The Camino de Santiago offers an insight into the European debate

Matthew Plummer

The Camino de Santiago is the historic pilgrimage route across northern Spain, and as a cultural melting pot it had the misfortune of being dramatised as a ghastly film, packed with characters you’d normally walk a long way to escape.

Fortunately the reality is much better, and when I walked the 650 miles from Lourdes to Finisterre this summer the sole person I consciously avoided was an American college kid who sauntered along singing at the top of his voice while emitting a powerful body odour. That he was dressed only in boxer shorts with feathers in his dreadlocks didn’t help matters.

Nonetheless it’s the people who make the Camino a lifetime experience, and offering some wonderful insights into the differences in mentalities across Europe and further afield. I spent the first week plodding across the Pyrenean foothills in endless rain, without seeing a single soul walking west. Company came in the form of random encounters with the locals, particularly around meals. A priest from India at the Bétharram Monastery wanted to talk about the great batsmen his country had produced as we drank broth while sat on the long benches of the refectory, with the other monks completely confused until we moved on rugby. And the waiter at one of the bistros who resignedly acknowledged that the French way of life was doomed, which seemed pretty reasonable given that most shops seemed only to be open for a couple of hours in the morning, and with local farms still almost pre-industrial in their miniature form.

On the morning of my third day the butcher in Arundy attached a large scallop shell (the traditional symbol of pilgrims en route to Santiago) to my pack, and from then onwards every boulangerie was a chance to warm up and talk to the intrigued locals – although saying I was walking to Santiago felt fraudulent given that Galicia was still a fair few mountain ranges – and 1000km – away.

So making it to the popular starting point of St. Jean Pied-de-Port after a week on the road was a bit of a relief. Passing through the town’s fortified Porte St. Jacques I was met by a cacophony of languages, frenzied unwrapping of new equipment and nervous anticipation of the first major challenge of the main Camino – following Napoleon’s steep route over the Pyrenees. The sharp early morning climb wasn’t brutal enough to stop the wild hand gestures and emotional outpourings of the girl from California. Nor did it stifle conversation with the chain smoking chap from Stuttgart, who didn’t understand that a ‘C’ in GCSE German meant my grasp of his language was limited to menus and the occasional war film, and constructing sentences with ‘potato salad’ and ‘hands up’ didn’t seem conducive to the spirit of the walk, or European harmony.

The route itself is inherently cultural rather than deeply scenic, but that’s part of the joy of traversing a large country – you take the rough with the smooth. The back streets of Spain’s isolated villages revealed some of the Iberian Peninsula’s desperate poverty, interspersed with stonkingly beautiful towns – medieval Viana, where Cesare Borgia is buried, was particularly pretty. Dormitories ranged from charmless municipal accommodation to the isolated medieval pilgrims’ hostels where Mass was celebrated by candlelight. And of course the mountains of Galicia were spectacular, more than making up for the afternoon spent walking past Burgos airport and countless hours of trudging along roadside footpaths.

Hours of conversation with my fellow pilgrims (very few of them British) as we passed though countless settlements also hammered home some important cultural differences. Dutch incredulity at Spain’s lavish yet half-built motorways that intersected our route. The abundance of hairdressers in the smallest of French villages, and American bewilderment at poor European service. The spectacular mountain settlement of La Faba was run by a German confraternity, and for the first time in weeks I enjoyed a clean shower that worked, with immaculate bunks and a laundry service, my thanks for which were met with a blank “What else did you expect? We are German!”

There were – of course – frequent sightings of flagpoles flying the gold stars of the European Union. I pointed out to my Spanish companion that this enthusiasm would be unthinkable in England, much to his surprise. “Really? Surely we’re all brothers?” he asked. “Aren’t you proud of Europe in the UK?” I felt awful breaking it to him that back in Blighty the EU is seen as a cousin at best – the sort you hear very little from during the year, before agonising about deleting from the family Christmas card list.

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Procrastination, prevarication & paralysis: an idiot’s guide to the Eurozone crisis

Henry Hopwood-Phillips 9.46am

I always thought that the EU had secured the winning hand.

In success, it could boast that its social democratic model, inching towards fiscal and ultimately political union, had created a permanent and enlightened route to general prosperity. In failure, the globalised proportions of its wreckage would ensure that only its supranational intervention could offer succour.

Yet the EU’s problem is that its chief creditor, Germany, has been thinking like a nation, rather than a supranational overseer. It is not that Germany is not willing to play paymaster to a transparently political project. Rather, Germany resents the fact that beneath the surface, economically the EU project resembles a cheese grater.

ClubMed, eager to ignore the holes, yearns for closer political unity because of the accompanying German credit card.

The Germans, not wanting to subsidise the European periphery forever, has suggested mandatory terms and conditions and requested appropriate collateral in return for pooling proportions of debt, privatisation, teutonic budgetary discipline, and flexible employment laws. ClubMed baulks at the small print.

The tension between German realism and Mediterranean myopia is painfully apparent. Angela Merkel has said that under no circumstances would she consider Eurobonds. Italy’s ex-prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, retorts that if Germany continues to prevent the ECB from printing money she should quit the euro. Italy’s current leader, Mario Monti, tells the German chancellor that “six decades of integration are at stake”.

In the past, at least, political obfuscation of economic realities was intelligible while the the direction of the EU’s hopes was centripetal. However, with the EU’s economically strongest member now in direct confrontation with the rest, the outcome of the crisis is far from predictable.

The impending Spanish bank bailout ought to be as conventional as a banking crisis can be, following a relatively simple process. Nonetheless, foreign investors are shunning the prospect - not just because they believe the books are cooked but because how they might be cooked is no longer discernible. An efficient and free market should not be run on fiddled facts but it routinely is. Cynicism does not ruin markets on its own. Rather confusion over the target and form of that cynicism, as with the current EU chaos, appears to. It certainly paralyses credit flows, meaning that Spain is now required to spend $600,000 to insure merely $10 million of debt.

The president of the ECB, Mario Draghi, has identified the systemic weaknesses and trends and said it cannot continue, recently describing the Eurozone as “unsustainable”.

Exasperation is noticeable even in the EU’s own reports. Its top brass has informed the new French president, Francois Hollande, that the economic assumptions behind his budget plans are “optimistic”, measures to hit budget targets “not sufficiently specified”, and France’s record on meeting past targets has been “mixed”.

In this febrile climate, the technical solutions suggested in answer to the European crisis - from a ‘Grexit’ to Eurozone deposit schemes - seem to me to be superfluous. At this pretty pass the repair of the EU body seems more dependent on the cogency and cohesiveness of its soul than any mere physical tinkering.

As Europe sinks we should look to new horizons

Alexander Pannett 12.30pm

This week it became clear that the procrastinated efforts to save the European single currency have failed.

Greece will leave the single currency when it votes for anti-austerity political parties in a month’s time. Possibly even the European Union too if Greek anti-European sentiment continues to grow.

What must be done now is ensure the contagion does not spread to other peripheral countries: Ireland, Portugal, Spain and Italy. This may even be too late, as we receive reports of a bank run in Spain. If the markets lose confidence in these countries’ ability to manage their debts it will precipitate a collapse of the entire European banking system as capital flight prompts liquidity to dry up, as in 2008.

David Cameron has called for fiscal and political union as the only way to shore up confidence in the euro and stop it being seen as less a single currency and more a strict exchange rate union ready to be un-raveled.

The Prime Minister echoes calls from other European leaders for more concerted action to save the euro, notably via the use of 'eurobonds'. I proposed on these pages in November last year that without further political solidarity the euro was doomed.

Political solidarity has not emerged. Instead there is growing acrimony and competing ideas. If anything, the unfolding disaster has exposed the fractious concept of common citizenship behind the entire European project, something Nik alluded to earlier this week.

There is no interest in Europe. There is only a Europe with interests.

It is not too late to salvage the ambition of closer union. But for now this can only be a Franco-German union. Only those nations who will accept being absorbed under the dictates of Paris and Berlin shall join. For the rest, the EU will remain a trading block, and an economically and politically impoverished one at that.

It seems that the great play of world history is about to leave the European stage and transpose itself to the more exciting and economically dynamic scene of Asia. Whether this new Act will be of tragedy or farce is as of yet unknown.

For Britain, we are too old an actor to play outside the limelight. Our pride is too heavy and dress bill too dear. It is time we pursued a new free trade pact with countries in Asia.

We could start with Australia, New Zealand, Korea, Japan, America, Indonesia and Singapore, perhaps with the old Commonwealth as the foundation. This could and should include those European nations that share our interests in global trade.

Such a free trade organization would also be able to promote a more responsible capitalism in global trade that protected the environment, traditional cultures and social values. Far better to promote progressive humanitarian standards by engaging with Asia rather than heckling it behind trade barriers.  

We should mirror America’s re-orientation to Asia by reversing the Suez doctrine and re-establishing naval bases in Asia. Singapore may value such a presence. This does not even have to be a military base but could be a humanitarian crisis response centre, in readiness for when another natural disaster strikes that seismically vulnerable part of the world.

Europe will still remain important to Britain. But it should be seen and supported as a neighbour. Not as our place of work.

For that we will need to travel further afield.

Follow Alexander on Twitter @alpannett

English wine is leading the way in more ways than one

Nik Darlington 11.53am

The Greek philosopher Diogenes once said, “what I like to drink most is wine that belongs to others”.

That was, in a sense, what we inhabitants of the British Isles were forced to do for hundreds of years.

Whatever might be said about the Romans and their vines along Hadrian’s Wall, for most of history if you wanted to drink wine on these shores then you had to import it and you had to pay a pretty price for it.

Things have changed. The English (and Welsh) domestic wine industry is in very good and ever-improving health, thanks to increasing interest, investment and climate change (yes, it has its silver lining). There are more than four hundred vineyards turning out red, white and sparkling wines, which though admittedly of varying quality, have in recent years hit dizzy heights.

And yesterday the Times (£) reported on what is expected to be a ‘vintage year’ for English wine, with the Diamond Jubilee and the London Olympics earmarked as opportunities to showcase the nation’s best. Indeed, the Olympics cycling road race is due to pass close to England’s largest single vineyard, Denbies, in the Surrey Hills.

But there was another wine-related story in yesterday’s Times (£) that is worth dwelling on.

The EU has plans to abolish vine plantation regulations, which stipulate where and how much wine can be cultivated throughout Europe, so as to limit production, control quality, and maintain prices. However, a number of leading wine-producers, including France, are opposed to any relaxation of the regulations.

Supporters of the reform say it will make Europe’s wine industry more competitive and better able to meet the challenge from New World producers. They accuse France, Spain and Italy and other wine nations of trying to preserve their dominance by preventing the spread of vineyards to other regions and countries.

In 2007, the EU voted to scrap vine plantation rights, which allowed new vineyards and the extension of existing ones. Although the French Government initially backed the reforms, it has since backtracked, in the face of rural fury. President Sarkozy has vowed to fight the move.

Dominique Janin, deputy general secretary of the Assembly of European Wine Growing Regions, told The Times that liberalisation would leave vineyards at the mercy of “hedge funds and multinationals”.

"They are going to plant hundreds or thousands of hectares of vines and we will move towards industrial production," said Mr Janin. "The consequences will be quite serious. Europe will become like Australia. When you have a plant that lasts 70 years you need rules and harmonious management."

First of all, it is a bit of a harsh judgement on the New World producers such as Australia. That country’s recent problems, for instance, have more to do with natural disaster (drought) than industrial production. And while the New World produces some frightful cheap plonk, many of its vineyards are have been matching the old masters of Europe for some years now.

But the main point is that the likes of the French are both right and wrong. They are wrong because one of the reasons why the New World is fast catching up with the old is because its vineyards are freer to experiment with grape varieties and production methods, and to expand into new and exciting terroirs.

They are, however, right in that irrespective of how much the New World ‘catches up’ (relatively or absolutely), the unique selling point of the Old World is its history, traditions and styles. They must be protected.

The proper solution would be for the EU to forge ahead with abolishing continental regulations, so allowing certain producers to follow their own path, but to allow individual member states to maintain domestic controls. This type of flexible thinking should not run contrary to any EU anti-competition laws, because the English wine industry is already outside the existing controls.

English winemakers are proving adept at applying the best of the old - such as the classic methods of Champagne to produce top drawer sparkling wine - and at the same time pushing the boundaries, even beginning production of 'English Malbec' from imported Argentine grapes (which the EU is absurdly prohibiting).

Much as it is doing so in the glass, English wine could be ahead of the pack in other ways too. Europe, take note.

Follow Nik on Twitter @NikDarlington

David Cameron pleads for Cesc Fabregas to stay at Arsenal - might Zapatero have too?

Nik Darlington 6.00am

The Prime Minister welcomed Jose Luis Zapatero, the Prime Minister of Spain, to Downing Street yesterday. The recent events in Norway were discussed. David Cameron said that both countries had been “victims of horrific acts of terrorism in the past” and that they will be offering every support possible.

Also high on the agenda would have been the ongoing crisis affecting the eurozone. Mr Cameron said Britain and Spain wanted to see “quick, bold and practical action” to ensure recovery and growth in Europe. David Cowan wrote here last week about the very real possibility that Spain, along with Portugal, Italy and Greece, will have to default outside the eurozone and revert to old currencies like the peso.

The subject of trade was also on the table and both leaders expressed their desire for bilateral trade to increase. According to Downing Street, it currently stands at more than £30 billion per year and there will be a trade summit this autumn between business leaders and policymakers.

However, there was one item of trade which as far as David Cameron was concerned was not up for negotiation.

Cesc Fabregas is one Spaniard that I hope will not be returning to Spain!

Fabregas (pictured above with Mr Zapatero and Mr Cameron) was attending Downing Street yesterday to celebrate the graduation of youngsters from the Street Leagues Football academy, of which he is a patron. The Arsenal captain is the subject of acrimonious negotiations between Spanish giants Barcelona, his home town, and London’s premier club, where he has played since he was 16.

David Cameron professes to be an Aston Villa fan but clearly for him in football as in politics, the national interest trumps tribal loyalties.

Moreover, considering the dire state of the Spanish economy, the 40 million or so euros that Fabregas might cost Barcelona could probably best be put to use at home rather than being exported to Britain. Throw the mischievous separatist sentiments of the Catalans into the mix, and the Castilian Zapatero might well have been gunning for Fabregas to stay in London too.

Follow Nik on Twitter @NikDarlington

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The eurozone crisis: what Cameron & Osborne must do next

David Cowan 4.29pm

Eurozone leaders have announced a new 109 billion bailout package for Greece, which includes restructuring Greece’s national debt and inflicts further cuts to public spending. Money markets have rallied but the fear is that this cannot last. Meanwhile, Westminster remains mesmerised by the hacking scandal.

Ireland and Portugal have already been bailed out. Greece has now been bailed out twice. Italy is teetering on the edge of collapse and Spain looks risky - bond markets remain turbulent. A new European rescue fund is reported to have $464 billion ready to defend these two countries should markets scramble. If any of these eurozone countries fall to an uncontrolled default then financial contagion could spread right across the continent, cause the eurozone’s collapse and unleash a new global recession.

I think that a default in one of these countries is now inevitable. Bailouts can only prolong the wait. This leaves only one viable option for the PIGS: a controlled default outside the eurozone. New currencies (or re-introduction of old ones) would allow exchange rates to fall to more realistic levels and permit an economic recovery based on increased exports. Once recovery was secured and necessary reforms were implemented in order to comply with the Stability and Growth Pact’s original 3 per cent cap on deficits, such nations could return. However, as President Sarkozy has said that the word ‘default’ (or defaut) is not in his vocabulary, this option appears to be off the table.

The Government seems to have a new EU policy, outlined by David Rennie in this week’s Economist:

Thanks to a great scoop by George Parker of the FT, it is clear the government now believes the following: (a) a big leap towards fiscal union is the only way of saving the single currency, (b) Britain has a strong interest in the survival of the single currency, (c) Britain must play no part in bailing out the single currency and will stand aloof from fiscal integration, thus (d) our national interest now lies in allowing Europe to divide into markedly different zones of integration, with us on the outside.

Whereas eurosceptics such as Bill Cash and Daniel Hannan are clamouring for a radical renegotiation of the UK’s membership of the EU, such changes are unlikely as long as the Conservatives govern in coalition with the Liberal Democrats. However, David Cameron does risk a Conservative backbench rebellion if he does not take some advantage of the situation, particularly when one considers that the 2010 intake of Tory MPs is the most rebellious since the Second World War.

The European Commission’s budget proposals - an unrealistic 100 billion euros increase - could offer the best opportunity for Mr Cameron. At a time of budget cuts across Europe, the Government must demand a 10 per cent cut to the EU budget over the next budgetary cycle (2014-20). In return, there should be negotiations about revenue raising powers for the EU. A VAT increase or new Tobin Tax should be ruled out in favour of options such as replacing the EU Emissions Trading Scheme and carbon price floor with an EU-wide Carbon Tax (see my previous post).

William Hague should also push for a Single Market Act. This could be the greatest supply side reform in EU history by significantly reducing regulations, regulatory bodies, quangos and unnecessary bureaucratic obstacles (see also Nik’s article in March about Tory Reform Group MPs demanding EU deregulation). We must help to liberalise the European economy to enable it to become more productive, dynamic and innovative.

David Cameron envisages an EU that allows the free movement of goods, capital, services and labour, and where there is multilateral co-operation over global trade, the promotion of human rights, international aid and tackling climate change. As the 2010 Conservative manifesto makes clear, this does not include oversight of social policy or the rule of law.

The eurozone crisis is both a huge threat to the UK economy and the greatest opportunity for genuine, lasting reform in Europe. Let’s hope that the Prime Minister and his Chancellor face down this threat and grasp the opportunity in front of them.

Follow David on Twitter @David_Cowan

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