponents, Spain only managed to score one goal. But this might just be because most of them had had their ankles broken in the first half.


And here’s something I never thought I would say – Thank God my team, Everton, got shut of Wayne Rooney before he self-destructs. When they say that he has his brains in his feet, they really mean it. Though ‘toes’ might be even more accurate.


2005


It would be fair to say that not all British footballers in Spain give the impression of having had a lobotomy. In particular, there’s Michael Robinson, who played for Liverpool in the 80s and now presides over the leading soccer commentary programme. He’s also one of the star puppets on Spain’s version of Spitting Image, which is quite an achievement.


On a more parochial level, today’s EU referendum ‘success’ has been completely overshadowed by the local football team’s first victory in over 20 matches this season. From the celebrations, you’d have thought they’d just won the European cup.


The advertisements during the football matches televised by our local channel have reached such a level of intrusion that it’s now a moot point as to whether the ads are being shown during a football match or a football match is being shown during the ads.


If you play football for, say, an English or Italian team, it’s your surname that goes on the team sheet. And also on the back of your shirt. If you play for a Spanish team, you seem to have a great deal of latitude as to what goes on each of these. And they are not always the same. So it was that the team sheet for Real Madrid last night included surnames [Beckham, Graveson], forenames [ Raúl, Ronaldo] and both of these [Roberto Carlos, Raúl Bravo]. And for the shirts on their backs the situation was similar, though not identical – Beckham, Raúl and R Carlos, for example. I don’t really know what this signifies, though it may say something about the anarchistic tendencies that form part of the Spanish character. And which find their most eloquent expression amongst the gypsies, whom – ironically - the Spanish detest.


Spaniards take their football very seriously and the national newspapers run commentaries of a quality which puts their British counterparts to shame. Right now, they are laying into Real Madrid and showing no mercy whatsoever. The consensus is that last week’s defeat to Turin in the Champions’ League, followed by the weekend’s loss to a journeyman team in the Spanish League, mark the end of an era. One rather gets the impression that few of the writers would think it inappropriate for most of the Galacticos to be hung, drawn and quartered. If so, I guess we would then see their pictures on the front page, rather than in the Sports pages at the back.


I see that – in the latest case involving the Beckhams’ home life – a UK judge has decided that ‘public interest’ means ‘whatever the tabloid-buying public are interested in reading’. It may, then, be some consolation to Mr B. to know that, after a difficult patch, he’s now seen as having returned to his footballing best. He puts it down to more rigorous training under the fourth Real Madrid manager in two years. And I guess this is why he’s no longer talking of the paparazzi hounding him out of Spain.


A British soccer player – Jonathan Woodgate – joined Real Madrid 18 months ago and, thanks to an injury, has been on the sidelines ever since. He played his first match last night and belatedly repaid his enormous fee by scoring an own goal in the 2nd minute and being sent off in the 66th. This, I fancy, says everything you need to know about the current state of British football.


A pleasant surprise this morning – a comment from a Liverpool supporter. I had no idea any of them could write. But, to be honest, he only said what I’d decided not to add to my dismissal of British football yesterday, viz. that when your team has lost 7 of its last 8 games you’re entitled to be a tad disillusioned. And then there’s the recent woeful performances of the England team. Which rather makes my point because – unlike both Liverpool and Everton – it comprises only national players. Liverpool, of course, is essentially a Spanish team. So I do rejoice in its successes. These days at least. Oh, and by the way, if I’d had been a lifelong supporter of Liverpool, they’d have been in the Second Division when I was a tot. Which Everton never have.


You might think it bad enough for Wayne Rooney to indulge in fights with opposing players during competitive football matches. But today’s papers carry pictures of fisticuffs between two members of the Spanish squad training for tomorrow’s World Cup game. Mind you, one of them was a Catalan. Probably got into an argument about constitutional reform.


The children of Spanish football referees are being taunted in schools after questionable [or at least questioned] decisions by their fathers. Probably not what the Bible meant when it spoke of sins of the parents being visited on the children.


I see David Beckham has got himself sent off again, this time for sarcastically applauding [a la Wayne Rooney] the referee’s decision to give him a yellow card. And these are the captain and star player of the English team, respectively. Strangely, I was going to write yesterday that the reason why football coaches are so stupid must be because they used to be professional footballers. So we can surely look forward to one or both of these idiots managing the English team in about 10 years’ time. Or at least a major Premiership team.


The President of Barcelona Football Club has not only permitted but encouraged displays of Catalunian nationalism at their ground. My friend Andrew has suggested the national football authority takes this to its logical conclusion and expels them from the Spanish league. They could then play against . . . well, their reserve team.


Can I be the only person in the world who thinks the attention paid by the tabloidised British media to George Best’s last days was out of all proportion to what he contributed to the world? He was, after all, a fool who ultimately drank himself to death. But perhaps this is enough to give him iconic status in a country plagued with binge drinking among its youth. Here is Spain, El Mundo had a beautifully written obituary which said all that needed to be said and still maintained a sense of perspective.


I did once bump into George Best at London airport, when we were both waiting for the same flight to Manchester. Not only were we born in the same year, but we were of similar height and weight. This allowed me to convince myself that, if I hadn’t had to play rugby at school, I’d have been a top flight footballer. So perhaps he wasn’t all bad, even in his final years.


Of a Sunday night at this time of year, it’s impossible to get anything on Spanish radio other than continuous pop music or football commentaries. The latter are delivered with varying degrees of Latin emotion but the best/worst is a gravel-throated chap who, at times, sounds rather like a chicken in the latter stages of strangulation. Even more bizarrely, he and his colleagues regularly break off from their commentary to parrot [or even sing!] the praises of some product or other. At times like this, I’m just amazed at what the live-and-let-live Spanish will tolerate.


I see George Best has now been deified to the point of resurrection. Sky News told us this morning that he – not just his body – had been flown to Northern Ireland for what amounts to a state funeral in Stormont Castle. I know Northern Ireland has had little to smile about for the last 40 years but what on earth would they do for someone really significant to the course of human history? And I don’t deny he was a brilliant footballer, albeit for far fewer years than should have been the case.


The Spanish obsession with regional identity took another step forward this week, with the playing of several football matches between Autonomous Communities and international teams. Galicia, for example, played Uruguay. And won. This is impressive but, if you translate it into UK terms and envisage, say, Cornwall playing Austria, it just sounds daft. And I certainly couldn’t see Cornwall winning. Maybe, though, a baseball match between Texas and Japan wouldn’t be too ridiculous. Or Bavaria against Iceland. On second thoughts . . .


2006


For some reason, the English football team is referred to here as Los pross, as in this example - La preocupante baja de Rooney había mutado la ilusión y esperanza de los ingleses de cara a este Mundial en una sensación de pesimismo y derrotismo que realmente no se correspondían con el potencial de los pross. Google has been no help to me in establishing the origin of this nickname so, if anyone knows, I’d appreciate the explanation. Incidentally, after the game against Paraguay, this sympathetic Spanish comment now looks rather misplaced.


What a joy to see Spain playing such superb football last night. And reminding Sven Eriksson of the secrets of the game – playing people in their right positions, keeping possession, going forward, and stopping your goalkeeper hoofing the ball up to the single flimsy lighthouse which constitutes your entire attack. Spain is going through a golden period with individual sports stars such as Nadal and Alonso at the moment but what the country really needs - to counter its centrifugal pull - is a successful team, composed of players from all over the country. So, all strength to their elbows, even if it means beating England in the final. As of now, of course, this is the remotest of prospects.


Another depressing performance from the England football team tonight. I don’t know when they play Ecuador but I’m pretty sure I’ll have something more enjoyable to do. I’m arranging for someone to come round and stick red hot needles in me.


Talking of the World Cup, after watching Portugal the other night, I was left wondering - not for the first time – whether ‘Figo’ is Portuguese for ‘Fall down’. Shame to see such a wonderful player sunk so low. And so frequently.


Here’s a few comments from the Spanish press after England’s two-sided performance last night. Not to mention their two even-worse earlier performances:-

Robinson [the goalkeeper] has good reflexes and sometimes stops the impossible shots. The trouble is, he can’t deal with the possibles.

The members of the England team play as if they’d just met yesterday

It is a badly composed team. The coach fields too many specialists and seems to have little knowledge of his players

England certainly have dynamite but don’t use it.

The team lacks a goalkeeper; the midfield is undefined, some players are operating out of their normal positions and the coach just hasn’t got things right. A disjointed team.

I couldn’t agree more. And for this abject failure to forge a great team from some of the best players we’ve ever had Eriksson has been paid 6 million euros a year! No wonder the manager of the Swedish team described this as obscene. Thank God he couldn’t keep it in his trousers and will be departing the scene 4 years before the end of his contract. Too late for this competition, though.


I certainly won’t be watching against Ecuador; it would be too painful to see us go out against such opposition. If England win, I’ll review my position – at least for the first half of the next match – as it’s conceivable we could play well against Argentina or Holland but still go out with honour. Meanwhile, I’m just grateful my real team is Spain. And that my piano teacher is Argentinean.


The English performance against Uruguay got the Spanish press it deserved:- A tedious and anodyne display . . . Without rhythm and utterly lacking in football skills . . . England have continued to progress in the competition without showing any sign of why they’re considered one of the teams likely to succeed . . . Following the script of their manager, Lampard, Gerrard, Cole and Beckham have forgotten about creativity and mired themselves in mediocrity . . . The only good news is that Rooney showed signs of why he’s considered a quality player. Thank-God I didn’t watch the match. Except that I did.


Well, I never thought I’d ever say this but “Allez, les Bleus!”. What a wonderful performance from Zidane, Henry et al. And, if I have to chose between the Frogs and the Huns, I guess it must be the older enemy. Especially after watching a program on the Somme battles last night.


I found the first 90 minutes of the England match against Portugal as bad as anything that came before. So I saved myself the pain of watching the extra time and the penalty shootout. Before that - during the first 15 or 16 minutes of play in the second half before Rooney inevitably got himself sent off - I relieved the boredom by counting how often Figo fell over and how many times England gave away possession. This was 12, against 3 for Portugal. Hopeless. They truly deserved to go out, even if Portugal will only grace the semi-finals marginally more than England would have done. At least they play like a team and know what to do with the ball. Does anyone know what Walcott looks like?

What an abject failure the team has been, the responsibility for which I lay at the door of the priapic Swede. Or turnip or cabbage. For those who don’t share my view, this is an article that might persuade them. For those who do, it will surely interest them…..

By the way, the guy who wrote the Word Spellcheck program doesn’t know what ‘priapic’ means. Prick.

Finally, I hope my earlier comments please my French reader.


A couple of damning verdicts from the Spanish press about the English team:-

Like Brazil, England is a team de-natured by its trainer. Eriksson is one of those trainers who earn a great deal of money and lots of prestige by constructing a team which is weaker than its constituent members.*

Eriksson had one of the best teams England has ever had but hasn’t been able to get from it even a hint of recognisable football. We’re not talking about beauty here, merely a reliable style.


And here’s a comment from a writer in Prospect magazine which echoes my own, long-standing view:-

We have the BBC’s HDTV, red-button interactivity and live streaming of the matches on the net, and ITV’s computer graphics showing the number of shots on or off target. In general, the hardware has improved greatly. The software, however, has not. What we still have is the weary old format of a commentator or two, a studio presenter and ‘expert analysis’ by a dour mix of ex-pros and/or managers. Not, we note, Mourinho or Wenger, who don’t have the same sacred cows. Football TV coverage, with its tiresome cast of has-beens and also-rans, remains stuck in the past. Everyone cheers on ‘our’ boys, dodges tricky issues and goes for the lowbrow opinion. Why will no one break the mould for an audience who want something a bit different?

* This is just a guess at the meaning of a verb – jibarizar – which I can’t find in any dictionary or on line. Correct translation welcome from any Spanish reader.


Talking of the ‘jibarizado’ English football team. . . a Spanish commentator has written that Italy’s superb performance last night was an example of how to compete that Spain was light years away from. I would ask where on earth this leaves England but we’re talking at least different planets here. Possibly even galaxies.


I read that the Jamaican football authorities have offered Sven Eriksson 3 million pounds a year [about 4.5m euros] to coach their national team. Don’t they have English newspapers out there? Or read my blog? They deserve everything they won't get.


I noticed last night national TV has now adopted the practices of their cash-strapped regional inferiors and started to put banner adverts at the bottom of the screen even during the action of a football match. But the nadir was reached when in the 87th minute, a [female] commentator was introduced to give us the deathless [and breathless] comment that “Only three minutes remain for Spain to equalise against Northern Ireland. And also for you to call or text the numbers on your screen to win 10,000 euros!”. Is there no end to the tolerance of Spanish viewers?


I see the French football authorities have demanded a replay of the World Cup final, on the grounds that the sending-off of Zidane was illegal because the 4th official hadn’t seen the incident with his own eyes but only on the large screen in the ground. I assume they must be living on another planet from the rest of us. Though this is not a new accusation against the French, of course. But, if it does happen, will Zidane come out of retirement – yet again?


A couple of quotes of possible interest to those who, like me, felt the England football team’s performances couldn’t get any worse than last summer’s . . .

England's players may have thought their premature World Cup exit this summer was the lowest they could go, but that was before last night when they crashed down a few more levels with a performance of incoherence that was crowned by absurdity.

The abandonment of 3-5-2 had the effect of another door clanging shut on the England illusions that have become not so much contentious as pathetic. After the evidence of bankruptcy - moral and technical - against Macedonia at the weekend, the possibility that a system of play discarded by all the recognised powers of the game might somehow magically restore poise and conviction was always remote. But in practice, as the Croats surged into the game almost at will, it became something more than a long-shot tactical lunge. It became an escape from the reality of England's plight, and one conducted at a stuttering snail's pace.

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