Cameron on benefits

I haven't written much before now on the upcoming EU referendum because the focus of debate—at least, as framed by the Tories—centres on matters which are of very little concern to me. Indeed, I think that by focusing on these things rather than matters which should be of much more fundamental concern about what the EU is doing, or shows every sign of doing in the near future, we are actually reducing the chances of getting the EU reforms we really need.

Here is a short clip from last night's news which shows the hypocrisy behind David Cameron's stance on immigrants receiving in-work benefits.


Anyone who gives the matter any thought at all will be able to see the fundamental flaw in his argument. Our system is set up in such a way that every single non-immigrant will, as he puts it, "get benefits out of the system" before we put a single penny into the system. A very great deal of benefits, in fact.

Everyone who has grown up in the UK will have benefitted from years of completely free education and health care provided by the state; and will almost certainly have made use of free social services and facilities provided by local authorities. On top of this, the government will have made direct cash payments for each child while they are growing up.

Looked at in broad terms, a person will only start "paying into the system" when they start work (apart from paying a little tax in the form of VAT on purchases) and it will probably take twenty years or so before the taxes they've paid into the UK system balance the benefits they took out of the system while they were growing up. On average, a person will probably "break even" in their forties; then for the next twenty years or so they will be net contributors to the benefits system; then they will retire and take money out of they system again in pension payments and increased health and social care. In round terms: 20 years of taking from the system, 20 years of paying it off, 20 years of being a net contributor to the system, 20 years to get it back again.


Now consider the position of a newly-arrived immigrant working in the UK. From the very first day they will be a net contributor to the UK system because of the tax and national insurance they pay.

That is why it is utterly offensive for Cameron to suggest that we should stop immigrants receiving in-work benefits for any amount of time, let alone four years. An immigrant receiving in-work benefits is certainly not getting "something for nothing". In fact, they will be anything up to 20 years ahead of the average UK citizen in terms of paying into our system.


Looking at the bigger picture, if there is any issue that should be addressed, it is the fact that the UK is benefitting from the education and expertise of immigrants at the expense of the country they have come from. It should be a very major source of concern that the UK encourages, for example, qualified doctors, nurses and other health professionals to work in our national health services. This holds true for all immigration, not just immigration from within the EU. Indeed, as has been said many times by many people, our NHSs wouldn't survive without them.

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Hinkley C is half-dead and on life support

There was a fairly good report and debate on Newsnight about the continuing delays to a final decision by EDF on the proposed Hinkley C nuclear power station in Somerset.


To a certain extent, I am as happy as Jenny Jones at this news. Nuclear power is not commercially viable, and the fact that EDF—even though it is 85% owned by the French Government—think that the uncertainties are so great that going ahead would risk bringing down the whole company is a sober reflection of economic reality.

The problem is that politics, or rather politicians, are involved; and the ones in power haven't quite got the same grip on economic reality. The events of the past year or so should have made it clear to everyone that the Tory Government at Westminster is determined to push ahead with nuclear power at the expense of what they call green crap ... and pig-headed enough to keep throwing money at nuclear until someone is foolish enough to commit to construction.

I don't want to see any new nuclear power stations built in Britain, because Britain can generate more electricity than we need on this island by developing renewables instead. However, if politicians are determined to go ahead with nuclear in spite of it not making commercial sense, it is obviously better for Wales that any nuclear power station that does get built is build somewhere other than in Wales. Paradoxically, the worse news would be for EDF to take the decision not to go ahead with Hinkley C, for it would mean that the government's focus of attention would switch to projects like Wylfa B, and similar ridiculous amounts of money would be thrown at it instead.


The EDF/China deal, if it went ahead as planned, would result in three new nuclear power stations: Hinkley B, Sizewell C and a Chinese-designed reactor at Bradwell. We need to be clear that the Chinese have only agreed to finance the first two in return for getting the third. Building their own reactor in a Western country is what really matters to them. They will therefore put tremendous pressure on the UK and France to keep the deal alive.

So, for me, the best scenario would be for the Hinkley/Sizewell/Bradwell deal to be kept on "life support" for the time being because, while it remains half-alive, there is no way that the UK would commit to building a fourth nuclear power station. We can all see the mess that the Finns are in over Olkiluoto 3, and that the French are in over Flamanville 3. If these two governments have had so much trouble over building just one new nuclear power plant, does anyone in their right mind think the UK would commit to building four of them? Wales is safe for as long as the Hinkley/Sizewell/Bradwell deal is not killed off.

The UK government's decision to rapidly remove subsidies for wind and solar is, of course, a setback ... but only a temporary one. The big picture is that the price of renewable energy is continually coming down, and this will make wind and, especially, solar projects more commercially viable. It's only a question of when, not if. The current low oil and gas prices will almost certainly go back up, probably in two or three years, and when that happens we should expect to see an unstoppable rush towards renewables. At that point neither Chinese money, nor the largesse of a Tory government at the expense of taxpayers and electricity customers, will be able to keep the idea of new nuclear power in the UK alive any longer.

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Steady growth in Euskara-medium education

Prompted by this article on Nationalia, I've just been skimming through the Fourth Report of the Committee of Experts on regional and minority languages in respect of Spain, and was encouraged to see the continued growth of education through the medium of Euskara, the Basque language, in sections 372-378.


Pre-school ... 71.1%
Primary ... 63.7%
Secondary ... 55.9%


Pre-school ... 72.3%
Primary ... 65.4%
Secondary ... 57.7%


Pre-school ... 73.5%
Primary ... 67.4%
Secondary ... 59.4%

The next sections of the report also provide a useful insight into the place of adult education in developing new speakers of the language:

381 ... The Advisory Council on Basque has found that of the approximately 300,000 new Basque speakers attracted over the last three decades, 100,000 came from the teaching of adults and adult literacy and 200,000 from the general education system.

I must admit to some surprise at how high the figure for adult education is. Certainly we don't put anywhere near the same emphasis on teaching Welsh to adults. But then again, neither do we make competence in Welsh a reqirement for all but a small percentage of jobs in the public sector, nor do we fund adult leaning of Welsh to the tune of over €30m (£23m) a year.

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Misunderstanding the Dublin Regulation

Having just watched the BBC News, I was appalled at their sloppy reporting about refugees in Europe.

They repeated the old canard that refugees had a duty, as part of the Dublin Regulation, to claim asylum in the first EU member state they reached. And they repeat it several times in the online version of the story as well, for example they say that the EU:

"... wants to scrap the rule that means they [refugees] must claim asylum in the first country they arrive in and introduce a new dispersal scheme."


"... wants to scrap what is known as the Dublin agreement, which dictates refugees must claim asylum in the "first country of entry".

BBC, 20 January 2016

The Dublin Regulation places no such duty on refugees, nor can it. Instead it places a duty on member states to process the claims of asylum seekers.

The fundamental flaw with the system is that it has never been in the self-interest of member states to process those claims for refugees who, if left to their own devices, would simply pass through their territory in order to claim asylum elsewhere. It is easier to turn a blind eye and leave it to the next member state, or the next, or the next, to deal with them instead.

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In tribute to Artur Mas

There were times during the past week when I really thought the Catalan independence process had come off the rails. The language with which CUP was being criticized for maintaining its decision not to support Artur Mas as President of the Catalan government was vicious; a ploy which seemed to me to be primarily designed to make it clear to the electorate that CUP, and CUP alone, were to "blame" for them having to go yet again to the polls in early March. All the rhetoric was about new elections. Yet elections only made any sort of sense if those in favour of independence were confident that they would at least retain, if not enhance, their majority. But there was no evidence that they would, that's why I hoped that an agreement would be reached.

Now that things have been resolved, I don't really want to point any fingers of blame. But I think it might be helpful to look at things from the point of view of the players involved.


For CUP the situation was always clear. If they had been prepared to see Artur Mas as President, then they would almost certainly have joined with CDC and ERC in the Junts pel Sí coalition in order to fight the September elections. One of the reasons why they did so well in that election (increasing their representation from 3 to 10 seats) was surely because a good part of the pro-independence electorate shared their point of view. How could they be expected to abandon the main policy plank on which they had won those seats? Yet they were put under tremendous pressure to do just that.

To their credit, they did consider it. They went to their activists, more than three thousand of them, and debated the matter democratically. Narrowing down the options one by one, they eventually ended up with an exact tie between those who could hold their noses and accept Mas as President and those who couldn't. One more vote, and Artur Mas would have made it.

Because things were still unresolved after the meeting of 27 December, the matter was referred to a smaller executive committee, who decided against endorsing Mas as President by a margin of 36 to 30 (with 2 abstentions). Following that decision the leader of their parliamentary group, Antonio Baños, resigned, saying that achieving independence was more important than anything else. I have a good deal of respect for that viewpoint. I think that if any blame can be attached to CUP, it was that they didn't take advantage of the exactly even split among their membership to modify their position. They could perhaps have allowed their 10 MPs a free vote. But even that might not have helped; 5 votes for and 5 against would still not have been enough to get Mas elected.


For Junts pel Sí the situation was, quite obviously, all CUP's fault. How could any reasonable party with only 10 MPs hold a coalition of 62 MPs to ransom? Surely they should just give up their demands and let the majority have their way. But that was a rather blinkered way of looking at things. The reality was that Junts pel Sí, even though it was the largest party, was not a majority in a parliament of 135 MPs; and it wasn't just CUP who didn't want Artur Mas as President, but every other party too ... it's just that they had different reasons for not wanting him. For the PP, PSOE and Ciutadans, Artur Mas was the arch-demagogue who was threatening to break up Spain; but for CUP, wanting independence was Artur Mas's only positive feature, their problem with him was that he was right-of-centre, and therefore pro-austerity, and that his party was tainted with corruption.

What made the situation worse was that, even though all this was obvious from the moment the results of the election on 27 September were announced, nobody showed any inclination to sort the problem out. Instead, everyone just put the problem on the back burner for two months in order to concentrate on the Spanish election of 20 December, hoping that the result of that election would help clarify what to do. As it happened, it didn't clarify anything; but two months of inactivity allowed the positions of both sides to gradually harden, and with the loss of any flexibility to come up with a clever solution it became an "all or nothing" confrontation.

Despite what they might say, I would say that Junts pel Sí never really offered any sort of compromise to CUP. But there are understandable reasons for this. Junts pel Sí was a coalition put together solely to fight the September election as a plebiscite on independence. The main political partners were CDC and ERC, who agreed to split the list between them on 60:40 basis with Artur Mas as President (there were other minor parties and civic groups involved too) but in every regard other than their commitment to independence CDC and ERC are fierce rivals. For example, they fought the Spanish election of 20 December as separate parties.


For ERC the temptation to want to "revisit" the Junts pel Sí agreement would have been huge. CUP would certainly have accepted the ERC leader, Oriol Junqueras, as a more acceptable President than Artur Mas. Also it would be easy to justify the switch on the basis that Catalan public opinion has clearly swung to the left since the Junts pel Sí coalition was put together. As evidence for this, ERC increased their number of seats in the Spanish parliament from 3 to 9 in the December election, while CDC fell from 10 to 8. But the poll was topped, with almost a quarter of the vote, by En Comú Podem (Podemos, the Greens and the EUiA) who won 12 seats. Even the PSC-PSOE got a greater share of the vote than Artur Mas's party.

I think Oriol Junqueras deserves enormous credit for resisting this temptation. He and ERC never wavered from their position of sticking to the Junts pel Sí coalition agreement. But there is a good pragmatic reason for not wanting to upset the relationship between ERC and CDC. Between them, they have to govern Catalunya for the next eighteen months or so during the transition to independence; something that will not be easy given their political differences. Any breakdown of trust between them could make Catalunya ungovernable, and breaking the agreement would be seen as a breach of trust. Additionally, Junqueras isn't doing this for entirely altruistic reasons, it will probably make ERC the front runners for the first elections in an independent Catalunya in 2017.


For CDC the problem was that there was no obvious alternative from within the party to Artur Mas, and no real incentive to look for one. They have had more than enough heartache splitting from their long-standing partners UDC over the issue of independence.


So, in the end, it all came down to one person: Artur Mas himself. The events of the last few days have given us some pointers as to what was going on in his head.

For me, the obvious solution was to have accepted that he could not have the lead position in steering Catalunya to independence, but that he could have a lead position. Immediately after the September election, CUP proposed a "corale presidency" that would include Mas alongside one or two others. That wasn't technically possible because the parliament is legally required to choose one head of government, but it could have been done either on a rotating basis or with a "figurehead" president and two or three vice-presidents who actually wielded the political power.

But that clearly wasn't acceptable to him. It seems that he wanted to be the one and only President or nothing. I can't blame him for that. It's a matter of individual temperament and personality. However I will say that it was very big of him to stand down in the end. He deserves huge credit for doing so ... and all the more so because he, personally, has paid the biggest price.

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An enor-Mas sigh of relief

Sorry for the headline, but it's getting to look very much like Artur Mas has agreed to withdraw as a candidate to be the next President of the Catalan government, with Carles Puigdemont, the CDC mayor of Girona, as the agreed compromise candidate. If this is confirmed, CUP's vote will mean that he will be elected by an absolute majority in tomorrow's emergency session of parliament.

I'm not sure of all the details yet (such as what Mas' role will be in that government) but I am pleased, and enormously relieved, that this last minute agreement has been reached. Independence for Catalunya is now firmly back on track.

I'll write more when things have become clearer. Meanwhile, there's a breaking news stream here.

Update - 18:13, 9 January 2016

The text of the agreement between Junts pel Sí and CUP is here.

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Equally unimportant

I was amused by this story about local councillors in a small Catalan town being called by the courts to account for belittling, quite literally, the king of Spain.

Catalan town council in court over 'tiny' portrait of King Felipe VI

One republican-minded town in Catalonia came up with a nifty way around a law that requires the portrait of the monarch to be displayed in every council chamber.

The council passed a motion to downsize the image of King Felipe VI to one little bigger than a passport photograph. But their act of defiance has led to a legal complaint being filed by the state prosecutor in Tarragona.


All 17 town councillors of Torredembarra, a small municipality outside of Tarragona in Spain's northeastern region of Catalonia, have been called to appear before a judge for passing the motion to downsize the portrait of the monarch.

The council is run by the far-left separatist party CUP, which stands for an independent Catalonia and which is currently blocking the candidature of Artur Mas as the region's leader, making it likely that fresh elections will be called.

Lluis Suñé, an independent councillor complained that the investigation into the tiny portrait which has been on display since October was entirely politically motivated.

"It's a political decision because there is no article (within the law) specifying the size of the portraits beyond that that the King must be of equal or greater dimensions than the regional president," he told news agency Efe.

"We are absolutely convinced that we have not violated any law. Both the portrait of the King and that of the President of the Generalitat (Artur Mas) are exactly the same size".


Both the portraits of King Felipe and Mas are displayed side by side on the lintel above the door of the council chamber.

The Local, 7 January 2016

And, as we can see from the photo, they are indeed exactly the same size.

But I reckon the real significance of this story might have passed over a few heads.

If Artur Mas is seen as being as unimportant to Catalunya's pro-independence left as the king of Spain is, it perfectly illustrates why he is having so much difficulty getting their support in his attempt to hold on as President.

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If it works for the Baltic, why not for us too?

This is from an article in today's Guardian about a rail tunnel linking Finland and Estonia:

The dream has been given added impetus by a recent preliminary study which suggested that the fixed link could be built for between €9bn and €13bn (£6.6bn-£9.5bn), would treble travel and boost trade between the cities in its first decade, and see 25m journeys by 2040.

The undersea tunnel is made particularly attractive because of a planned €3.6bn Rail Baltica high-speed train line, which will run from Tallinn to Poland and link into western Europe’s rail networks – and could also potentially connect Helsinki directly via train to Berlin and beyond.

The cities are, however, banking on Brussels paying several billion euros towards the scheme, and have applied for EU funding to carry out full feasibility studies.

The Guardian, 6 January 2016

Although the article seems to concentrate more on the benefits to the cities of Helsinki and Tallinn, one of the factors that would make the project feasible would be that it would form part of the already-planned Rail Baltica high-speed train line, linking the Baltic States to Poland and Germany.


I think this is a very good idea, and would like to see it happen. However it struck me that the economic and technical feasibility of a rail tunnel between Estonia and Finland is almost identical to the economic and technical feasibility of a similar link between Wales and Ireland.

First, the distances involved are about the same. The distance between Finland and Estonia is about 75km, and the distance between Ireland and Wales is about 80km for the southern link (or 95km for the northern link) although the actual tunnel length will obviously be greater. Both maps below are to the same scale.



Finland and Ireland are remarkably similar in that they are roughly the same size in terms of population (Finland has 5.5m people, Ireland has 6.5m) and are both relatively rich in European terms. Finland has a GDP per head of 110% of the EU average, Ireland (the Republic) has a GDP per head of 134% of the EU average ... although adding the poorer Six Counties will bring that down. So although the costs of such infrastructure links are very large, the benefits to the more remote country at a European-wide scale, and therefore the economic feasibility of the project, are probably greater for a link to Ireland than for a link to Finland.

But there is also a remarkable parallel between Estonia and Wales as the poorer, less remote, countries. This map (click here for an interactive version) shows GDP per head at a NUTS 2 level.


The GDP per capita of Helsinki-Uusimaa is €39,300, and is €38,800 for Southern and Eastern Ireland. Estonia's is €19,500, West Wales and the Valleys' is €17,900, East Wales' is €24,900. So in just the same way as Estonia will benefit at a more local level from better links to a richer next-door neighbour, so will Wales benefit at a local level from better links to our richer next-door neighbour. Should anyone need reminding, the Republic of Ireland has a higher GDP per head than the UK.


I'm sure some people would dismiss the idea of a rail links between either Finland and Estonia or Ireland and Wales as a pipe dream. However I would say that long-term planning of this sort is necessary. We have to decide what we want our continent to look like and how we want it to work. If we suffered from a similar lack of foresight, we would have neither the Channel Tunnel between France and England, nor the Øresund (or Öresund) Bridge between Denmark and Sweden ... and I would find it hard to imagine a Europe without such links.

My point is simply that if there is a case for a rail tunnel between Finland and Estonia, then there is an equal, if not better, case for a rail tunnel between Ireland and Wales.

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It's a No

Following last Sunday's inconclusive meeting of CUP delegates to decide whether to support Artur Mas as President of the Catalan Government, a second meeting has been held today, and the answer is No.


What might this mean? There are several possibilities.

The basic arithmetic in the 135 member parliament is this:

Junts pel Sí (CDC and ERC) ... 62
CUP ... 10
Catalunya Sí que es Pot (Podemos, Green and EUiA) ... 11
PSC ... 16
PP ... 11
Cs ... 11

• The first possibility is that Artur Mas gets support (or that there are abstentions) from an unexpected source. It would be impossible to imagine the three Spanish unionist parties doing anything but voting against Mas. But it is possible that either one or two CUP members could be ... err ... persuaded, or one or two from Catalunya Sí que es Pot.

But it's only a possibility. CUP's objections to Mas centre on him being too right wing, and CSQP would have exactly the same objections. So I doubt that this will happen.

• The second, and to me most obvious, possibility is for Artur Mas to stand down as a candidate for President, and for someone else to stand instead. As I said in this post several months ago, this could be a figurehead President, with actual power in the hands of, say, two or three vice-Presidents ... and Mas could be one of these.

In essence, this would not be very different from the proposal that Junts pel Sí have already made, namely "a collegiate presidency composed of a President of the government and three government commissions".

• The third possibility is for there to be fresh elections.


This third option is the one that is generating most headlines, but I'd urge people to be wary of jumping to this conclusion for that reason. It's wishful thinking, because there is nothing the Spanish Unionist parties would want more than to get rid of the current pro-independence majority in the Catalan Parliament.

So the ball is in Junts pel Sí's court. They would have to be confident that new elections (probably in March) would result in another pro-independence majority. If they fail to get it, then Catalan independence will be put back by at least four or five years ... and who knows how the world will change in that time? But, on the other hand, if they do call it and win they might well get not only a majority of seats but a majority of the vote too.

As things stand, Catalunya is already on course for independence within about two years, with easily enough pro-independence MPs to carry all the necessary legislation through parliament. I don't see why they would want to put this at risk.

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Blwyddyn Newydd Dda


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