Gibraltar is just displacement activity for Spain

Trying to distract itself from the financial crisis.

Normally Spanish late night television is like Hello magazine in debate form. A group of journalists sit around and shout at each other about which Matador is dating which model. It’s light it’s fluffy and it goes on for hours.

Last week though it was all a little different as the debate turned from Spain’s equivalent of Katy Price to a large inhabited rock at the very tip of the country. In the UK the story of Gibraltar has been covered with a hint of incredulity and as the situation in Syria intensifies is less often in the news. But Spanish media continue to cover it, and with increasing levels of belligerence.

As an example in the four days up to August 28th Spanish television channel Telecinco, always slightly right leaning perhaps, had covered the story in its news coverage no less than 8 times. It’s got the attention of the Spanish populace in a way that it never has in the UK.

However almost everyone you speak to in the Spanish capital knows it’s all a smoke screen for the major problems in the country. In particular the word on the streets of Madrid is that a dispute with Gibraltar couldn’t come at a better time for the scandal hit government of Mariano Rajoy.

Rajoy and his party, the Partido Popular (PP,) have been accused of taking backhanders and general corruption in a story that just won’t go away. Worse he’s presiding over the worst financial crisis in the country’s democratic history. Perhaps it’s significant then that it is the central government that has complained the most vehemently over alleged damage to Spanish fishing. Raising what was effectively a local fishing dispute to a matter that could yet go before the United Nations.

Significant or not, suddenly the Spanish are talking about little else (well there is one other subject but more on that later.) Rarely now do you overhear conversations in Madrid about the "crisis" or the employment situations of their friends and children. And yet in the same breath Spaniards mention that they know it’s all a distraction. The Spanish wanted, no needed, something else to occupy their minds other than one in four being out of work, over half the youth unable to find employment and a government and monarchy deeply embroiled in corruption scandals.

For many though there was a sense of disappointment that the argument was being led by a beleaguered government and on a subject normally only beloved of the right. So when the national obsession came up with a new distraction the smiles spread.

To many outside of Spain the distraction of one club seeking to buy a talented welsh footballer for a rumoured £86 million seems hardly something that would grip a nation.

Except, for the Spanish the club in question, Real Madrid is not just a football team. It’s a national icon and football is a way of life. To many it seems insane in a crisis riven economy to spend so much on one man. But the debate in Spain about the cost of Gareth Bale lasted 5 minutes.

Because Spaniards on the whole, and Real fans in particular, didn’t see it as a waste of money, they saw it as a source of pride. The reason was for the Spanish the acquisition of Bale is a different type of distraction to Gibraltar. It’s one where Spain was no longer a nation in suffering but one where they could compete with, and beat, the rest of the world. It’s just the tonic the nation needed.

Now all of us should just hope Spain doesn’t think that the Gibraltar situation is another where they can take on the world and beat them. But then they already know it’s just one big distraction, and they’d probably prefer to watch the football anyway.

Mike Cobb is a reporter at Private Banker International

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Why Angela Merkel's comments about the UK and US shouldn't be given too much weight

The Chancellor's comments are aimed at a domestic and European audience, and she won't be abandoning Anglo-German relationships just yet.

Angela Merkel’s latest remarks do not seem well-judged but should not be given undue significance. Speaking as part of a rally in Munich for her sister party, the CSU, the German Chancellor claimed “we Europeans must really take our own fate into our hands”.

The comments should be read in the context of September's German elections and Merkel’s determination to restrain the fortune of her main political rival, Martin Schulz – obviously a strong Europhile and a committed Trump critic. Sigmar Gabriel - previously seen as a candidate to lead the left-wing SPD - has for some time been pressing for Germany and Europe to have “enough self-confidence” to stand up to Trump. He called for a “self-confident position, not just on behalf of us Germans but all Europeans”. Merkel is in part responding to this pressure.

Her words were well received by her audience. The beer hall crowd erupted into sustained applause. But taking an implicit pop at Donald Trump is hardly likely to be a divisive tactic at such a gathering. Criticising the UK post-Brexit and the US under Trump is the sort of virtue signalling guaranteed to ensure a good clap.

It’s not clear that the comments represent that much of a new departure, as she herself has since claimed. She said something similar earlier this year. In January, after the publication of Donald Trump’s interview with The Times and Bild, she said that “we Europeans have our fate in our own hands”.

At one level what Merkel said is something of a truism: in two year’s time Britain will no longer be directly deciding the fate of the EU. In future no British Prime Minister will attend the European Council, and British MEPs will leave the Parliament at the next round of European elections in 2019. Yet Merkel’s words “we Europeans”, conflate Europe and the EU, something she has previously rejected. Back in July last year, at a joint press conference with Theresa May, she said: “the UK after all remains part of Europe, if not of the Union”.

At the same press conference, Merkel also confirmed that the EU and the UK would need to continue to work together. At that time she even used the first person plural to include Britain, saying “we have certain missions also to fulfil with the rest of the world” – there the ‘we’ meant Britain and the EU, now the 'we' excludes Britain.

Her comments surely also mark a frustration born of difficulties at the G7 summit over climate change, but Britain and Germany agreed at the meeting in Sicily on the Paris Accord. More broadly, the next few months will be crucial for determining the future relationship between Britain and the EU. There will be many difficult negotiations ahead.

Merkel is widely expected to remain the German Chancellor after this autumn’s election. As the single most powerful individual in the EU27, she is the most crucial person in determining future relations between the UK and the EU. Indeed, to some extent, it was her intransigence during Cameron’s ‘renegotiation’ which precipitated Brexit itself. She also needs to watch with care growing irritation across the EU at the (perceived) extent of German influence and control over the institutions and direction of the European project. Recent reports in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung which suggested a Merkel plan for Jens Weidmann of the Bundesbank to succeed Mario Draghi at the ECB have not gone down well across southern Europe. For those critics, the hands controlling the fate of Europe are Merkel’s.

Brexit remains a crucial challenge for the EU. How the issue is handled will shape the future of the Union. Many across Europe’s capitals are worried that Brussels risks driving Britain further away than Brexit will require; they are worried lest the Channel becomes metaphorically wider and Britain turns its back on the continent. On the UK side, Theresa May has accepted the EU, and particularly Merkel’s, insistence, that there can be no cherry picking, and therefore she has committed to leaving the single market as well as the EU. May has offered a “deep and special” partnership and a comprehensive free trading arrangement. Merkel should welcome Britain’s clarity. She must work with new French President Emmanuel Macron and others to lead the EU towards a new relationship with Britain – a close partnership which protects free trade, security and the other forms of cooperation which benefit all Europeans.

Henry Newman is the director of Open Europe. He tweets @henrynewman.

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