Thoughts from Pontevedra, Galicia, Spain: 5.4.21


Night’s candles are burnt out, and jocund day stands tiptoe on the misty mountain tops.

Spanish life is not always likeable but it is compellingly loveable.  

– Christopher Howse: ‘A Pilgrim in Spain’


France: Having fallen on Saturday, yesterday’s case number rose to 61,000, second only to 89,000 in early November last year. French hospital staff have warned that the country’s latest wave of coronavirus infection is out of control and they will soon be forced to prioritise which patients to treat as the country entered its 3rd national lockdown over the weekend. With more than 5,000 patients in ICUs, critical care doctors are warning the next few weeks will be even more difficult to get through than the 1st and 2nd waves. No wonder Macron is worried about this job.

Cosas de España/Galiza

It’s salutary to reflect on the point made in Giles Tremlett’s book on the International Brigade that the Nationalist uprising failed in its first few days and would have been successfully put down but for immediate military help for generals Mola, Sanjurjo and Franco from Hitler and Mussolini. Followed by the creation by France, the UK and other powers of the Non Intervention Committee. Which was described by the American ambassador to Spain as The most cynical and lamentably dishonest group that history has known.

The Minister of Industry, Trade and Tourism says she’s confident Spain will have around 40m international tourists this year, compared with c. 84m in 2019. Something of an optimist, then.

Another friend in her 50s has been jabbed, while some of those those in their 80s and all of those in their 70s are still waiting. Of course, the Easter holidays haven’t helped.

Maria’s Level Ground: Day 1. She’s no happier than I am at the ‘vaccine fiasco’. Or with the ever changing (and ‘dizzying’) rules.

Maria notes something that, sadly, the vast majority of Spaniards would almost certainly agree with – There really are two sets of rules for Spaniards, depending on what your name and income is.

The UK

An excellent question: How did a free people become so relaxed about losing their liberty? See the first article below.

The EU/Germany

Vaccines, lockdowns, the economy, moral leadership: you name it, Europe is botching it. Click here.

A German columnist: At a time of crisis when a national response is needed, regional centres of decision-making can woefully undermine national cohesion. In fact, Mrs Merkel herself complained bitterly about just that on Sunday, roundly condemning the ensemble of “minister presidents” for failing to enact the “emergency brake” of lockdown measures that they had agreed shortly before, together with Berlin. Something very similar might well be said of Spain. Despite not being a true federal state, it has 19 regional presidents, each with significant devolved powers. The same columnist claims that Germany is ever more fractious and confused. 

And then there’s the EU, which has more than once shown how bad supra-national ‘government’ comprising 27 nations can be at a time of crisis. As for the its mishandling of the Covid crisis, see the article from the (Europhile) Economist below.

The Way of the World

This is the article which supplied yesterday’s quote re truth.

Do we really need a war to force people to achieve more objective perspectives

Spanish: I wrote recently about the letters K and W in Spanish, the subject of this article.

English: MAMIL: Middle aged man in lycra. Plenty of these in Spain, giving me a lot to smile at.

Quote of the Week: I think the government overestimated the intelligence of its opponents and underestimated the shallowness of the media. 

Finally  . . . An interesting article on local accents in France, where these don’t seem to be as acceptable(obligatory?) as in the UK


1. How did a free people become so relaxed about losing their liberty? Whether we were altruistic or scared, we need to get to the bottom of the popular complicity with lockdown: Janet Daley

Before this bizarre chapter comes to a definitive end and life really does return to genuine (not “new”) normal, it is very important that we make a solemn promise to ourselves and the generations to follow. There must be a full and proper examination of what just happened.

In the euphoric relief that will follow on the great unlocking, it will be tempting to dismiss the unprecedented transformation of our social and political condition as a bad dream – a transitory venture into what would, only moments before, have been regarded as unthinkable by a free people. We will need rigorous discussion, innumerable historical studies, and limitless debate about the reasons not only for what was done by governments and legal authorities but for the popular acceptance of those measures and the public attitudes that they engendered. If we fail to do this, we will lose what might be the best insight we could ever have had into the nature of liberty.

There are broadly speaking two major interpretations of the events of the past year – the extraordinary powers seized by democratic governments and the reaction to those powers by national populations. The more optimistic (and flattering) is that there was a joint assumption of moral responsibility on both sides.

Governments and their agencies saw it as their absolute duty to prevent loss of life at whatever cost and they took whatever drastic steps were required to do that. Then their electorates, in a quite remarkable demonstration of altruism and social conscientiousness cooperated with those steps. This was, in effect, a willing renunciation not only of civil liberties as guaranteed by constitutional democracy, but of the most fundamental aspects of common humanity: a supreme act of heroic sacrifice for the sake of the greater good. It could be seen as the fruition of the great democratic revolutions which placed so much emphasis on the conscience of the individual as a member of society. That would be the good news.

Then there is the other possible analysis. Populations that have lived under democratic governance for centuries – whose everyday existence has assumed personal freedom to be an indispensable condition of life – were prepared to ditch their birthright overnight in the face of an alarming health threat. Even people who are not devout libertarians should have been provoked into asking the awful questions: just how deep does the commitment to freedom go? Do even the most intimate and instinctive bonds of family relations and physical affection become dispensable if enough fear can be generated?

There are plenty of lessons from the terrible ideological wars of the twentieth century to demonstrate the power of induced fear – and the awful lengths to which ordinary people can be led by the propagation of it. Did something like that happen here?

Of course, you might say, this was the very opposite: people were not being propelled into committing wicked acts by the orchestration of fear. They were behaving unselfishly and honourably, helping to protect others at all costs. Their decisions may or may not have been justified but they were made with the best of intentions. But even accepting that this is true, wasn’t it shocking (or at least surprising) how little resistance or doubt there was about it: how few people actually paused long enough to question the wisdom of shutting down most normal societal relations for an indefinite period, before submitting to the orders? Even if these measures were as good and essential as they were presented as being, they were startling in their severity – much more severe in their effect on private life than were wartime restrictions which never forbade embracing loved ones – and yet very few people seemed to be startled.

Isn’t that odd? Is it conceivable that the overriding impulse was not public-spirited generosity but self-preserving anxiety? That the modern obsessions with health and safety easily overwhelmed the principles on which our political system is supposed to be based? It is interesting to note here that the chief arguments used against lockdown have been on health grounds (the risk of other diseases, physical and mental, being ignored) rather than on moral ones (is it wrong to prevent children from hugging their grandparents?).

Perhaps the greatest irony in all this is that it occurred in the post-Cold War West which was, until very recently, busily congratulating itself on its bloodless victory over the totalitarian system of the East. The triumph of freedom over those forms of tyranny which specialised in the control and surveillance of day-to-day existence and social intercourse was supposed to be the seminal lesson of our times.

Given a choice, it seemed, people simply walked out from under the Soviet police state and brought about its collapse without a shot being fired. Such was the power of the natural human longing for liberty. Now here we were in the West consenting to a simulacrum of the surveillance and control that we had supposedly vanquished which was arguably more intrusive and limiting than anything the Stasi had contemplated. In the original plan, the post-Cold War discourse was going to be a fairly leisurely business. We would luxuriate in arguments about free market economics and social democratic values, on whether governments should aim for equality of opportunity or equality of outcome.

Then suddenly the questions became, should families be allowed to gather together, and, is it legal to have a sexual relationship with someone outside your own household? There must be very few (perhaps not any) tyrannies in modern history which have dictated such intimate things – at least not that survived long enough to be recorded. That, of course, might be part of the answer. These measures were always presented as temporary. Maybe all those generations of democracy have produced sufficient trust in government for populations to believe their assurances.

But there is a darker possibility. The conceit of enlightenment and its sacred values of individual freedom which modern democracies now believe can never be vanquished, which even saw off the communist dictatorships, can collapse into compliant terror – without a shot being fired.

2. How Europe has mishandled the pandemic. What happened and what does it mean for the union? The Economist

Look around the world at the devastation wrought by the covid-19 pandemic and something odd stands out. The European Union is rich, scientifically advanced and endowed with excellent health-care and welfare systems and a political consensus tilted strongly towards looking after its citizens. Yet during the pandemic it has stumbled.

In the brutal and blunt league table of fatalities, the EU as a whole has done less badly than Britain or America, with 138 recorded deaths per 100,000, compared with 187 and 166 respectively—though Hungary, the Czech Republic and Belgium have all fared worse than either. However, it is in the grip of a vicious surge fuelled by a deadly variant. That underlines the peril of Europe’s low rate of vaccination. According to our tracker, 58% of British adults have had a jab, compared with 38% of Americans and just 14% of EU citizens. European countries are also behind on the other criterion of a covid-19 scorecard, the economy. In the last quarter of 2020 America was growing at an annualised rate of 4.1%. In China, which suppressed the virus with totalitarian rigour, growth was 6.5%. In the euro area the economy was still shrinking. A year ago Pedro Sánchez, Spain’s prime minister, called covid-19 the worst crisis to afflict the EU since the second world war. How has its response gone so wrong?

Part of Europe’s problem is demography. EU populations are old by global standards, making them more susceptible to the disease. Other less well understood factors, such as crowded cities, may also make Europeans vulnerable. The cross-border mobility that is one of the EU’s great achievements probably worked in favour of the virus, and no one will want to curb that when the pandemic eases.

But part of Europe’s problem is politics. Jean Monnet, a French diplomat who helped found the European project, famously wrote that “Europe will be forged in crisis.” When things are at their worst, those words are seized on to suggest the EU will snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. Sure enough, during the euro crisis the European Central Bank (ECB) eventually saved the day with new policies; likewise, the migration crisis of 2015 greatly enhanced Frontex, the EU’s border-security force.

However, Monnet’s dictum is also a source of complacency. The civil war in Yugoslavia in the 1990s led to the declaration that “This is the hour of Europe”. Years of carnage followed. Likewise, last year’s decision to give the European Commission sole responsibility for buying and sharing out covid-19 vaccines for 450m people has been a buck-passing disaster.

It made sense to pool the research effort of 27 countries and their funds for pre-purchasing vaccines, just as Operation Warp Speed in America brought together 50 states. However, the EU’s bureaucracy mismanaged the contract negotiations, perhaps because national governments generally oversee public health. The project was handled chiefly by the commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, who gleefully called the decision to expand her empire a “European success story”.  Hardly. Her team focused too much on price and too little on security of supply. They haggled pointlessly over liability should vaccines cause harm. Europe dithered in the August holidays. It was as if the Monnet-like forging of an ever-closer union was the real prize and the task of actually running vaccination a sideshow. Subsequent bickering, point-scoring and the threatened blockade of vaccine exports have done more to undermine faith in vaccination than restore the commission’s reputation. Were she still a member of a national government it is hard to see how Mrs von der Leyen could stay in her post.

Europe has also fallen short economically. Again, it has used the pandemic to make institutional progress, by creating a meaty new instrument known as the Next Generation EU fund, or NGEU. Worth €750bn ($880bn), this is targeted mainly at weaker countries that need it most. More than half the money is grants not loans, lessening the effect on national debt. It is also being paid for by raising debt for which the union as a whole is jointly liable. That is welcome, because it creates a mechanism which severs the link between raising money and the creditworthiness of national governments. In future crises that could protect euro-zone countries from capital flight.

As with vaccines, however, triumph at the NGEU’s creation belies its slow execution. The first money is still months from being paid out, as member states scrap with the commission over their individual programmes. By the end of next year, only a quarter of the fund will have been disbursed.

This lack of urgency is a symptom of a much bigger problem: the neglect of the underlying health of Europe’s economies. Even with its new money, the EU budget will account for just 2% of GDP in the next seven-year fiscal period. At the national level, where governments typically spend about 40% of GDP, Europeans have been culpably overcautious.

The consequences will be profound. By the end of 2022, America’s economy is expected to be 6% larger than it was in 2019. Europe, by contrast, is unlikely to be producing any more than it did before the pandemic. True, Joe Biden’s $1.9trn stimulus after nearly $4trn in the Trump era risks overheating the economy, but Europe lies at the other extreme. Its budget deficits for 2021 average perhaps half of what America is planning. After the combination of the financial crisis and covid-19, the EU’s output will be 20%, or €3trn, smaller than if it had kept up the growth it managed in 2000-07. The EU has suspended its deficit-limiting fiscal rules. Thanks in part to the ECB’s monetary activism, European governments have the fiscal space to do more. They should use it.

Ever-smaller union

Europe can take comfort from the fact that the vaccination programme will catch up over the summer. Across the continent, Euroscepticism has been in decline during the pandemic, and politicians who used to flirt with leaving, like Matteo Salvini or Marine Le Pen, have changed their tune. But, inexorably, the EU is falling behind China and America because it fails to grapple competently with each successive crisis. In a dangerous and unstable world, that is a habit it needs to change.