Unlike the Mediolana CSO Asad Yawar, most commentators – economic or otherwise – did not see the ongoing global financial crisis coming, and are as surprised as anyone to see affluent European countries such as Spain slide into what we have termed (and will soon flesh out in more detail) as a New Second World. But Mediolana’s CSO has long seen ominous signs in the Spanish economy since his first visit to the country in 2002.
Travelling to the Andalusian tourist triangle (Sevilla-Granada-Córdoba) during a blistering summer, our CSO noticed one or two things aside from the remarkably long queues at the entrance to the Alhambra Palace:
1. 1492-1992. Andalusia – one of the most dynamic places in the world during the Middle Ages – is a fixture towards the foot of modern Spain’s economic league table. Still, Yawar did not expect to find cities where between the expulsion of the Moors and the commencement of serious EU sweeteners, nothing much of note seemed to have happened. Particularly striking were the bus stations, ramshackle products of the pre-EU second and third quarters of the twentieth century which reminded our CSO of nothing so much as why Yugoslavs traditionally regarded their economy as superior.
2. Deep Structures. 2002 was a time when any half-sentient Briton could walk into a bank, lie about their income and have half a million pounds deposited in their account faster than the responsible teller could say ‘commission’. Rules about this sort of thing were tighter in Spain, but still: the good times rolled. Income was disposable and cash was flashed, yet a few enquiries in and around Granada revealed a real unemployment rate of around 40% in Andalusia – similar, ironically to that existing in much of the former Yugoslavia, except without the alibi of a recent war (and lavish EU members-only funds).
3. Euro-pa League? An impecunious Yawar (as well as his better-heeled travel partner) found the cost of the holiday eye-wateringly high, as everything from restaurant bills to accommodation tariffs – freshly priced in euros, with the peseta having been dumped at the end of 2001 – seemingly having at least one zero too many. When tourists are reduced to slumming it in Albaicín, one can be sure that the locals going to find the majority of stuff a tad price elastic – with both production and consumption cycles prone to the odd death spiral.
One of our number recently had one of those once-in-a-while experiences which makes a person wonder whether they are tuned into the same reality as the majority of the world’s population. It came in a Central London eatery, a glass-and-steel clone which one imagines was once the last word in high-definition living but now resembles just another asset on a private equity balance sheet.
Sipping a reasonably warm Earl Grey tea – a beverage which by some happy coincidence appears to have escaped total plasticisation – our representative was party to an extraordinary monologue emanating from the lips of someone who seemed to carry the entire burden of the heavily-indebted southern EU on their slender shoulders. A visibly upset former denizen of this now benighted economic black hole, this person passionately railed against the entire European project with all the force of one whose convictions have gone beyond the point of absolute and are now in the realm of sublimity.
Thoughts ran through our representative’s head, of course. Lots of them. Perhaps it was not only the wealthy northern core of the EU which was to blame for the current crisis; maybe the generation of politicians in the periphery of Western Europe which signed over their countries to what they believed was a relentlessly prosperous future did not read the small print of accession; yes, even the possibility that nations such as Greece, Spain and Portugal – all in their own way prisoners of their own very different yet ultimately similar histories – could have run into the arms of the perfect Europe they perceived that little less uncritically…this dangerous ‘perhaps’ also entered their mind.
As diplomatic spats go, on one level it is one of the most unlikely: the falling out of France and Turkey over events that occurred the best part of a century ago in Asia Minor and its hinterlands. But the passage of a bill in a sparsely-attended session of the Assemblée nationale - France’s lower legislative chamber – could have consequences much more profound and far-reaching than most commentators have perceived. The proposed law seeks to criminalise denial of the 1915 Armenian genocide, punishing offenders with a €45,000.00 fine and a one-year jail sentence; Turkey, which strongly disagrees with the categorisation of the events of 1915 as genocide, has responded in no uncertain terms, recalling its ambassador from Paris and freezing all major bilateral ties with its NATO ally.
Much of the analysis thus far has focused on the short-term political considerations behind the initiation and passage of the bill, as well as Ankara’s swift reprisals, particularly in the context of trade between France and Turkey. Yet it seems surprising that few others have picked up on the following points:
1. Freedom of Speech. The criminalisation of genocide denial raises a lot of uncomfortable questions about freedom of speech, which many not only in France but in the West more generally regard as an absolute value inherent to Western culture. Of course, freedom of speech as it is understood today is a relatively new concept – it is something which has become necessary and meaningful in the era of modern, all-powerful states and corporations – and in reality virtually every society still has its shibboleths. With the passage of the bill, the French National Assembly is merely confirming this. But is imprisoning people for holding an opinion about an historical event, no matter how reprehensible or plain inaccurate that opinion may be, at all commensurate with the protection and practice of fundamental human rights? And is this measure not merely mirroring certain restrictive provisions in the outgoing and heavily-criticised 1982 Turkish Constitution?
2. An Electoral Miscalculation? Much has been made of the estimated 500,000-strong Armenian community resident in France and the importance attached to their votes by Nicolas Sarkozy‘s Union for a Popular Movement (‘UMP’); the proposed law certainly looks as if it was drafted with this constituency at least partly in mind. Yet in terms of pure realpolitik, this looks to be an increasingly bizarre gesture: no one seems to have told the 23rd President of the French Republic that there is now a Franco-Turkish community roughly the same size of the Armenian one and which is a vital bridge to the burgeoning and/or resource rich economies of Turkey and the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (‘OIC’). In trying to appeal to one constituency, the UMP may have alienated a much more economically and politically valuable one.
3. Armenia: The Biggest Loser. As attention has focused on the personalities of Sarkozy, France’s Minister of Foreign and European Affairs Alain Juppé and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, few seem to have any thoughts for the Republic of Armenia itself. And this matters, because even by the standards of the former Soviet Union, Armenia’s economy is in dire straits: Forbes magazine rated it as the second worst in the world in July 2011. While this is doubtless something of a subjective analysis, Armenia is in desperate need of a thaw in relations with neighbouring Turkey – with which it does not presently have normal diplomatic relations – as this is potentially a huge market for Armenian exports: even though the land border between the two nations is closed, bilateral trade was estimated at around US$200m in 2010, making Turkey one of Armenia’s biggest trading partners. Recent developments are unlikely to be encourage this process.