Monday, July 29, 2013


No Gibraltarian and come to that anybody living in the real world will believe the confrontations at sea last week over the reef laying and the six hour car queues to leave Gibraltar at the weekend were anything but linked. Thanks to the world media from the BBC to Fox News much of the rest of the world now knows that too. Even Britain’s Foreign Secretary, William Hague, and the Foreign Office issued urgent protests to Madrid.

The confrontation started last Wednesday when a tug was laying concrete blocks in British Gibraltar Territorial Waters between the North Mole and the runway. Nor was this action a surprise because the creation of reefs in different parts of British Gibraltar Territorial Waters, as part of Gibraltar’s marine protection strategy, was announced when the Government published the fishing report. These reefs will increase biodiversity and provide refuge for many marine species.

This was not some whacky idea dreamed up by Environment Minister Dr John Cortes over a plate of calamari but approved science. So whilst the Andalucía Government accuses Gibraltar of potentially damaging the environment it has emerged that Sevilla has created 480 square kms of exactly the same reef structures off its own coastline – a coastline that it shares with Gibraltar.

So why has Andalucía done this? It has installed 25 artificial reefs over the period 1989 to 2011to protect the marine environment and promote traditional fishing methods. These being more selective allow the regeneration of fishing resources and to ensure rational exploitation.

The whole scheme has cost 12 million euros and whilst Andalucía has paid 25 per cent of the cost the balance has come from EU fisheries funds – in other words EU tax payers throughout the community.

Andalucía has installed these reefs which contribute to the protection of the coastal zones and some of these are of high biological interest just as Gibraltar’s waters are. Most importantly they are also a defence against overfishing.

The reefs prevent the use of drag nets which are not authorized and their installation preserves the ecological value of the sites. It also promotes the breeding of many species of interest to fishermen. Once the number of these fish increases it is possible for them to be caught in a sustainable manner.

Perhaps somebody needs to sit down and explain all of this to the owner of the “Divina Providencia”, which fishes illegally in Gibraltar’s waters and the neighbouring La Línea and Algeciras fishing communities. The Andalucía Government, which is a socialist and far left coalition, should be asking itself a lot of uncomfortable questions on this issue too.

All of that being so the actions of the Guardia Civil at sea last Wednesday and Thursday and also of Spain in protesting against Gibraltar’s reef laying had nothing to do with the environment and everything to do with their claim over Gibraltar’s waters. Sovereignty in other words. Yet Gibraltarians and indeed the UK Government knew that anyway.

Hence we move on to Friday and the weekend when Spain again shot itself in the foot by making Gibraltarians, Spaniards, EU citizens and other nationals queue in their cars in the blistering heat for up to seven hours to cross the border in to La Línea.

Whatever argument Spain may have about Gibraltar protecting the environment, and on the face of it there is none, all the world has now seen the true face of the Partido Popular Government in Madrid. Nobody believes the queues had anything to do with the search for contraband but everything to do with Gibraltar having stood up for its internationally recognised rights. Its territorial waters are recognised by the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea so it is Spain and not Gibraltar that is the law breaker.

Spain has been shamed, Gibraltar’s environment is better protected and Gibraltar moves on whilst Madrid shows that it is Franco’s heart that that provides the beat of Rajoy’s Government.

(Photograph: Gibraltar’s Environment and Health Minister, Dr John Cortes, and Culture – Sports Minister Steven Linares hand out water to queuing motorists waiting to enter Spain on Saturday)

(The above article was published in the London Progressive Journal on July 29 2013).

Friday, July 19, 2013


A very notable event happened on the fourth of July. Apart from being Independence Day in the USA it was the date of a by-election in Gibraltar. The election was free and fair, the candidates and their parties behaved within the norms of electoral law – and here’s the big shock, the winning party, the GSLP, happened to be the socialist party in a coalition Government and increased its popularity with the voters.

Whilst in Old Europe we take free and fair elections for granted such a situation does not even hold true within the entire EU. Likewise whilst the majority of Old Europe sees its political parties act within the electoral norms there are other countries in the EU where vote rigging and buying are the norms instead. And here’s the real shock: Gibraltar has a government party entering mid-term which is more popular now with voters than when it was elected. That situation is very unique in Europe.

So whilst democracy is seemingly safe in Gibraltar there are worrying signs elsewhere that suggest that some countries may be becoming ungovernable or are indeed already there.

Let us look at Egypt for example when President Mohammed Morsi has been deposed from power in a ‘peaceful’ army coup, ‘peaceful’ being a relative term here. There may be many reasons why Morsi was not the man for the job or his party the one to unite Egypt. However the fact is he was elected to the post of president in the country’s first fair and free elections in our life time. The people of Egypt had every right to peacefully protest against his actions and policies: but did the army have the right to remove him from power? If we believe in democracy surely that is the job of the electorate at the next election.

In Bulgaria the popularist GERB government resigned in February after violent street protests over a hike in electricity prices which few could afford and the economic state of the EU’s poorest country. In the May general election GERB, which has links to organized crime and is notorious for vote rigging, was returned as the largest party but its share of the vote collapsed. It could not govern on its own so the socialist BSP which came second joined a coalition to keep GERB out. However to do so it had to pact with the Movement for Rights and Freedoms and the nationalist party ATAKA to rule. ATAKA is anti Turkish and anti Roma whilst the MRF speaks for both: the MRF also has a history of vote rigging.

Some initial mistakes by the new prime minister brought the same protestors out on to the streets again and even the president has now suggested that new elections will have to be called. If so where does Bulgaria go from here? Do the protestors want GERB back? Certainly not. Do they want a socialist government, possibly, but even the BSP has in the past had links with its communist roots, oligarchs and criminals. Do they want the MRF or ATAKA to govern? Hardly. So how do you run a country when the rejected options are the most voted for parties even if vote rigging and buying is rife? The current anti-GERB coalition is far from perfect but it is realpolitik like it or not.

In Spain Transparency International reports that 86 per cent of Spaniards believe their politicians are corrupt as Rajoy wobbles under the sleaze accusations of Bárcenas. The political and summer heat is getting much hotter for the Partido Popular Prime Minister.
In a country where over 26 per cent of people are jobless, where if you are young you a more likely to be on the dole than in work, where thousands have lost their homes and are still deep in debit, where the economic crisis stumbles from bad to worse then for how long are people going to stand idly by whilst they are ruled by crooks. My guess is for not long at all and social upheaval will soon be upon Spain as it is in Turkey and has been in Greece.

Italy and Portugal could well be next.

Gibraltar was already remarkable in that Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus and people of other religions and none live side by side in perfect harmony in a world where that is far from the norm. In addition to that distinction Gibraltarians can get on with their lives safe in the knowledge they live in a stable democracy, as solid as their Rock.

However there are warnings for Gibraltar’s politicians and voters in what is happening around the world. The warning to its politicians is that voters will not accept governments that govern for themselves and not the people. The warning to its voters is to treasure the open, free and fair democracy they enjoy and protect it with all their might – because it is rarer and more fragile than they may think.

(Photograph: Albert Isola, the GSLP’s successful by-election candidate).

(The above article was published in the London Progressive Journal on July 19, 2013 and a version appeared in Panorama on July 17, 2013)

Tuesday, July 16, 2013


The article based on the findings from Transparency International on its Global corruption Barometer was squeezed in at the bottom of the Spanish newspaper. This isn’t because the editor thought it unimportant it is just that the reports on the various corruption cases engulfing the centre right Partido Popular left little space.

Likewise there just isn’t space in this article to even given an overview of such cases as “Gürtel” and “Bárcenas”, which lead to the very top of the governing PP. However I will mention that Spain’s Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy is pretending the “Bárcenas” case, revolving around former PP treasurer Luis Bárcenas and his numerous secret accounts abroad, simply did not happen. This despite Rajoy possibly being a beneficiary of part of these funds and refusing to sack Bárcenas when he took over from José María Aznar. Meanwhile Aznar has offered to come back and save the nation from the crisis and Rajoy even though Bárcenas was his treasurer and the Aznar links to this corruption case go very deep indeed. The PP now has major figures such as Esperanza Aguirre calling on Rajoy to recognise the irregularities and to undertake an internal party reform – “because Spain needs a clean PP”. Some hope.

Aguirre was speaking inside the PP’s regional executive meeting in Madrid. Outside were some 500 protestors calling for Rajoy to resign. There were cries of “PP, thieves, we want resignations” and “Rajoy and Cospedal, to Soto del Real”, Cospedal is the secretary general of the PP and president of Castilla-La Mancha regional government: the Soto del Real a prison where Bárcenas is being held.

So what does the Spanish man and woman on the street make of all this? Not a lot: indeed the majority view political corruption as being one of the major problems facing Spain.

In the CIS opinion polls in 2013 corruption has been at either number two or three in the preoccupations of Spaniards. This has been borne out by the Transparency International Global Barometer with 114,000 people being questioned in 107 countries.
According to Transparency International Spain is one of the countries where corruption is perceived to be “a very serious problem”. Spain scores 4.5 out of 5 on the corruption rating whereas the international average is 4.1. Spain is also third amongst European countries where corruption is a major concern to citizens after Greece and Portugal.

Nor has the corruption stopped: indeed Spaniards believe it has grown since 2011. Two out of three Spaniards questioned were indignant over the corruption levels (the famous “Los Indignados” of street protests) which is far higher than the international average of 53 per cent.

Spaniards are in no doubt of where the corruption lies. A staggering 83 per cent point to the political parties followed closely by Parliament itself. In contrast the worldwide view is that the major focuses of corruption are the police and civil servants – public employees and not politicians.

The problem for Spain’s political parties is that it is not just the Partido Popular that is immersed in sleaze. The opposition socialist PSOE, which has its own numerous corruption cases, is viewed in a similar light. Hence PSOE’s reluctance to try and force the PP to call an election over the Bárcenas scandal. The socialists have called on Rajoy to resign but for the PP to stay in government.

One party to be viewed favourably is Izquierda Unida which has been picking up votes largely at the expense of PSOE. However even the IU’s hands are not clean with recent corruption scandals in two small municipalities on the Costa del Sol – Casares and Manilva – which have in recent years seen the far left party in control of their respective town halls.

(The above article appeared in the London Progressive Journal on July 11 2013 with versions in other publications). 

Monday, July 1, 2013


In April and May I wrote several articles for the London Progressive Journal on the political situation in Bulgaria. These were before and just after that country’s general election. The first articles were largely based on reports by Transparency International: the latter about my experiences as an observer at the elections. This article comes after I have re-visited Bulgaria to find its democracy in a very delicate state indeed.
Just before I left I wrote an article for the Gibraltar newspaper ‘Panorama’ in which I stated how much I was looking forward to this visit. The last had been tense to say the least: now with the BSP, Bulgaria’s socialists, the largest party in the new government I was looking forward to attending the Party of European Socialists Council which was held last weekend. I had also allowed time to see more of the country and to visit friends made during the elections.
However my image of a Bulgaria now at peace with itself was far from accurate. There seemed to more police around than usual when we arrived on the Tuesday night. On the Thursday our friends in Kyustendil where we were staying told us of protests in Sofia and in local towns. By the time we came back to Sofia for the PES Council on Friday we had been summoned to a security meeting and the event was held amidst tight security.
To wind back in time the populist GERB government had been brought down in February by angry, violent street demonstrations. The centre right party was accused of abuses of democracy, links to organised crime, election rigging, creating an economic crisis whilst allowing electricity prices to rise, which a country with 50 per cent of its population in extreme poverty, could ill afford.
After the May 12 election GERB was still the largest party but its number of MPs had collapsed and no other elected party would pact with it. Hence the second placed BSP, which was the only party to increase its vote and number of MPs, formed a coalition with the Movement for Rights and Freedoms, a member of Liberal International. Together they have 120 of the 240 seats in Parliament and hence rely on the support of the nationalist party ATAKA to rule. However ATAKA is anti Turkish and anti Roma whilst the MRF speaks for both. It was a pact to restore a functioning democracy amongst parties who largely had nothing in common. Whether it is a marriage made in heaven or hell remains to be seen currently it is in purgatory.
On May 29 former finance minister Plamen Oresharski, an up to now respected figure, was appointed Prime Minister. He had the support of the BSP and the other two parties. GERB has largely boycotted parliament since they were ousted from power making a mockery of the elected chamber. ATAKA, who previously supported GERB in government, have also been absent on occasions.
At a time when Bulgaria needed peace and stability Oresharski made a number of major political blunders. There are now street protests in Sofia and wider Bulgaria over the inclusion of the MRF in the new coalition and the decision of Oresharski to appoint MRF MP Delyan Peevski, a controversial media mogul who is linked to a corruption scandal, as head of the State intelligence agency, DANS. This latter decision was quickly revoked and acknowledged as a mistake but the damage was done.
A regional governor from the MRF, Ventsislav Kaymakanov, has been appointed in Plovdiv, Bulgaria’s second city, which has caused more street protests. Dozens of people have also gathered in front of the building of the district administration in the city of Blagoevgrad to protest against the appointment of Musa Palev as district governor. These Turkish appointments have been made in areas where virtually no Turks live.
The MRF is a party whose main goals are the interests of the Muslims and its principal electorate are the minority groups Turks, Roma, Muslim Bulgarians and Bulgarian Turks in Turkey. The MRF is widely distrusted, has been accused of major election abuses alongside those of GERB and its ethnic and religious orientation breaks article 11 of the Constitution of Bulgaria.
Many of those Bulgarians who wanted a new dawn after the May 12 elections are in despair that the MRF are in government and suspect them of pulling many strings in their interests to keep the coalition in power.
If you read one English on-line Bulgarian newspaper, which obviously supports GERB, you would be led to believe that Sofia and wider Bulgaria is witnessing street riots of the same intensity as those that drove GERB from power. There are no such protests. However GERB wants people to believe the country is in ferment and they are being called back to save the nation.
In contrast if you scan the BBC or other reputable websites for news you will find little or nothing of the unrest – but protests there are.
I watched a lengthy one pass last Friday evening which went on for some 40 minutes through the main streets of Sofia. It was noisy but so peaceful that police only escorted it to show the way. These were not GERB supporters but largely young people who want a new start for their country.
These people feel let down by the new government that includes the MRF and which has made serious errors from day one. It is hard for them to accept that the BSP, to be pragmatic and to bring stability to Bulgaria, have to pact with this party as well as ATAKA that are an anathema to the majority of ordinary people. The BSP itself is in turmoil especially over the original appointment of Delyan Peevski with resignations and a vote of confidence which BSP Leader and PES President Sergei Stanishev won. It has to be said many PES leaders from around Europe, whilst fully supportive of the BSP and Stanishev, share many of the protestors’ legitimate concerns. Rarely in recent years have socialist principals been so keen tested.
The unpalatable alternative is fresh elections with the likelihood that GERB would again seize power with the inevitable decline of Bulgaria into an authoritarian, corrupt State. It is an unholy mess and that is why I say democracy in Bulgaria is in a very delicate state indeed.
By the by Transparency International in Bulgaria is producing a report on the May elections with recommendations for improving the electoral process for the future. Once that document is produced I will bring you its findings – in English.

(The above article was published in the London Progressive Journal on June 28 2013)