If you ask any foreigner who's lived in Spain a while what the best thing about the country is, they're likely to reply "The Spaniards". I thought of this this week when, on my return from the nuptials in the UK, I was greeted with affection by all the staff in my regular cafés and tapas bars. Indeed, one of them messaged me saying they hadn't seen me for a while and were wondering if I was OK. Plus there was a Thanksgiving dinner of great bonhomie at Pontevedra's English Speaking Society. In short, it's much harder to feel alone here than in the UK, I imagine.
Talking about welcomes in the UK, the National Health Service - in its desperation to increase nurse numbers - has upped its campaign to recruit them in Spain and elsewhere in the EU. Trouble is, the NHS doesn't appear to be too fussy about their level of English and leaves this to the hospitals to check. Or not. In fact, there seems to be some 'freedom of movement' norm which prevents the testing of English. My impression is that would-be Spanish nurses need high marks in the nation's pre-university exam. So, what they lack in English facility they should make up for in intelligence. Not that this will impress any patient given the wrong medicine.
Relatedly, Spaniards are reported to be falling behind other EU nations in the learning of foreign languages and may now be almost as bad as the Brits. The average EU citizen of working age is said to speak 3 languages, including their own, but the Spanish achieve only 2. Which is possibly double the British average. Of course, if you live in the Basque Country, Galicia, Cataluña, Valencia and the Baleares, you have no choice but to speak the 2 co-official languages. Which skews the Spanish results at least a little.
There's a new Facebook page I've joined - GCOP, or Get Cyclists off Pavements. Well, I felt I had to, as I'd set it up. 'Pavements', by the way, are 'sidewalks' in the US of A. I don't know that the law is about this (frequent) irritant here in Spain but, back in the UK, you face a fixed fine of 30 quid. Or prosecution and a fine of up to 500 quid, if you hurt a pedestrian.
Amazon - A Warning: Think twice if you're ordering a book and it's said to be published by Amazon itself. I've received 2 books recently in which the print was miniscule. And I mean miniscule. And one short item in which the print was gigantic, to make a pamphlet look like a book.
Finally . . . The EU. Yesterday's Times had a leader which I can't just link to because of the paywall. So, you can see it below, if interested. After this latest wedding foto for Richard et al:
Entering the chapel:
Enthusiasts for European integration have long couched their arguments in the ideals of peace and fraternity. If only they had paid equal attention to the most fundamental principle of economics: things add up.
Through bad policy, economic ineptitude and bureaucratic hauteur, the governments of the eurozone have consigned its member states to stagnation and widespread political disaffection. It is a record of fecklessness in the service of ideology, at the expense of real people’s living standards. Even a change in policy is doomed to failure, however, until the eurozone comes to terms with its fundamental problem. A misconceived currency union has frozen in place an inflexible and dysfunctional economic model. Europe needs radical supply-side reforms.
The numbers are alarming. At the beginning of this year, the eurozone appeared at last to be recovering, if weakly, from its banking collapse and debt crisis. In reality, it is barely growing at all. GDP across the 18-member eurozone was stagnant in the second quarter and recovered to an annualised rate of 0.6 per cent in the third quarter mainly because of a technical effect of companies building up inventories. Aggregate GDP in the eurozone is still below the level of 2008.
It may get worse. Figures released yesterday showed that the annual rate of inflation in the eurozone had moderated to 0.3 per cent. Partly this is an effect of declining oil prices. Yet it is also due to a severe shortage of demand and shows how close the eurozone is to a state of deflation.
If deflationary pressures become entrenched, they will impose great hardship. Expecting prices to fall, consumers will defer their purchases and companies will postpone their investments. Weak demand will become self-reinforcing.
At the same time, the unemployment rate in the eurozone is stubbornly high at 11.5 per cent. In Italy, it has hit a record of 13.2 per cent. In Spain, youth unemployment is at an extraordinary 25 per cent. This is all a phenomenal waste of economic resources as well as a human tragedy. Worse, it could have been predicted.
A single interest rate and a single currency across Europe have removed an essential safety valve for economic growth: the exchange rate. They have yoked together very different national economies while depriving them of the option of restoring competitiveness by devaluing the currency. Currency depreciation would not in itself be enough to resolve the weaknesses of the heavily indebted southern European economies, but without that option their only course is a sustained squeeze on living standards.
Even with weak growth, debt levels in the eurozone remain dangerously high, and thereby limit the room for fiscal expansion. France, Italy and Belgium were yesterday given an extension of three months by the EU to cut their bloated budget deficits. That is likely merely to reinforce Europe’s downward spiral. Policymakers have relied on low interest rates to get Europe out of its crisis. That is not enough and it is not working.
There is a key to promoting growth in the eurozone. It requires removing the structural impediments to business expansion. Without supply-side reforms, a loosening of fiscal policy in the indebted economies would be self-defeating and dangerous. A spurt in demand would be strictly temporary and would be accompanied by a rise in these countries’ debt-to-GDP ratios.
A proposal by Jean-Claude Juncker, the European Commission president, to boost investment by €315 billion will not be effective while these weaknesses exist, as the plan relies on attracting private investment. Simplifying national tax systems and making it easier for business to hire the right people (and shed under-performers) are essential to Europe’s prospects. All else is detail.