Tag Archives: Spain

A Fragmenting Europe?

Voters in Catalonia go to the polls this weekend to cast ballots for the regional parliament. And political leaders in Spain and across the European Union are watching closely, as polls suggest a coalition of parties favoring independence for the region may win a majority in the regional parliament. The coalition brings together two parties that traditionally fall on opposite sides of the political spectrum. But the parties share a common vision for a Catalonia independent from Spain.

The Spanish government has so far declined to state how they would address a pro-independence parliament. Political leaders in Catalonia have not said they would declare independence unilaterally, but would instead likely move towards a popular referendum on independence from Spain. European Union officials have warned Catalonians that the country would not automatically become part of the European Union if it were to form. Business and financial corporations wave warned that independence would be economically problematic. And the Roman Catholic Church has espoused the benefits of Catalonia remaining part of Spain.

But voters appear to be supportive of the idea of a greater autonomy—and perhaps independence—for the region. Spain’s economic woes no doubt contribute to the movement. And a broad anti-EU sentiment that appear to be on the rise across Europe no doubt contributes as well.

What do you think? What impact would independence for Catalonia—Spain’s wealthiest region—have on Spain and the European Union? Would you support independence for Catalonia? Why?

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Maintaining Debt Targets and GDP levels in the EU

Amsterdam's famous Red Light District.

Amsterdam’s famous Red Light District.

According to a story published by the New York Times yesterday, the government of Spain is attempting to estimate the contribution of sex work to the Spanish economy. The European Union imposes strict debt targets on its member states, effectively limiting the size of the national debt as a portion of the total size of the economy. So one way to reduce the size of a country’s debt burden—at least on paper—is to increase the size of the economy against which it is measured.

As the New York Times story observes, “accounting for prostitutes and heroin can add billions to an economy. And as some countries try to dig out of the euro zone’s nearly five-year growth slump, every little bit helps.” In the case of Spain, it is estimated that prostitution generates approximately 20 billion euros ($27 billion) per year.

Other countries are similarly attempting to measure informal economic activity, including prostitution and the trade in illicit drugs, as part of a broader effort by the EuroStat to more accurately capture all economic activity in Europe. Most observers believe that the changes, combined with a new accounting measure of research and development investments, could increase the size of the economies of Finland and Sweden by as much as 5 percent. The economies of other countries could see increases of between 2 and 4 percent.

Spain’s New King

King Felipe VI called for a “new Spain that we will build together” at a ceremony marking his proclamation as head of state. Under Spain’s constitutional monarchy, Filipe serves as the ceremonial head of state, while the Prime Minister, currently Mario Rajoy Brey, is selected by the Spanish parliament to be head of government.

Spain’s previous King, Juan Carlos I, held the office from 1975 until he abdicated the position on June 2. While the position is largely ceremonial in nature, Juan Carlos’ reign suffered from several scandals in recent years, most notably in 2012, when he was criticized for taking a lavish elephant hunting trip in Botswana while Spain’s economic crisis mounted. A Spanish newspaper estimated the cost of the trip at more than $44,000, about twice the average annual salary in the country. At that time, Spain’s unemployment rate was about 25 percent—about 50 percent for young workers. Several Spanish political parties called for his abdication.

What do you think? Will Spain’s new king be more successful in his role of head of state? What are the advantages of having the positions of head of state and head of government separated, like in Spain? What are the advantages of having the positions unified, as they are in countries like the United States?

The Disputed Status of Gibraltar

GibraltarThe government of Great Britain issued an urgent call to the European Union to deploy a team to Gibraltar to “gather evidence” on Spanish efforts to close traffic between the British territory and Spain. Earlier last week, the Spanish government announced it would seek to request the status of Gibraltar be taken up by the United Nations Committee on Decolonization. At issue is whether Gibraltar remains a British territory or returns to the control of Spain.

It’s rare that the United Nations Committee on Decolonization would be called on to adjudicate such a dispute, and it’s even rarer that two European Union Member States would face such a standoff. But tensions between Spain and Great Britain have intensified in recent months as Spain seeks to pressure Great Britain on the issue. Spain claims that tighter border security is necessary to curtail smuggling, with the British government maintains that the border checks are politically-motivated.

Formally, Gibraltar is a British Overseas Territory located on the Mediterranean coast of Spain. At just 26 square miles, it’s quite small. But it occupies a strategically important point, controlling access to the Mediterranean Sea from the Atlantic Ocean. The territory was ceded to Great Britain by the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713 following the Spanish Wars of Succession. But Spain claims the territory and rejects British claims. A 2002 referendum saw 99 percent of Gibraltarians reject a proposal advanced by the British and Spanish government to establish shared sovereignty over the territory. Instead, under the 2006 Constitution of Gibraltar, the territory governs its own internal affairs but the British government remains responsible for foreign affairs and defense.

What do you think? Should Britain return Gibraltar to Spanish control or continue to administer the Gibraltar as an overseas territory? Does the status of Gibraltar present a challenge for European interrogation? And if so, how should that challenge be addressed? Take the poll or leave a comment below and let us know what you think.

The Limits of Diplomatic Immunity

Bolivian President Evo Morales re-boards his plane in Austria.

Bolivian President Evo Morales re-boards his plane in Austria.

A plane carrying Bolivia’s President, Evo Morales, was forced to land in Austria after being denied access to French, Italian, and Portuguese airspace. Once on the ground, the plane was searched by Austrian officials to verify it was not carrying Edward Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor accused of leaking the existence of a secret US surveillance program known as Prism. After it was determined that Snowden was not aboard, the plane was allowed to continue along its original route, ferrying the Bolivian President home from a conference in Moscow.

The move, which Spain hinted was the result of US pressure, was been widely condemned by other Latin American governments. Ecuador’s President, Rafael Correa, called the move “an affront to all America,” and Argentina’s President, Christina Fernandez de Kirchner, condiment the move as “a relic of colonialism that we thought was completely overcome.” A special conference attended by the Presidents of Argentina, Bolivia, Ecuador, Uruguay, and Venezuela, and with representatives from several other countries in attendance, was convened in Cochabamba, Bolivia, to address the diplomatic row. And Bolivia announced that they may seek to close the US embassy in his country to protest the violation of international law.

While the conference attendees avoided any specific mention of the United States, their statement included a harsh condemnation and a demand for answers from France, Portugal, and Italy (who denied access to their airspace) as well as from Spain (who issued the original warning that Snowden could be aboard the plane). France subsequently sent an apology to Bolivia, but that apology was rejected by President Morales, who concluded that “apologies are not enough because the stance is that international treaties must be respected.”

There is a longstanding tradition of diplomatic immunity—that diplomats are given legal immunity and safe passage, and that they are not susceptible to lawsuit or prosecution under a host country’s law. These rights traditionally extend not just to credentialed diplomats, but also to heads of state. Such rights are recognized to ensure they can carry out the official duties of their office without intimidation or interference.

So was last week’s forced landing and search of President Evo Morales’ plane a violation of international law? The answer is not entirely clear, and arguments could be made on both sides. But at least one commentator, John Pilger of The Guardian newspaper, called the situation as an “act of air piracy and state terrorism” and described the situation as follows:

Imagine the aircraft of the president of France being forced down in Latin America on “suspicion” that it was carrying a political refugee to safety – and not just any refugee but someone who has provided the people of the world with proof of criminal activity on an epic scale.

Imagine the response from Paris, let alone the “international community”, as the governments of the west call themselves. To a chorus of baying indignation from Whitehall to Washington, Brussels to Madrid, heroic special forces would be dispatched to rescue their leader and, as sport, smash up the source of such flagrant international gangsterism. Editorials would cheer them on, perhaps reminding readers that this kind of piracy was exhibited by the German Reich in the 1930s.

The forcing down of Bolivian President Evo Morales’s plane – denied airspace by France, Spain and Portugal, followed by his 14-hour confinement while Austrian officials demanded to “inspect” his aircraft for the “fugitive” Edward Snowden – was an act of air piracy and state terrorism. It was a metaphor for the gangsterism that now rules the world and the cowardice and hypocrisy of bystanders who dare not speak its name.

But even if that were not the case, the move would certainly spark a sharp rise in anti-Americanism in Latin America, which has traditionally viewed the motivations of the United States with deep suspicion. Also writing at The Guardian, Stephen Kinzer concluded  that “In its eagerness to capture the fugitive leaker Edward Snowden, the Obama administration has taken a step that will resound through Latin American history” and observing that,

If it becomes clear that the United States was behind this action – it has not yet admitted responsibility – this incident will go down in history as the defining episode of US-Latin America relations during the Obama administration. It suggests that the United States still considers Latin American countries less than fully sovereign. Nothing angers people in those countries more.

What do you think? Was the decision to search Bolivian President Evo Morales’s plane a violation of international law? Will the decision have longer-term negative impact on US influence in the region? Take the poll or leave a comment below and let us know what you think.

Kings, Queens, and Contemporary European Politics

The Netherland's Queen Beatrix Addressing Parliament.

The Netherland’s Queen Beatrix Addressing Parliament.

The Netherland’s Queen Beatrix last week abdicated her position, handing the monarchy to her son, Willem-Alexander. Her decision was seen as both unexpected and usual, bucking the trend of other European monarchs, such as those in Spain, Belgium, Sweden, and Denmark, which have held on to power despite personal and political challenges. While far more popular than her son, it is unlikely that Queen Beatrix’s resignation will have any lasting effect on Dutch politics.

But what exactly do kings and queens do?

Many European countries retain a hereditary monarchy by tradition. The functions of the executive, which are fused into a single office in the United States, are separated into two offices under these systems. The monarch usually serves as the ceremonial head of state, while a president or prime minister serves as the head of government. The responsibilities of the head of state are largely symbolic; real power is vested in the head of government. In the United Kingdom, for example, Queen Elizabeth is the ceremonial head of state, while Prime Minister David Cameron is the active head of government. Queen Elizabeth performs public duties like opening parliament and receiving ambassadors, while David Cameron performs the real governing, introducing legislation, making policy decisions, and so on.

The separation of the two positions carries some advantages. In countries like Belgium, where language politics have created strong divisions within the country and made governance (at least at the national level) effectively impossible, a ceremonial head of state (King Albert II) can provide a sense of continuity and acts as a symbol of national unity. There are also some who argue that the separation of the two positions creates additional checks on the power of the government. In the United Kingdom, for example, Queen Elizabeth II must give “royal assent” (approval) to all legislation passed by parliament. While royal ascent has not been withheld in Great Britain since the 1700s, it has been denied more recently in some former British colonies. Canada’s Governor General (the Queen’s representative in Canada), denied royal assent to a bill in 1963. Despite its rare usage, many groups lobby the Queen to deny royal assent on measures they oppose.

That said, ceremonial heads of state can sometimes create headaches for

Spain's King Juan Carlos Safaris in Botswana.

Spain’s King Juan Carlos Safaris in Botswana.

political leaders. Take, for example, Spain’s King Juan Carlos’s decision last year to participate in a €10,000-a-day hunting safari in Botswana as the country’s struggled with an ongoing economic crisis and an unemployment rate reaching 30 percent—hardly the image Spain wanted to project at the time.

What do you think? Does the division of executive power into multiple offices establish a stronger, more effective, or more democratic government? Or does it merely create greater opportunity for corruption and uncertainty? Would support the creation of a separate head of state in the United States? Take the poll below or leave a comment and let us know what you think?

The Challenges of Monetary Union

Paul Krugman’s recent analysis of the “Spanish Tragedy” deserves more consideration than it’s received. Krugman’s argument is essentially that the current problems faced by several European Union members (chiefly the high rate of sovereign debt) are the result not of irresponsible governments spending recklessly. Rather, the fundamental problem is the European Monetary Union itself.

Monetary Unions are interesting things. When the Euro was established as the single currency for many European Union members, there were two schools of thought. The first (pro-integration) position was that it would lower transaction costs, increase efficiency, and make the European Union an important global player. The second (anti-integration) position argued that the single currency would be difficult to manage because of the competing impulses and demands of the individual member states. A single currency makes using monetary policy [glossary] to manage the economy across a large area increasingly difficult. Encouraging economic expansion in Spain, for example, by expanding the money supply could only work if the other monetary union members went along. If the European Central Bank is concerned about inflation in Germany and stagnation in Spain, what is it to do? The two problems require fundamentally different (indeed, opposite) policy approaches under monetarism. 

As Krugman summarizes the situation:

Spain is an object lesson in the problems of having monetary union without fiscal and labor market integration. First, there was a huge boom in Spain, largely driven by a housing bubble — and financed by capital outflows from Germany. This boom pulled up Spanish wages. Then the bubble burst, leaving Spanish labor overpriced relative to Germany and France, and precipitating a surge in unemployment. It also led to large Spanish budget deficits, mainly because of collapsing revenue but also due to efforts to limit the rise in unemployment.

The Spanish crisis, in other words, resulted from the monetary union. Can the monetary union now be its savior? Doubtful, but we’ll see.