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Spain

This tag is associated with 18 posts

Brexit – and Maybe Then Frexit, Nexit, Swexit, Plexit…?

“The EU is dying. I hope we’ve knocked the first brick out of the wall,” exulted Nigel Farage, leader of the United Kingdom Independence Party. He proposed that June 23rd, when the British narrowly voted (51.8 percent of the votes) to leave the European Union, should be a new national holiday called Independence Day.

But author J.K. Rowling, who wanted Scotland to remain in the United Kingdom and the UK to remain in the EU, tweeted sadly: “Scotland will seek independence now. Cameron’s legacy will be breaking up two unions. Neither needed to happen.”

Soon-to-be-former Prime Minister David Cameron’s decision to hold a referendum on Britain’s EU membership has assured the dismantling of the United Kingdom. 58 percent of the English voted “Leave”, while 62 percent of Scots voted “Remain”. It is “democratically unacceptable” for Scotland to be dragged out of the EU by the English, said First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, and a second independence referendum in Scotland is “highly likely”.

It remains to be seen whether Cameron’s historic blunder will also trigger the disintegration of the EU itself, but there are plenty of right-wing nationalists in other EU countries who hope there will be a domino effect.

Marine Le Pen, leader of France’s Front National, called the UK referendum “a key moment in European history” and said “I hope the French also have a similar exercise.” And “Frexit”is just the start.

Geert Wilders, whose anti-Muslim, anti-immigration Freedom Party is predicted to win 46 of the 150 seats in the Dutch parliament in next year’s election, promised that if he were elected, the Netherlands will hold its own “Nexit” referendum. Italy’s anti-immigrant Northern League and the populist 5-Star Movement both called for a referendum on Italian membership of the EU.

Kristian Thulesen Dahls, the leader of the Danish People’s Party, said that Denmark should follow Britain’s lead. Nationalist leaders in Eastern Europe like Poland’s Jarosław Kaczynski and Hungary’s Viktor Orban indulge in harsh anti-EU rhetoric all the time. And so on.

But most of the people who might vote for thes nationalist leaders are not seeking the destruction of the EU, just big changes in the way it works – in particular the reform or abolition of the euro and much stricter controls on immigration. Unlike the “Little Englanders” who voted for Brexit, they see the European Union as an essential bulwark against a return to the old Europe of beggar-my-neighbour trade policies and savage wars.

The EU’s leaders will have to take a very tough line in the negotiations about the European Union’s post-Brexit relations with the rump of the UK. A horrible example will be required to show the nationalists and populists in other members that leaving is hard and painful. And to preserve the EU they will have to abolish or drastically restructure the euro currency (but that had become necessary anyway).

The odds are, however, that the EU will survive. Its biggest problem will not be the loss of Britain, its second-biggest economy, but rather the fact that post-Brexit Germany will dominate the Union even more than it does already.

As for the English, they have made their bed and they will have to lie in it. The pound sterling has already lost much value and will probably lose much more. The last of the three major global ratings agencies, Standard and Poor’s, will downgrade the UK’s AAA credit rating. Foreign investment will dry up, in recognition of the fact that the country will probably lose duty-free access to the EU’s “single market”.

Further down the road more pain will follow, as jobs disappear abroad, the English economy goes into recession, and the City of London starts to lose its status as a global financial centre rivalled only by New York. That will make domestic politics nasty enough, but the anti-immigrant fervour and outright racism that disfigured the “Leave” campaign are unlikely to dwindle in the ugly aftermath.

Scotland will vote to secede from the UK, but it will face major legal and political barriers in its campaign to remain a member of the EU in its own right. Spain in particular will give it a hard time, as Madrid does not want it to provide a precedent for Catalonia seceding from Spain and painlessly re-emerging as an independent EU member.

Northern Ireland will face an even harder time, as the Republic of Ireland will continue to be a EU member and so it will have to re-establish border controls. One alternative,of course, would be for Northern Ireland (which voted strongly in favour of EU membership) to unite with the Republic – but Northern Irish Protestants would still fiercely resist such a proposal, and in that context a revival of armed conflict in the province is not unthinkable.

The triumph of Brexit is a most regrettable outcome for everybody involved and possibly even for the world economy. But perhaps it isn’t really all that shocking: Charles De Gaulle vetoed British entry to the Common Market, the EU’s ancestor, for five years on the grounds that it didn’t really have a “European vocation”. Turns out he was right.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 13 and 14. (Scotland…unthinkable”)

After the Spanish Election

“I’m going to try to form a government,” said Spain’s Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy as the results of the national election came in on Sunday night, “but it won’t be easy.” His right-wing People’s Party (PP) still won the most seats in parliament, 129 – but that was far down from the 176 seats it would need for an absolute majority, let alone the 186 it had before the election.

Pablo Iglesias, the man who founded the Podemos (“We can”) party only two years ago, agreed with Rajoy on this, if on little else. “Ladies and gentlemen, this is the captain speaking in the name of Podemos,” he told a rally during the campaign. “We thank you for choosing the path of change. We’re expecting a bumpy ride with political turbulence.”

Podemos ended up with 69 seats, not bad for a two-year-old party in its first national election – but it doesn’t seem interested in cooperating with the other left-wing party. “Hopefully Podemos would be willing to work with us,” said Juan Fernando Lopez Aguilar of the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE), which got 90 seats, “but so far I perceive a threatening mixture of arrogance, self-infatuation and condescension.”

“If the socialists or PP had done nothing wrong, neither Podemos nor us would exist,” said Albert Rivera, leader of the even newer party, Ciudadanos (Citizens). Last January it was barely known outside Catalonia, with only 3 percent support in the polls. Last Sunday Ciudadanos got 14 percent of the national vote and 40 seats. So forming a new government in Spain is going to be a long and messy process.

Ever since the dictator Francisco Franco died and democracy returned to Spain forty years ago, only two parties have mattered at the national level. The PP was the traditional right, close to the Catholic Church, and getting most of its votes from rural areas and older voters. The PSOE was traditional left, and got the urban vote, the young, and what’s left of the working class.

The PP and the PSOE alternated in power, and during the three-decade boom after Spain joined the European Union nobody much minded the lack of viable alternatives. Then came the world financial crisis of 2008, with stagnant or falling wages for most Spaniards and an unemployment rate that reached 27 percent.

Each party had a turn at trying to deal with the crisis, and each cut the national budget, rescheduled or repaid as much debt as possible, and imposed severe austerity on the population. Even Spain’s population began to fall, as the young left in droves to find work elsewhere in the EU.

Maybe all that austerity has finally worked. This year the Spanish economy is growing at 3 percent, the highest rate in the EU, and unemployment is down to 21 percent. But that’s still higher than anywhere else in the EU except Greece, and it’s too late for a lot of voters. They don’t believe that either traditional party’s policies had much to do with the upturn in the economy (and a lot of them don’t even believe the statistics that say there is one).

So there was plenty of room for a new party offering an end to austerity, and for a while it looked like Podemos was it. It was anti-capitalist, its 36-year-old leader wore a pony-tail, and it promised radical change. Some people worried that it had “Venezuelan” tendencies, but a year ago the polls suggested that it could even come out ahead of both traditional parties in an election.

Not so fast. Since January the other new party, Ciudadanos, has been luring away the more timid people who once considered voting for Podemos, but were alarmed by its “Venezuelan” tendencies. Ciudadanos also has a 36-year-old leader (no pony-tail) who talks about radical change, but it is really a centre-right party that sits comfortably in the middle of the road, long left empty by the traditional parties of left and right.

That split the protest vote, so now Spain has four major parties, and creating any sort of coalition government is going to be very hard. The arithmetic means that either the PP or the PSOE must be in any coalition that can command a majority in parliament, but Ciudadanos swears that it will not join any government that it does not lead.

Podemos is being equally difficult, saying that it will ask its supporters to vote on joining any coalition. (Being fed up with both traditional parties, they would probably say no.) So unless there is a “grand coalition” between the PP and the PSOE – which is also very hard to imagine – it may not be possible to form a new government at all. In which case, after two months, there must be another election – and you can forget the economic recovery.

Hard times do not usually make people more moderate and open to compromise. Spain was a perfectly reasonable country that managed its democracy well for forty years, but it may just have made itself ungovernable.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 8. (“Ever…class”; and “Maybe…one”)

Catalonia Votes for Independence (Maybe)

“We would have preferred a referendum like in Quebec and Scotland but the only course left to us was to organise these elections,” said Artur Mas, president of the regional government of Catalonia. So, he said, the election that was held on Sunday in Spain’s richest province should be seen as a referendum on independence – and he won it.

It was not a big win: the pro-independence parties needed 68 seats for a majority in the 135-seat regional parliament, and they got 72. But it was a win nevertheless, and Mas says he will unilaterally declarate Catalonia independent in the next eighteen months on the strength of this vote.

Catalonia could certainly make it as an independent country: it’s about the same size as Switzerland, with about the same population (7.5 million). But there is doubt about whether Spain would agree to a friendly divorce – and even greater doubt about whether a majority of Catalonia’s voters would actually vote “yes” if there were a real referendum on independence.

As in most places, the rural constituencies in Catalonia contain fewer voters than the urban ones, and it is in the rural parts of Catalonia that the support for independence is strongest. The pro-independence parties got a majority of the seats, but they only won 48.7 percent of the votes.

Mas’s parliamentary majority is therefore a flimsy basis for such a momentous decision as breaking up Spain, but he is going ahead anyway. He says that he will immediately start building the institutions of an independent state – a diplomatic service, central bank, tax authority and armed forces – and declare independence unilaterally eighteen months from now.

This will create a serious confrontation with Madrid in much less than eighteen months, because creating such separate institutions is against Spanish law. But Mas argues that he had no choice but to go ahead without a referendum, since the Spanish government refuses to authorise a referendum on the grounds that the constitution does not allow regions to make unilateral decisions on sovereignty.

What Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy offers instead is a referendum in which the entire country would vote on Catalan independence. He defends this peculiar procedure on the grounds that Catalonia’s separation would affect the whole of Spain, since it accounts for 16 percent of the population and a fifth of the economy.

Naturally, this option has no appeal to the separatist leaders, but Madrid’s intransigence does give them an excuse to proceed without a referendum that they might well lose. Indeed, they would have lost it at most times in the recent past, although support for independence fluctuates with time: it was below 40 percent in 2010, rose to the low 50s in 2012-13, and is back down to the low 40s in the most recent polls.

Nor can the separatists assume that it is back up to almost 50 percent on the evidence of Sunday’s vote. Most of the pro-independence parties are on the left, and some traditional left-wing voters would have supported them without necessarily backing independence.

The arguments for independence, pro or con, are often cast in terms of the economy, but it’s very unlikely that an independent Catalonia would experience either an economic disaster or an economic bonanza. Independence is basically an emotional issue, not an economic one – and for Catalan nationalists, the emotions are very strong.

An example. The last time I was in Barcelona I was told the same story by different people on the independence side of the question on three separate occasions. A Spanish cabinet minister, they claimed, had said that “Barcelona has to be bombarded at least every 50 years” in order to keep Catalans under control. How can we be asked to live in the same country as such people?

So I checked it out, and it was true. The man who said it was one General Espartero, and he was actually the head of the Spanish government at the time. The only problem is that he said it in the early 1840s, after the end of the first Carlist civil war. Not really very relevant to the present, then, but the emotions linger on. It’s likely that a majority of people of Catalan descent would still vote for independence today.

The problem is that ethnic Catalans are barely half the population. Catalonia’s relative prosperity attracted huge numbers of Spanish immigrants in the latter half of the 20th century, and 46 percent of the people in Catalonia now speak Spanish as their first language (although 96 percent claim to speak both languages).

It’s very hard to win an independence referendum when almost half the population does not share the emotions that drive the cause, so the separatists’ best hope is to go for independence without one. That is going to make things very messy in Catalonia, and even violence is not to be excluded.

Nor is the forthcoming national election in Spain likely to change Madrid’s fierce resistance to Catalan independence: all the major Spanish parties oppose it, although the new Podemos Party at least supports Catalonia’s right to hold a referendum on it. But then, that may just be tactical thinking. Letting Artur Mas hold a referendum would not necessarily be doing him a favour.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 11 and 12. (“An example…today”)

The United States of Tatooine

“Tatooine” is, you will surely agree, a pretty stupid name for a planet, but there are so many Star Wars fans that some unfortunate world is bound to end up being called exactly that. Let’s just hope that its inhabitants, if there are any, never find out. On the whole, though, giving more user-friendly names to newly found planets orbiting other stars is a good idea.

There is, for example, a potentially habitable “exoplanet” only sixteen light years from here that is currently known only as Gliese 832c. As any real estate agent could tell you, it would attract a lot more attention if you renamed it “Nirvana”.

There are gazillions of stars, and only around three hundred have proper names (Antares, Procyon, Sirius) in any language. Some of the other bright ones are named after the constellation they are in, with a Greek letter or a number to indicate which one they are (Alpha Centauri, 61 Cygni). But most are just a number in a star catalogue. Jerome Lalande’s, published in 1801, had 47,390 stars, Henry Draper’s, published in 1918, listed 225,300.

Gliese 832 was named in a list of 3,803 “nearby” stars (up to 72 light years away) first published by Wilhelm Gliese in 1957, and updated several times since. The “c” was added when Gliese 832 was discovered to have planets two months ago. All very sensible and orderly, but not very romantic. So the International Astronomical Union called in the consultants, and the result was (pause for trumpet flourish) a competition!!

The NameExoWorlds contest, announced last year, will give the global public an opportunity to give more exciting or at least more memorable names to about 300 planets circling other stars. Starting next month, a site will open on which astronomy clubs and other non-profit organisations can register with the IAU, and in October they will be asked to pick 25 or 30 of these planets for the first round of naming.

Starting in December, these clubs and organisations can propose names for the planets and their host stars (only one planet per group), and in March the general public can rank the proposals in an online vote. They’re expecting more than a million votes.

The winning names will be announced at the IAU General Assembly in Honolulu a year from now – and Tatooine will certainly be one of the winners, provided that George Lucas gives his permission. (There might be a copyright issue.) But Vulcan will not be one of the names (sorry, Trekkies) because he was a Roman god, and names of religious figures aren’t allowed.

The IAU’s naming rules are the most interesting part of the exercise. Names may not be longer than sixteen characters, they should only be one word, and they must be pronounceable in some known language (though not necessarily yours). They shouldn’t be rude, they must not be of a commercial nature, and the names of pets are not acceptable.

Most importantly, they cannot be the names of living individuals, nor the names of individuals, places or events principally known for political, military or religious activities. Which would have caused a lot of problems if the rule had already been in force during the last big round of naming places.

Imagine that the IAU’s rule had been in force in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, when European sailors and settlers were sprinkling names on all the “new lands” in the Americas and Australasia. No New England, no Melbourne, and certainly no El Salvador. No Sao Paulo, no Los Angeles, and no Sydney.

The southernmost Australians dealt with the problem in 1856 by changing their island’s name from Van Diemen’s Land (he was a former governor of the Dutch East Indies) to Tasmania (Abel Tasman was simply an explorer, and safely dead by then). But New Zealand would not pass muster on the word count, and New South Wales is simply ridiculous.

Waterloo in Canada will have to go, as will Washington (both the city and the state) in the United States, and they’ll have to do something about Bolivia too. But the biggest problem will be what to do about the Americas: two entire continents called after an individual who was still alive when they were named.

Amerigo Vespucci, originally from Florence, moved to Spain in 1492 and subsequently became involved in organising various voyages of exploration to the “New World” for the kings of both Spain and Portugal. In 1507 he was credited by the German geographer Martin Waldseemuller with discovering that these lands were not part of Asia, as Columbus had originally believed, but a huge separate land-mass between Europe and Asia.

On his world map of that same year, therefore, Waldseemuller named that land-mass “America”, after the Latin version (Americus) of Vespucci’s first name. But Amerigo Vespucci was still alive – he didn’t die until 1512. The name caught on, as it happened, but Waldseemuller broke the IAU rules.

It’s never too late to fix a mistake, but what shall we call the place instead? I know. How about the continents of North Tatooine and South Tatooine? And, of course, the United States of Tatooine.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 11 . (“There…225,300″; and “The southernmost…ridiculous”)