Monday, February 29, 2016

Worthwhile reading matter

Healthy Spain: It's been confirmed that Spain is one of Europe's healthiest countries, with a life expectancy now of 81.4 years, 70.9 of which are spent in 'full health'. Only Switzerland in Europe and Japan do better. Reasons cited include a Spanish psyche which includes more walking and sports (thanks to the weather), as well as home cooking and a healthy diet, even when eating out. I'm a bit surprised by the last factor as restaurant meals in Spain aren't big on vegetables. Though there's always a salad. Irrelevantly for me as I hate the stuff. Unless it's rocket doused in a spicy sauce. Finally on this: One curious aspect of Spain's high life expectancy is that those who are now in their 60s, 70s and 80s were born during some of the least-healthy years in the country's history – between the 1930s and 1950s, when they would have grown up at the height of the wartime and post-war famine which persisted for much of the Franco dictatorship; a factor which suggests Spaniards born in later decades may fare even better on the health and longevity front.

Iran's Elections: You may have seen that the moderates made significant gains in these. Of course, when you contemplate the public execution numbers I cited the other day, you realise that 'moderate' is a very relative term. One day the evil religious madness will be over and Iran will once again be a wonderful place to visit. It's not bad even now, if you can keep your mouth shut. And your head on.

Henry Tonks (1862–1937): I saw somewhere a laudatory reference to this chap. He was a British painter of figure subjects, chiefly interiors, and a caricaturist. He became an influential art teacher. He was one of the first British artists to be influenced by the French Impressionists and was an associate of many of the more progressive artists of late Victorian Britain, including James McNeill Whistler, Walter Sickert, John Singer Sargent and George Clausen. Type 'henry tonks pictures' in Google Images if you want to see some of his output. But, be warned: he was also a surgeon!

Las Fallas: If you don't know what these are, click here. I cite them because I've just realised I'll be able to see them, for the first time, when I'm down in Jávea mid March. BTW . . . Flying to Valencia for this would trip would cost me at least 4 times as much as flying to Alicante, on the other side of Jávea on the east coast.

Finally . . . . A new English word? Slebdom. People famous for being famous. In Spain the classic example is the ex girlfriend of some bullfighter, Belén Esteban, who's impossible to ignore as she seems to appear on every TV program that I'm forced to view. 



It beats me, as she gets uglier and more stupid by the day. And perhaps ever more outlandish. Presumably the Spanish like this. Hugely. Despite (because of?) being useless and pugnacious, she won the Spanish version of Celebrity Come Dancing. Say no more. Click here for more fotos. Sadly, she was once quite pretty. Especially before her misbegotten plastic surgery. BTW . . . I recently bumped into her outside a hospital in northern Madrid. We ignored each other. Even though we share a birthday. Her loss, of course.


Blognote: Readership of this blog averages around 450 a day. Recently, though, this has rocketed to over 800. I suspect this is due to be posting my efforts on the Facebook page of the lovely people of Os Porcos Bravos. If so, Graciñas, amigos. BTW . . . They kindly gave me an award last year. Then photoshopped my image into the ceremony pix, after I unforgivably forgot to turn up. What gents!


BREXIT SUPPLEMENT

The Old Old Labour party used to seriously dislike the EU/EEC. And it voted against the UK joining in 1976. But now the New Old Labour party rejects the Brexit and hopes its supporters will ensure it doesn't happen. No one knows what Jeremy Corbyn and his lieutenants think, but there's nothing knew in that. JC, in fact, has continued to oppose the EU for the last 40 years. So, fun times ahead.

Another Outer, in The Times:

Pass the bourbon and I’ll pour you a hard shot of truth about the EU

It’s good to see the chancellor doing his bit for British exports by talking down the pound. That, at least, is the only creditable explanation for George Osborne’s warning on Friday that British exit from the European Union would be an “enormous economic gamble” and would cause “a profound economic shock for our country”.

The less appealing explanation is that the chancellor is so desperate to discourage Britons from voting “leave” in the June 23 referendum on our membership, he is prepared to behave like the fat boy in The Pickwick Papers (“I wants to make your flesh creep”). This technique of Conservative ministers supporting the “remain” campaign has been called “Project Fear”.

A further example of the lurid language employed by its promoters was supplied on Thursday night by the environment secretary, Liz Truss, who told the viewers of BBC’s Question Time that if this country voted to leave the EU, we would be entering “the Twilight Zone”. 

We’ve got four more months before the vote. To what level of rhetorical scaremongering will the “remainians” sink when we get properly close to the moment of decision? “Abandon all hope, ye who Brexit here”?

This doesn’t mean their strategy is misguided. When you are arguing for the status quo, it is normal to warn about the “unknown” events that a vote for “change” might bring. Hence the prime minister’s incantation that leaving the EU would be “a leap in the dark”. More particularly, he has expressed this uncertainty in financial terms, knowing the British voters generally have economic security at the top of their lists of concerns.

The relevance of this could be seen in the results of a ComRes poll published last week. It showed that about twice as many thought we would be economically worse off if we left the EU as thought our economy would improve. If that balance of opinion continued to the end of the campaign, I see very little prospect of a majority voting “leave” on June 23, even though the issue of uncontrolled migration from the EU will prompt millions to support Brexit.

Yet here’s the thing. Despite all the corporate endorsements of Project Fear (with about a third of the bosses of FTSE 100 companies dutifully agreeing to put their names to a screed dictated by No 10), disinterested think tanks and economists have tended to coalesce around the view that, economically, the pluses and minuses for the UK — between staying in or leaving the EU — will balance out.

For many years, those arguing that we should remain in the EU have cited the figure of 3m as the number of jobs that could be “lost” as a result of “leaving the single market”. Oddly, this round number has never varied, whatever the state of our own economy or of that of any of the other 27 members.
Three years ago Channel 4 News’s FactCheck dug into the origins of this and discovered that it “appears to originate from an influential piece of academic research carried out in 2000 . . . by Professor Iain Begg, now of the London School of Economics”. 

When Channel 4 News took the trouble to speak to Begg, it discovered that “while [he] stands by his research, he takes great exception to headlines that suggest that millions of Britons would be thrown on the dole if Britain left the single market . . . According to the people who did the research, talk of mass redundancies [after an EU exit] is just scaremongering.”

Begg himself added that if anyone tried “completely objectively” to work out the pros and cons of Brexit, “you would probably find that the economic plus or minus is very small”. This is backed up by Wolfgang Münchau, for many years the FT’s European economics columnist. He observes: “There may be reasons why the UK may wish to remain a member of the EU. But whatever they are, they are not economic.” 

But if you really want to understand why Brexit is more an economic opportunity than a deathly curse, it’s necessary to read Myth and Paradox of the Single Market, by Michael Burrage, published last month by Civitas. 
Burrage, a former lecturer at the London School of Economics specialising in comparative analysis of industrial enterprise, has, by the most direct statistical means, refuted some of the cherished Whitehall assumptions underlying the debate about British membership of the EU.

Using publicly available official trade figures, he reveals that whereas, in the years of Britain’s membership of the Common Market, 1973-93, our exports to the rest of the organisation’s members increased by much more than those of leading non-members (such as the USA, Canada and Australia), since the inauguration of the single market in 1993, those countries’ exports to the EU have grown more rapidly than ours. 

Indeed, by 2011, for the first time since 1972, the value of US goods exported to the EU exceeded that of UK goods. This destroys the absurd argument that it is necessary to be part of the single market to sell profitably into it — or that an exporting country must agree to an open border for EU citizens.

I asked Burrage why it is that mature English-speaking democracies outside the single market such as America, Canada and Australia have seen their exports to it grow at a faster rate than the UK has, with our supposedly privileged position inside, while that was not the case during the Common Market era.

His best guess was that this paradox is attributable to the work of the World Trade Organisation in bringing down tariffs worldwide. During the Common Market years, tariffs walls were high, so non-members of the community were at a significant disadvantage when selling to it. But now that the EU’s average weighted tariff on goods from outside the single market is 3%-4%, it is almost insignificant compared with, for example, standard currency fluctuations. This might help explain why US exports of bourbon to the EU have during the past 22 years grown by more than 10 times the rate achieved by scotch whisky firms, despite all the alleged advantages of being within the single market.

Of course, the UK post Brexit could also negotiate bespoke free-trade deals, not just with the EU but with other countries — something we are forbidden to do as an EU member.

On Friday’s Today programme, the former EU trade commissioner Lord Mandelson sneered: “We would be free to negotiate, but who’s going to want to negotiate with us?”— an echo of his earlier claim that “India would laugh in our faces if Britain tried to negotiate a free-trade agreement outside Europe. They would walk away and leave us whistling in the wind.” As Burrage observes, “He declined to explain why India did not leave Singapore or Chile ‘whistling in the wind’.” 

Mandelson’s mocking the significance of the world’s fifth-largest economy — this country — is all part of Project Fear: it is casting unwarranted doubt on the capability and attractions of Britain’s businesses and workforces. What should cause national shame is that the most assiduous practitioners of this message are Britain’s own prime minister and chancellor. 

dominic.lawson@sunday-times.co.uk

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Stuff and nonsense

Spanish (non)Government: Tuesday is the next big day for us, when the PSOE tries to get acceptance of its coalition with Ciudadanos. Meanwhile, having picked up its bat and stomped off the field, the (far)left-wing party, Podemos, has kindly said it'll return to negotiations with PSOE if they dump their current partner, said Ciudadanos. A dose of political realism at last? It eventually comes to all parties of this stamp. And will surely one day arrive at Jeremy Corbyn's door. Whether he lets it in is anyone's guess. But some of his party - New Old Labour - certainly will.

Airport Antagonism: Vigo hosts the smallest of Galicia's 3 small, unviable 'international' airports. And it's the one which has lost out most to Oporto's hugely successful airport not far south of the nearby Spain-Portugal border. Which has the gall to advertise itself as Galicia's Airport. To everyone's surprise – and to the huge annoyance of the guy who runs the Oporto facility – Vigo has just announced a regular flight to Lisbon, Portugal's capital city. Worse – if you're the said Oporto guy – the airline is Portugal's national carrier, TAP. The boot is now firmly on the other foot and we're all amused at the sight of tantrums, threats and feet-stamping in Oporto. And now wait to see the reaction. Perhaps we'll all be offered free transport to and from the airport there. Which is currently a slow and slightly complicated business, unless you drive. Meanwhile, what I particularly like about this spat is that it's international. Usually, the 3 Galician facilities spend their time vaingloriously fighting each other over local subsidies/bribes.


Galicia's Foreigners: A friend in the business of helping people from overseas buy houses here tells me that, after several years in the doldrums, business is really picking up. Clients are again coming from several European countries to buy holiday or residential properties here. In contrast, it's reported that 20,000 foreigners from mainly South America have gone home in the last 2 years. Different strokes for different folks, I guess.

Selfishness or Stupidity?: I was tempted to say this was the sort of thing – parking so that you block the sight lines at the start of a zebra crossing – was the sort of thing that annoyed foreigners here. Less so the Spanish. But, today, it also angered the driver who stopped to let me across. He blew his horn loudly at the occupant – who was waiting for someone to come out of the shopping centre – but was contemptuously ignored.


Words: 1. SpanglishEl cros: Cross-country racing. 2. English: A TV ad heard today offered a DVD 'To buy and keep'. As opposed to the novel concept of buying and sending back, I guess.

Facebook: I took a look at my Profile today and was concerned to find that my elder daughter, Faye, was down as my 'Pet' and that – unknown to me - I'd been married in 2013. The former proved hard to change, the latter impossible. I could only change Faye's description to No gender: Child. As for the wedding reference, I could only add: 2013: Got divorced from a marriage FB has invented. All rather odd. Perhaps I've been hacked. By my pet, I suspect.

Finally . . . A Nice Story I've nicked from someone: Einstein was being visited by the US ambassador. His wife urged him to change suits for the occasion. “Why?” he asked. “If he wants to see me, here I am. If he wants to see my clothes, he can look in my closet.” Genius.

P. S. My family 'pet' has reminded me it was I who added the 2013 marriage to FB, to stop FB deluging me with fotos of scantily dressed Russian brides. Sadly, it worked.


BREXIT SUPPLEMENT

Here's an article from Ed Conway of The Times, an Outer:-

Why Brexit can be the road to prosperity

There would be months of volatility but a constructive divorce could open up Britain to the world

Rarely in political history has an economic warning been quite as prescient. A couple of years ago, as the Scottish independence referendum loomed, economist after economist warned that a Yes vote would leave the country dangerously dependent on North Sea oil; that any fall in the price would be disastrous for an independent Scotland.

Barring some last-minute miracle, Scotland’s public finances are heading for their worst year since the North Sea came online. Those who warned of the dangers of a Yes vote could hardly have been more right.

So what does it say about British politics that the independence race was nonetheless far tighter than anyone expected? That many who campaigned for Yes believe a second referendum is inevitable — whatever the result of the EU vote?

As an economics commentator I don’t know whether to be reassured or depressed by this, but it does underline one certainty: irrespective of what happens on June 23, we (and the Conservative party) will still be arguing about our place in Europe many, many years from now.

In other senses, the comparison with the Scottish referendum is bogus. Crucially, those voting in Scotland had two relatively clear options: stay in the UK with slightly more devolution, or choose independence and the route laid out in the Scottish White Paper.

As of today there is no straightforward choice on offer in the EU referendum. Voters must choose between the status quo and, well, something else. That might mean ditching EU membership and reconstituting the UK as Norway or Switzerland; it could mean aping Singapore or Canada; it could even mean a second referendum and a lengthy renegotiation that plonks Britain back inside the EU. On the flipside, it could mean shutting down immigration, raising the drawbridge and retreating from globalisation. So far, the Leave camp has been unable or unwilling to provide the voters with a clear, single vision, leaving those in favour of Brexit free to sketch out different versions.

As such, it is impossible for the time being to offer a comprehensive economic analysis. However, given that both camps in the debate have used this lack of clarity to spout nonsense about the economic rationale of voting for the other team, an initial fact-check wouldn’t go amiss. For the truth is that the economic case against leaving the EU is far less clear-cut than the economic case against Scottish independence. An independent Scotland would have been more unstable and dangerously reliant on oil revenue. Britain could survive perfectly well outside the EU. Provided it does not shun globalisation, it could well thrive, boosting trade and reducing red tape. Far likelier, though, is that life outside the EU would look almost identical to life inside the EU, minus a few Eurostar frequent traveller points.

When members of the Remain camp hint that three million jobs could be at risk, or that £3,000 of annual household income depends on the EU, they twist the truth. Those numbers simply tell you the amount of economic activity associated with EU trade. No one — not even the most pessimistic analysts — expect that to dry up, or even fall that much, were Britain to trade with Germany from outside the EU.

What of those warnings you’ll hear from multinational companies in the coming weeks about the likelihood of job losses and factory shutdowns if Britain leaves the EU? The reality is that such threats have rarely been borne out by actions. In the run-up to Gordon Brown’s decision on whether Britain should join the euro, many foreign car manufacturers hinted that they might have to shut down plants if Britain stayed outside. In the event, most of them increased production and employment and Britain’s car exports recently hit the highest level since the 1970s.

Then again, many of the numbers being bandied around by those in the Leave campaign are similarly questionable. They claim that EU membership costs Britain about £20 billion a year (not true — the net cost is £8.4 billion). That under Europe’s qualified majority voting system Britain has only an 8 per cent vote on key EU rules and regulations (not true — the voting share is 12.6 per cent, following recent reforms).

They are right to point out that Europe is responsible for a whole gamut of regulations, the top 100 of which cost around £33.3 billion a year, according to the Open Europe think tank. However, were Britain to leave the EU and remain in the Common Market, like Norway, 93 of the 100 would still apply to the UK, at an annual cost of £31.4 billion.

Which brings us back to that as yet unanswered question: what kind of deal will Britain have if it leaves? The longer this remains unanswered, the more jittery markets will be about a Brexit vote — and rightly so. Yesterday was only the beginning.

In the long run there is nothing stopping Britain becoming more like Switzerland or Norway, or forging another more independent model where trade rules are determined by the World Trade Organisation rather than the EU. Should the Leave camp articulate a truly inspiring case for a constructive divorce, under which the country opens itself up to the world, then the vote will be tight.

Except that even in the best-case scenario there is no guarantee that life outside the EU will be much more prosperous than life inside. And in the short run, getting there will certainly involve many months, if not years, of economic volatility.

Is that a risk voters will really want to take?

Saturday, February 27, 2016

The usual

The Spanish (non)Government: For reasons best known to them, the leaders of the PSOE and Ciudadanos parties felt it necessary to hold a formal signing ceremony of a contract which embodies their agreed coalition aims. Gratifyingly, these include getting rid of the provincial layer of government. Plus, they might well get round to returning Spanish time to what it was – that of the UK to the north and Portugal to the west – before Franco moved it to Central European Time in sympathy with Nazi Germany in 1942. All that said, the chances of the coalition getting voted in on March 1 are slim, to say the least. Still, it's good that these objectives are being talked about. Click here for The Local's comment on the several hoped-for advantages of a belated return to British-Portuguese time.

A Merited Mojácar Moan?: This is a lovely-looking, white, hillside town down in Almería. Click here for fotos and info on the council's site. Once a small village, it's now quite a large conurbation in which foreigners are the majority residents. But this fact appears to have gone unnoticed by the locals, as my net-colleague Lenox Napier amusingly notes here. Doesn't seem quite right somehow. BTW . . . Yes, it's the same Lenox of Business Over Tapas.

Spanish v. English: The annual Eurovision Song Contest looms and Spain has finally decided to go with lyrics in English, though with the chorus in Spanish, I believe. This has naturally upset the President of the Royal Academy, who's condemned the song as “inferior and idiotic". I'm compelled to say this is probably true, regardless of the language it's sung in. More accurately, he adds that: Bearing in mind that Spanish is a language spoken by 500 million people, presenting a song in English is surprisingly stupid. I understand that a country with a language that has a limited number of speakers would try to use a language understood by many, but this is disgraceful. Finally, he stressed that the state broadcaster, RTVE, had “a moral and cultural obligation to safeguard the national cultural heritage”. He then spontaneously combusted.

The Execution Stakes: Saudi Arabia is coming in for a bit of stick because of its public executions. Fair enough, but here's a Private Eye comparison with a country that's just come back into the international fold:-
Saudi Arabia: 90 in 2014 and 158 in 2015
Iran: 694 in the first half of 2015 alone.

Which reminds me . . .

Iran and Britain: When I lived in Iran 30 years or so ago, it was amusing to be told regularly that is was still the UK, and not the USA or the Soviet Union, which was manipulating global affairs in its interests. Particularly in Iran. Astonishingly, they're still at it there. Recent demonstrations – no doubt spontaneous – have accused Britain of interfering in their presidential elections, apparently by mentioning them on the BBC Persian service. The Death to America signs have been replaced – temporarily? - by those demanding Death to England. Which will annoy the Scots. It should, of course, be Death to Britain.



THE BREXIT SUPPLEMENT

Superstates: So, Trump's triumphs so far – they say – indicate that the Americans are more than unhappy with their malfunctioning federal government. So, what is David Cameron asking Brits to sign up to?I rest my case.

Demonstrating my impartiality, here's an article from a Stay Inner, Oliver Kamm in The Times:-

Any economic benefits from Brexit will be trivial and short-lived

Dire forecasts about Britain and Europe have a habit of looking silly in hindsight. In the early 1970s, Labour’s shadow foreign secretary James Callaghan warned that the language of Chaucer, Shakespeare and Milton was in danger if Britain joined the European Economic Community as “French is the dominant language of the community”

Voters should be wary, therefore, of confident claims made about the consequences of Brexit. Here are mine, anyway. The immediate financial savings from being outside the European Union are likely to be trivial and shortlived. The long-term economic costs, on the other hand, will be big.

One problem with the referendum debate is that partisans on each side are looking at different things. In his thoughtful statement for Brexit, for example, Michael Gove puts a high value on sovereignty. Fair enough, but this has costs. Economists refer to a “trilemma” between national sovereignty, financial stability and cross-border finance. A country can have two of these things but not all three. For example, Britain’s financial system is more stable by being part of international regulation, which means giving up some sovereignty.

A rule of thumb is that advocates on either side who don’t mention the costs of their desired policy aren’t being serious. With that in mind, here’s my assessment of the competing economic claims.

If Britain left the EU there would be savings. The main one would be our budgetary contribution of about £8 billion a year. Food would be cheaper as we could unilaterally cut tariffs on agricultural produce from all over the world. Business costs would be lower if we junked some EU regulations, such as the agency workers directive, which gives temporary workers the same rights to equal pay as permanent staff, or the waste electrical and electronic equipment directive, which requires member states to promote recycling.

But Brexit campaigners tot up the supposed costs of EU membership without taking account of any alternative arrangement. That’s not a proper comparison. For a start, it’s unlikely that interest groups that benefit from our EU membership would just write off the support they get. British farmers receive subsidies of well over £2.5 million under the common agricultural programme. You think they’ll refrain from demanding compensation from British taxpayers? I don’t.

Moreover, Brexit would impose costs on British business. The car industry would face a 4 per cent tariff on sales to the EU. Some would absorb this, but some would choose to relocate. We don’t know whether Out campaigners want Britain to have an arrangement like Norway’s, outside the EU but with access to the European single market through membership of the European Economic Area. In debate with me in 2013, Nigel Farage cited Norway as a model for Britain. In that case, we’d have to pay budgetary contributions to the EU and accept much of its regulation. And our exporters would have additional costs of customs and sales-tax bureaucracy whenever they shipped to the EU.

The economic case for Brexit hinges on the fact that Britain runs a large trade deficit with its EU partners. Out campaigners claim the EU would be eager to cut a deal with Britain sooner than compromise its access to this export market. I don’t see it. The recent deterioration of Britain’s trade position with the EU is primarily due to Germany and the Benelux countries. There’s no reason that the EU in aggregate should throw its consumer markets open to a post-Brexit Britain.

Set against speculative and probably overstated economic benefits of Brexit, there’s the likelihood of a steady diversion of investment away from Britain and towards the EU in the event of an Out vote. That’s not everything in this debate, but it matters.

The obligatory FB foto:

My beautiful Grils



Yes, Grils. One is a great tango dancer and the other is a mother who has no time for such fripperies.


Friday, February 26, 2016

Daily stuff

Driving in Spain: If you're planning to do this, one of the best bits of advice I can give you is: Follow local custom and don't trust any and all signals. Or the absence thereof. And be particularly careful on roundabouts(circles), where cars can come at you from all angles and do things that don't happen in countries where the rules are clearly different.

Which reminds me . . .

New Road Signs: To combat the regular (and inexplicable) occurrence of drivers going the wrong way on our local autopistas – termed kamikazes in Spain - new road-surface and road-side signs have been introduced. Let's hope they work. I wonder whether they'll now do something about the drivers who forget to put their lights on at night.

Which reminds me . . .

Pedestrian Peril: Just when you think you've seen it all . . . Traversing a zebra crossing yesterday morning, I noticed that a second car was starting to overtake the one that had stopped to let me cross. The driving instructor in the passenger seat looked rather less alarmed at his pupil's manoeuvre than I thought he should've. But at least he stopped it.

Past Participles: I'm aware there are differences with regard to these in British and American English – spat/spit, fitted/fit and got/gotten, for example – but this morning I read this phrase: “I drug the dead dog up onto the curb” and was left wondering whether this was normal US usage for 'dragged'.

Waugh's Who: From The Times Diary: Time magazine has published a list of the top 100 women authors who appear on American university reading lists. Jane Austen, Mary Shelley and Virginia Woolf all make the top ten. But the good intention was slightly spoilt by the inclusion at No 97 of Evelyn Waugh.

The Donald: Will it be a good thing for the world if the next US president has a surname which, in very polite British English (Bringlish?) means 'fart'? Sadly, we may get to see.

Finally . . . . A Nice T-shirt slogan seen in town yesterday: Be nice or go away.


THE MODELO 720 SUPPLEMENT

Free advice for anyone subjected to this outrageous law of 2012: Never close an overseas bank account, even to transfer all the funds to another of your accounts. I'm advised that, if you do, you're obliged to make a declaration to the Hacienda to tell them of this, even if your assets haven't increased by €20k in the relevant year. Of course, if you make the slightest innocent mistake, the fine is a minimum of €1,500. So it pays them to maximise the number of things you have to report. Pretty scandalous really. Even without recalling the humungous frauds reported daily of politicians and businessmen who seem to be immune from punishment. Talk about low-hanging-fruit! So, don't close an account: leave a few quid in it.

THE BREXIT SUPPLEMENT

More free advice: If you're a Brit resident who's been here fewer (not 'less'!) than 15 years, you're entitled to vote in the referendum. Here's how you register.

And now . . . A top-down view from Allister Heath of the Daily Telegraph. If you haven't realised it yet, this is where I'm coming from. But I'm prepared to be convinced otherwise by the Inners over the next 3 months:-

EU elites wrongly believe they have perfected government, so we should leave

All political debates, including whether or not we should belong to the European Union, can ultimately be traced to a profound and historic disagreement over human nature.­

Half the world believes that human beings are inherently good and benign, or at least perfectible; they conclude that it is therefore safe and sensible for elites and experts to be given whatever power they need to get things done. Such folk, dubbed the self-anointed by the US philosopher Thomas Sowell, are often obsessed with politics and never see a new initiative they don’t like.

The other half is convinced that people, including those in a position of authority, are unavoidably self-interested and fallible, and that power should therefore be constrained and divided to reduce the chance of a catastrophic failure. They tend to believe that their homes are their castle, and in the wisdom of crowds.

The first group impatiently derides the second as dreadfully pessimistic and hopelessly unambitious; the latter cannot stand what it sees as the former’s utopianism and lack of realism about the human condition. I’m a paid-up member of this second category, and that, dear reader, is why I want the UK to leave the European Union.

Let me explain my apparent leap in logic. It is clear that the post-Cold War, post-industrial world is becoming ever more complex, as a result of a convergence of explosive technological, scientific, economic and geopolitical forces. The question is how to react to this: should we trust elites even more, given the scale of the challenge, or should we encourage experiments from which we can all learn? Should we centralise power and political authority, or should we decentralise it and seek instead to build resilient networks that can cope with setbacks? Should we seek Europe-wide solutions to every problem, or should we trust countries or even towns and counties to find their own answers, adapted to local conditions? My answer, in every case, would be to allow a thousand flowers to bloom.

The problem with the European Union is that it is the embodiment of a top-down approach when what we need is a much greater emphasis on bottom-up solutions. A problem with banks? Easy, according to Brussels. Let’s give the EU more powers and introduce the same set of rules across all countries. Agriculture? Simple: let’s introduce a pan-EU policy. Europe is behind the US when it comes to technology and innovation? Great, another opportunity to invent another Brussels bureaucracy, and come up with some more pan-EU rules, subsidies or policies.

If the EU were allowed to get its way, it would eventually seek to do the same in all other areas, including education and health care. Its most ambitious attempt at centralisation and harmonisation – the euro – has been the most disastrous. Occasionally, of course, it stumbles by chance upon the right answer, and then, unusually, its one-size-fits-all rule does make sense. But more often than not, its preferred solution – the result of endless bureaucratic and political horse-trading in Brussels – is a disaster. By contrast, smaller, competing political entities bound together through economic integration and voluntary cooperation can innovate and will be much more likely to discover the right answers. They can change and evolve when they realise that they have made a mistake.

Lumbering bureaucracies cannot: it’s the reason why the EU keeps on pursuing job-destroying policies, for example. Once it sets its mind on a particular course of action, reversing it becomes almost impossible.

Small is more beautiful than ever. Empires and technocracies don’t work, and neither do monopolies. They are unaccountable and unresponsive and all too often scandalously corrupt. Even with the best of intentions, they lack feedback mechanisms and thus fail to correct their errors. Even when they are given the trappings of democracy, such as with the European Parliament, they remain hopelessly detached from the electorate.

International cooperation is more important than ever in the 21st century. But the EU is not the right vehicle and certainly isn’t the solution to the Syrian crisis, or to the mounting tensions in South East Asia, or to the fight against pandemics. It is not equipped to deal with mass migration or the rise of artificial intelligence, to name just two critical issues.

We need new sets of international institutions that allow countries all over the world to work closely together, sometimes on an ad hoc basis, to free up trade, control terrorism and deal with problems that require cross-border cooperation. Leaving the EU would be the first step towards revolutionising our foreign policy; it would also allow us to play a leading role in proposing and developing successors.

The problem with the more fanatical supporters of the European project is that they are what Hayek called constructivists: they believe that they have the intelligence and ability to remake the world afresh. History and traditions are irrelevant. They have a neat and tidy mindset, and the messiness of national diversity riles them. They have no time for trial and error: they are convinced that they know the truth, and wish to impose it on everybody. Their arrogance beggars belief.

Some CEOs of very large listed companies – though not so much entrepreneurs – see the world in the same way. Because they are paid to push through top-down change, they tend to like equally big political bureaucracies. Political diversity irritates them and is wrongly deemed to be a barrier to trade: they fail to see that the best way to promote new and better ideas is to allow competition between countries in the same way that it is encouraged between companies.

The answer, therefore, is to decentralise power radically – not just back to nation states, but also further down. Britain requires a constitutional revolution for which leaving the EU would be the catalyst. The UK would become a proper federation, with its component nations given full fiscal autonomy and put in charge of raising all of their revenues. Cities such as London, Manchester and Birmingham would be given far greater rights and responsibilities.

Ultimately, however, one’s attitude to the European question depends on one’s view of human nature. Is it prudent to entrust technocrat-kings, in charge of vast, distant post-democratic bureaucracies with our futures, or are we better off betting on competition and radical decentralisation? I know which side I’m on. 


Altrincham, Cheshire: June, 1971. One of these people can still get into his suit. Honest.


Thursday, February 25, 2016

Spain stuff. Some funnies. And Brexit.

Spanish Music: This, apparently, is not confined to 3 songs most of us recall from 10 years ago. HT to Lenox of Business Over Tapas for the citation of this site, bringing us up to date and proving that The Spanish music scene is far more than just vintage Latino pop.

Bullfighting: For those (few?) readers interested in taking a class on this, here - with another HT to Lenox - is info on a course down in Berja (Almería) in March. Suerte.

Spanish Property Values: Following a year in which sales were the least bad since 2007, prices nationally are forecast to rise by about 6% this year. More in my daughter's barrio in central Madrid. And also, I hope, in my posh barrio over-looking Pontevedra.

Spanish CO2 Production: Despite La Crisis, this has seen the highest increase in this gas in the EU – up 4% in 2014, for example. Which reminds me that I think I read the UK is the only country in Europe which has complied with the obligations set in the last big get-together. Kyoto? Spain's biggest polluters are the quasi-monopoly operators we all love to hate: Endesa, Gas Natural Fenosa, EDP España, Repsol, ArcelorMittal, Cepsa, Viesgo, Iberdrola, Cemex, Petronor (a branch of Repsol) and Cementos Portland.

Spanish Human Rights: Amnesty International reminds us of what we all know – these went into reverse in the last years of the (outgoing?) right-wing PP government. Specifically in the areas of: Freedom of speech; Mistreatment of refugees and immigrants; Violence against women; Counter-terrorism measures; Abortion laws; and Evictions. The depressing details can be found here. Que va!

Oh, yes . . . .

Spanish (non)Government: In its desperate attempt to form a government against an early March deadline, the PSOE party has been riding 2 horses - the 'right-of-centre' Ciudadanos party and the very-left-of-centre Podemos party. Both of these are recent creations and neither of them has any experience of national government. That said, Podemos is full of ideas. Some would say dreams. And they have been obdurate in pushing these in negotiations with the PSOE. But the latter has finally leapt on to Ciudadanos and let go of the reins of an angry, rejected Podemos. So a centre-coalition will aim to get parliamentary support from other parties in the investiture session next week. Some hope, though. And the betting remains on failure and a subsequent second general election in June. Those who are concerned about uncertainty still have a lot to worry about.

Finally . . . A couple of Funnies:
  • The latest Daily Telegraph contribution to global humour and ignorance: Today's PMQs desended into a war of words between the views of the Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition's own mothers.
  • A wonderful Spitting Image video, showcasing the Atheist Tabernacle Choir.
  • An even funnier video of an American preacher who believes that the Bible is right on absolutely everything, including slavery. Believe me, it's not a spoof or a parody. He's the real McCoy. A (tamer) cousin of all those Islamic nutters. 


Finally . . . Finally: A Regular feature of the next few months: The Brexit Page. Where I'll bring you views from both sides.

This time the knowledgable Outer, Dr Richard North, of the EU Referendum Blog:-

The EU Referendum: debunking the deal

With Mr Cameron having lodged his final "deal" and named the date for the referendum, we're finally entering a phase where the polls begin to matter. Whether or not they can be relied upon is another matter.

What makes the difference is the "deal", which is effectively the measure against which people are expected to make their voting decisions. This, at least, has always been the expectation, which we saw raised in 2012 when Andrea Leadsom reported on a YouGov survey from July 2012.

This survey had 48 percent wanting to leave and 31 percent remaining. But, if a new deal was renegotiated, the poll suggests that people would vote in a completely different way. Most – 42 as against 34 percent - would vote to remain.

We then had the poll at the beginning of February with the leavers 42 percent and the remainers 38 percent, the "don't knows" standing at 18 percent. But, if Mr Cameron brought home a "good" deal, support for leaving would drop to 23 percent. The remainers soared to 50 percent, with the "don't knows" at 24 percent.

If, on the other hand, Mr Cameron failed to secure a deal, leavers took a winning majority of 46 and the remains dropped to 32 percent. The "don't knows" were still high, but dropped back to 19 percent.

Thus, the current YouGov poll, the first since Mr Cameron concluded his deal is of more than usual interest. As recorded by The Times, it has the leavers losing four points, dropping back from 42 to 38 percent while the "remainers" on the other hand drop just one point to come in at 37 percent. The "don't knows", however, soar to 25 percent, suggesting that there is everything to play for.

However, as The Times points out, that puts the polling neck and neck, with the paper suggesting that David Cameron's attempt to focus on the threat that Brexit may pose to security and the economy "appears to be working".

Looking at the full results, though, we come up with some very interesting observations on the nature of Mr Cameron's "deal", as respondents address the question: "From what you have seen or heard, do you think the renegotiation between Britain and the EU is a good or bad deal for Britain?"

This has those who think Mr Cameron has gained a "good" deal runs to 26 percent (up from 22 percent in early Feb), while those thinking it a "bad" deal call in at 35 percent (down from 46 percent). The "don't knows" on the other hand climb from 32 to 39 percent, again indicating that there is everything to play for.

In more detail, we then see that 22 percent of respondents expected Cameron to have done a good deal, up one point, while 23 percent thought he did better than expected, up three points. Again, the "don't knows" are up, rising six points to 29 percent.

Offsetting that, 51 percent of respondent felt that the changes did not go far enough, as opposed to 15 that thought the Prime Minister has got it "about right", and only four percent felt he had gone too far. But again, sentiment is drifting in Mr Cameron's favour. At the beginning of the month, 56 percent thought he had not gone far enough.

What all this and more suggests is that it is imperative for the "leave" campaign to stop the drift, and reverse the movement of sentiment towards Mr Cameron's position. And, insofar as there seems to be a correlation between views on the deal and voting intentions, the more the deal can be trashed, the better it is for us.

Yesterday's intervention by Mr Gove, therefore, was quite helpful, although his focus on the potential part of the ECJ in challenging the deal was actually less so. The specific issue about this deal is not that it might or might not withstand a challenge on the detail, but whether it is a valid treaty.

While the deal, does in fact cover different areas, those parts which require treaty change for their implementation cannot be valid, in that they breach fundamental principles of treaty law (Articles 34 and 61 of the Vienna Convention), in seeking to impose obligations on third parties, and being made dependent on actions over which the signatories have no control, the execution of which they cannot guarantee.

The result of the Gove intervention, therefore, has led to a squabble over detail, with interjections from Joshua Rozenberg in the Guardian and an opaque piece from the BBC.

This even has Clive Coleman, legal correspondent, calling in aid the Vienna Convention to allow him to argue that: "If it walks, talks and smells like a treaty, then it is a treaty". This, he says, calling in aid Michael Gove, "is a 'deal between 28 nations all of whom believe it'. In other words, all of whom intend to be bound by it".

And there, egregiously, is the point missed. The Heads of State or Government (or HSG as we must now call them), constituted themselves as an intergovernmental forum – distinct and separate from the European Council.

Since the Lisbon Treaty came into force, the European Council has been a formal EU institution, having never previously had formal recognition in the treaties. Therefore, even though the HSG may be the same people who comprise the European Council, as bodies they have distinct and separate legal identities. The one may not instruct the other, and nor can either commit the other to binding action.

Furthermore, while it is acknowledged that a decision by the European Council can on occasions clarify EU law, the HSG's "decision" was not made by a body constituted as the European Council. According to the Legal Counsel of the European Council, "it is … a Decision of the Member States of the European Union, of an intergovernmental nature".

As to the addition of the phrase "meeting within the European Council", this "aims only at clarifying that the Heads of State or Government took the opportunity of their participation in a meeting of the European Council, of which they are all members, to adopt their decision".

It may be the case by reference to Janko Rottmann v Freistaat Bayern that such a meeting within the European Council may clarify a question of particular importance to the Member States, which that has to be "taken into consideration" as being instruments for the interpretation of the EC [EU] Treaty, but that does not give this body any powers to create obligations which are binding on the European Council or any other institution of the EU.

Yet, as we see written into the HSG "decision" in respect of both economic governance and ever closer union: "The substance of this Section will be incorporated into the Treaties at the time of their next revision …".

There can be little doubt that the context and the use of the word "will" not only implies but unequivocally commits to treaty revision, thus establishing an obligation which the HSG is in no position to make, and which cannot be imposed on EU institutions – or even successor governments to those currently represented by the HSG.

Technically, the instrument may be a "treaty" in terms of its construction. It may be irreversible in that the text cannot be changed, but the elements identified invalidate it. It may be a treaty, but that does not make it a valid treaty. As such, those elements cannot be legally binding.

As such, therefore, this matter has neither been properly addressed nor resolved by the many commentators who have discussed it. Not even a note by Arnold Ridout Counsel for European Legislation, acting for the EU Scrutiny Committee, has been of much help.

Asserting as it does: "This international law agreement does not purport to change the Treaties, only clarify or supplement them", it is plainly wrong. The phrasing in the agreement, stating: "The substance of this Section will be incorporated into the Treaties at the time of their next revision …" is clear evidence of it purporting to change the treaties.

Ridout, however, does say that the areas of future Treaty change "are … conditional, as they must be, on the approval/ratification of the Member States". He then adds: "This makes any future Treaty change vulnerable to a change in government or an adverse referendum result in another Member State".

On that basis alone, the commitment to the treaty change cannot possibly be binding, as falling within Article 61 of the Vienna Convention.

Thus, we are in a bind. As long as this issue is officially unresolved, it is not possible for us lowly creatures to express a definitive opinion. But, given how much Mr Cameron wants it buried – and how important that it is that it should not be – we must keep this alive until the deal is fully debunked, and seen to be dead in the water.



Young Blue Eyes . . .



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