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spain-constitutional-amendment

Spain Votes to Implement Deficit Limit in Constitution

Friday 2nd September may well go down in history in Spain as a mostly unified bipartisan congress voted amend the constitution to limit the amount of Spain’s public debt and avoid a repeat of the current financial crisis.

Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero and leader of the opposition Mariano Rajoy, respectively leaders of the two largest parties between them had enough votes to ensure congress would pass the budget deficit amendment, though all of the smaller nationalist and fringe parties abstained or were not present during the vote. The bill passed congress 316 to 5 with 29 abstentions.

The amendments make two important provisions for future Spanish and regional governments with respect to financial afairs, with national and community governments now expected to balance their annual budgets, and a debt ceiling imposed on national and community level governments of 0.26% of GDP and 0.14% of GDP respectively.

With Friday’s vote, Spain becomes only the second state in the European Union to constitutionally limit public debt, and at a combined 0.4% for national and community governments is well below the current EU limit of 3% of GDP. The reforms will come into effect in 2020, with reviews of the percentage amounts possible in 2015 and 2018.

Whilst the vote never seemed to be in doubt, the lack of support from the smaller parties is a worrying sign that PSOE and PP as the nation’s two largest parties are not getting the support of smaller parties and begs the question what will happen after the next general election as the two majors line up for the possibly inevitable coalition government that is a hallmark of Spanish politics.

Numerous political parties, trades unions, and the M15 protest movement called for a referendum on the amendment, with the intention of voting against both the constitutional change and the other austerity measures the government has introduced at the insistance of the IMF and European Central Bank (ECB). Major trade unions with millions of members, nationalist parties with sizable bases in Catalonia and the Basque countries, as well as the enormous pulling power of the M15 movement now look set to challenge the two main parties in the coming months.

Assuring the constitutional amandment passes Spain’s senate will be the next task of Zapatero and Rajoy, though they are not expected to face much dissension within their party ranks. The more serious challenge comes from the UPyD party whose leadership have filed notice they intend to appeal the reform in the Constitutional Court on the grounds the measure was rushed through without proper consultation.

Spain’s national deficit of 9.2% of GDP in 2010 is now looking like might drop to 6% by the end of the 2011 financial year, and both the PSOE and PP have committed to bringing Spain’s national debt down to the EU mandated limit of 3% by 2013. These measures are intended to avoid a repeat of a Greek style bailout for Spain but with Italian austerity measures looking doubtful Spain may yet be forced to call in the IMF.

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Lifting the lid on Tapas

The original Tapa was a small dish that the camarero (barman) would place over your drink – hence the name: lid. The reason for this practice is unclear: perhaps it was to keep the flies off; perhaps it was the combination of poverty and heat, which made eating a large meal impractical. Either way, the important thing was that the snack was free!

Nowadays, tapas have evolved from those humble beginnings to become practically an art form in Seville and Granada. In some cities (Granada and Jaen for example) you will often automatically be given a tapa whenever you order a drink; in most other places except to pay a couple of euros for most tapas.

There are four basic sizes of tapa:
pincho – mouthful
tapa – saucerful
media-racion – half a plateful
racion – plateful

The tapas list will be displayed on a menu at the bar, or a board on the wall, or, most likely, you just take your pick of what you fancy from trays under a glass counter. If you eat at the bar, you’ll pay the price on the menu; if you eat at a table or outside on the terraza, you’ll end up paying double about 25 per cent more. Settle the bill once you have finished eating, rather than when you order.

Classic Tapas
Aceitunas (rellenos) – Olives (stuffed)
Albondigas – Meatballs
Almendras saladas – Salted almonds
Boquerones en vinagre – Fresh anchovies in vinegar
Calamares rellenos – Stuffed baby squid
Calamares a la Romana – Fried battered squid rings
Calamares en su tinta – Squid cooked in its ink
Chanquetes – Whitebait
Chorizo al Vino – Spicy sausage in red wine
Croquetas – Croquettes
Empanadas – Flat pies
Empanadilla – Small fried pasties
Ensaladilla de Rusa – Russian salad
Flamenquines – Ham and pork rolls
Fritura de pescado – Flash fried fish
Gambas al ajillo – Prawns in garlic
Huevos rellenos – Stuffed hard boiled eggs
Jamon serrano – Cured ham
Mejillones al vapor – Steamed muscles
Pan con tomate – Bread rubbed with fresh tomatoes
Patatas ali oil – Potatoes in garlic mayonnaise
Patatas Bravas – Potatoes in a spicy sauce
Pimientas de Padrón – Fried hot small green peppers
Pincho moruno – Grilled meat brochette
Pisto manchego – Ratatouille wtih meat
Pollo al ajillo – Garlic chicken
Revuelto – Scrambled eggs
Riñones al Jerez – Kidneys in sherry
Sobrassada – Soft Mallorcan paprika sausage
Tortilla Española – Spanish Omelette

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Malaga’s Alcazaba Fortress and Gibralfaro Castle

On the city’s highest ramparts are the dual fortresses, the Alcazaba and the Gibralfaro castle, both originating in their present form from the Moorish period, though parts of the Alzacaba are known to have been built on ruined Roman structures.

Malaga has recently started to shine as a tourist destination, latest statistics suggesting over 750,000 passengers of cruise ships tour the city every year, so it isn’t surprising that repairs to many of the city’s best monuments have been carried out. The Alcazaba area is one in particular that has benefited and is now an essential site to visit.

At its highest point are the towers of the Gibralfaro Castle, proudly standing more than 130 metres above the city port and giving spectacular 360 degree views of the city and just below, the Plaza de Toros of Malaga. The castle is the newest structure in the complex, having been built in the 14th century by Yusuf I, and is believed to have been constructed on an earlier Phoenician tower that may have been a lighthouse.

Actually the name Gibralfaro is descended from the Phoenician word for light, Jbel-Faro, and being a semitic language, shared this root with later Arabic tongues that came to be used in Al-Andalus. The word faro has entered Spanish from this and generally means lighthouse.

The Alcazaba (from the Arabic al-qasbah, قصبة, meaning “citadel”) lies further down from the castle, though the two are connected and the 2 euro entrance fee will get you into both. Malaga was an important port city for the Kingdom of Granada, but long before that had been both part of the Emirate of Cordoba, and after its fall to the Christian monarchs, the city became nominally independent under the Algerian Zirid dynasty. It was in this time that King Badis of the Zirids built the Alcazaba in the 11th century.

Within the Alcazaba is the military citadel of the Moors of Malaga, as well as the Grenadine Palace (Cuartos de Granada) where governors of the city would live whilst in control of Malaga. The palace itself is in parts older than the Alhambra, and may in fact have been an influence when the Alhambra was built, and many visitors to Malaga’s Alcazaba consider it more beautiful, though it is clear the gardens in Malaga’s Alcazaba are smaller and not as impressive.

Whilst Almeria’s Alcazaba is the biggest in all of the territory formally ruled by the Moors of Al-Andalus, the Alcazaba in Malaga is considered the most complete and best preserved in Spain, and is still a huge monument that defies a quick look around. Expect to dedicate at least 3 hours or more to fully exploring the Alcazaba in Malaga.

Part of the reason the Alcazaba is so big relates to the defensive walls built around the hill with huge towers, gates, and double backed entrances designed to make the fortress easy to defend, and impossible to attack. Despite being under Muslim rule for nearly 800 years, very little of that period could ever be said to have been completely peaceful.

Within the walls of the Alcazaba several towers and gates stand, Puerta de la Boveda, Puerta de las Columnas, Torre del Cristo, Puerta de los Cuartos de Granada, and Torre del Homenaje, tha last of which was where Ferdinand and Isabella hung their standard after conquering Malaga in 1487.

A highlight of the tour of the Alcazaba is the living areas of the Moorish governors in the Cuartos de Granada. It is still possible to see how these people lived, and the ornate walls and pillars should not be ignored. Mudejar carpentry and design are evident in the ceilings and wood panelling, with many patios opening to ponds and small gardens.

Malaga’s small but interesting Archeological Museum is housed within the Alcazaba.

Albondigas Claras

Albóndigas Claras (“Pale” Meatballs)

Pork is a staple of the Andalucian diet, and has been so for six hundred years. In the times of religious intolerance, when Jewish and Arabic people were being expelled from Spain, the Andalucians made a point of cultivating a cuisine which would be offensive to those “infidels” who chose to stay! We live in far more tolerant circumstances today, and we can enjoy our culinary heritage with easy consciences.

Albóndigas are a quick and convenient way of using up the remains of a family joint. In modern times we simply ask the butcher for minced pork, but in the days before refrigeration (not so long ago here in Andalucia – my childhood was spent in total ignorance of such luxuries!) and when strict religious observance forbade the eating of meat on certain days, there had to be a swift way of cooking up the last of the leg of pork – and albóndigas was that way!

Many are the forms albóndigas can take, including meatballs made of cod, but by far the most common are albóndigas oscuras (“dark” meatballs, simmered in tomato sauce) and albóndigas claras (“pale” albóndigas, prepared with a light almond sauce). We shall be making the latter today. (By the way, the name “albóndigas” is pronounced with the stress on the “bon”, so it’s al-BON-digas.)

Albóndigas Claras

This recipe will make sufficient meatballs for 6 servings

Meatball Ingredients

  • 500 grams (18 oz) of minced pork
  • 50 grams (2 oz) of bread
  • 1 beaten egg
  • 1 clove of garlic
  • 2 tablespoons of finely-chopped onion
  • 2 tablespoons of finely-chopped parsley
  • flour
  • salt
  • pepper
  • nutmeg
  • olive oil

Sauce Ingredients

  • 25 almonds, blanched and skinned
  • 1 slice of bread
  • 2 cloves of garlic
  • 1 cup of caldo (ie, stock)
  • 10 peppercorns
  • olive oil
  • half a teaspoon of saffron
  • salt
  • 1 small glass of white wine
  • milk

Preparation

Put the minced pork in a bowl. Soak the bread in milk, then squeeze off the excess and place it in with the pork. Crush the garlic and add it, also blending in the onion, parsley, salt, nutmeg, pepper and the beaten egg. Mix it thoroughly, so that an even paste is achieved.

Taking pieces of the paste, and with flour on your hands, roll them into spheres about the size of golf balls. The balls can now be fried on a gentle heat until they are cooked through. When brown on all sides, they can be taken off the heat.

Fry the almonds in oil, together with the bread and garlic. Blend the peppercorns and saffron, using a little salt, then add the almond mixture to this. Work in the wine, so that you end up with a smooth paste. This can now go back into the hot oil, to which the caldo is now added. This will need only a few minutes to form a delicious sauce.

The meatballs can now be added to the sauce, and heated gently for about 20 minutes. If the sauce starts to turn viscous, add a little more caldo or water.

¡Buen provecho!

Spain Announces Constitutional Change to National Budget

Responding to deep international criticism of Spain’s budget deficit, Prime Minister Jos Louis Rodriguez Zapatero today announced his intention to seek a constitutional amendment that would require future governments to maintain a balanced budget, and would set limits on public sector borrowing.

Just a few days ago Germany and France together called for all Eurozone countries to adopt balanced budgets and cap spending as a percentage of GDP to avoid repeats of the current financial crisis facing the Euro.

Today’s announcement has broad political support, with Mariano Rajoy the opposition  leader stating his intention to help push through the 60% majority vote needed in parliament to change the constitution.

If passed the new measures are intended to boost confidence in Spain by the international financial community, and will be a significant reform as Spain battles reduced ratings making borrowings more expensive.

As well Zapatero announced that Friday will see further steps to reduce Spain’s high unemployment rate with changes to temporary employment contracts and additional funding for industry training to be allocated.

Low quarterly growth rates in the Spanish economy, with third quarter growth estimated at 0.2%, have however been welcomed, and with recent austerity measures expected to save an additional 5 billion euros in 2011, the government is cautiously optimistic the worst of Spain’s financial woes may soon be over.

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Opening a Bank Account in Spain

It seems redundant to give advice about opening a bank account given how generally easy the process is, yet a lot of foreign residents really struggle with this, so for those who don’t speak much Spanish here is a quick guide to Spanish banking.

First, like English speaking countries Spain also has two general types of bank, regular banks (banco) that offer full banking services, and savings banks (cajas or caixas) that these days offer the same services as most banks. Unlike the UK, the distinction between a bank and building society has never really existed in Spain, the cajas started as non-profit savings banks, and could offer mortgages and finance, but so too could the banks.

Historically the cajas have been more popular due to charging lower fees and tended to have more branches, especially in the smaller villages, whereas most banks restricted themselves to the towns and cities and also offered more in the way of business banking services. The cajas all have a social component to them and tend to sponsor cultural events and services for the elderly or infirm.

As for which you choose to use for your own banking needs, you’ll find that all bancos and cajas will offer much the same services, couched in different marketing spin, and all offer banking for residents and non-residents alike. Most of the decision as to which to open an account with will come down to price and preference.

As a foreigner in Spain there are two types of account you can open, a resident account, or a non-resident account, and each is self-explantory;

Resident Bank Account
The determining factor as to which the bank opens on your behalf is whether you have registered for a Número de Identidad de Extranjero (NIE number). If so, the bank is legally obliged to open a resident account for you, and will then withhold a portion of the interest earned to cover taxes. This type of account requires a passport and NIE certificate to be opened.

Non-Resident Bank Account
If you are not a resident, ie you don’t have an NIE number, then you will be offered a non-resident account where interest earned is not withheld and fees are generally higher. This type of account only requires a valid passport or ID document from your country of origin. Every six months the banks and cajas are required by law to establish your residence status, a process that is done without input from you, but may cost you money anyway in fees.

Opening an account of either type is a relatively painless process. You go to the bank of your choice, tell the teller you wish to open an account, give them your identity papers and usually proof of address, fill in some forms, make a token deposit, and a few days later return to collect your ATM card. It’s likely you’ll be given a bank book (libreta) when you open the account if these are still issued, most cajas seem to do this but some banks don’t.

Depending on the account features, you may be issued a regular maestro card, or a Visa/Mastercard debit card which can be used as if it was a credit card, but without incurring debt since the funds will only be charged to the card if there is sufficient funds in your linked account.

Credit cards need to be applied for separately, and different conditions apply for acceptance, for example having a job or owning your own business.

The banking sector in Spain is quite modern, and all banks will have their own automatic teller machines, and most have Internet banking facilities. In the more progressive or tourist centres it is also common to find tellers and managers with good English or French/German language skills.

Movistar

Dave Bull’s Guide to Utility Companies in Spain

Movistar

Dave Bull’s guide to…
THE REALLY USEFUL COMPANIES
…and Movistar

 

UTILITY COMPANIES

firstly let me say that it is NOT LIKE BACK HOME when you deal with the utility companies here – especially bleeding Movistar, but don’t let me get started on them or we’ll be here all day. I thought we’d put together a little info that you may or may not already know – about the big utility companies that we have to deal with here. Now did I mention Movistar…?

When dealing with utilities the normal method is to settle bills via direct debit and believe me, it’s better to arrange for itemised bills to be sent in so you can check them and sort out problems straight away. Also regularly check that the bills are actually getting paid because they don’t hang around out here if they are going to disconnect you.

Water
Most properties get their water from one of the main water companies here in Spain and that company is responsible for the infrastructure of the supply and must maintain it. That means it’s the same as the UK where they are responsible up to the meter.
You will usually get your bill every two months, although some companies invoice quarterly while others do it only twice a year (know how they feel…).

Not a lot of people know that…

What a lot of people do not know is that if you should have a problem with a leak and you’re left with a hefty bill – go and talk to the Aguagest office because if it is your side of the meter (and in reality – your problem) you can get an official plumbers receipt and claim up to 30% of the cost of the bill back! Be warned though that it must be a proper (licensed) plumber – not that dodgy bloke in the tatty car….

Electricity
The whole of the Costa Blanca can turn its lights on in the evening and say ‘thanks’ to Iberdrola who are the only supplier. Whether you actually want to say thank you or not, they will bill you every two months for the power you have used and an additional standing charge for, well, being a good customer…?

Telephone
Many small companies are beginning to spring up since de-regulation but, unfortunately for you, you will, more than likely, have to deal with Movistar at some point. Now, Movistar, where do I start? Well, perhaps their motto should be ‘don’t hold your breath’ because once you’ve dealt with them that is what you will say to the next person who asks your advice about contacting Movistar.

Quite frankly, Movistar is one of the most unprofessional, disorganized, inept companies every to grace the planet – and that’s the good bit… people have waited months and sometimes, years for a telephone line with no customer service to help them out. The have a customer service line (1004) which is about as useful as a bacon slicer at a Bar Mitzvah and if you want to speak to someone in English? Forget it, especially if it is a fault or complaint that you’re calling up about. If I had a choice, I’d sooner put my hand in a blender (again) than deal with Movistar.

Gas
The gas bottles that we use here are supplied by Repsol (orange) and Cepsa (silver) and contain butano mostly. Both companies have either depots or outlets such as garages where customers can exchange their empty bottles and in some areas home deliveries are made every week.

Mains gas is now arriving on the scene but with the relatively small demand for gas (especially in the summer) take up on that option is slow and the majority of homes still use the bottles.

For any appliances that use gas – you must use an approved plumber or risk losing your supply (and/or life).

Disconnected
If you are cut-off by any of the utility companies it is an absolute pain in the culo to get switched on again. You’ll be asked to pay into a bank account – at a certain time of day – then they’ll want you to fax the payment and all your account details to their office. Then it is understood they sit on it for a couple of days before, hopefully, you get switched back on within the promised ’48 hours.’ Oh, and then they’ll add a ‘reconnection charge’ on your next bill which is usually well out of proportion to the work involved. Trust me, don’t get disconnected – keep an eye on the bills and when they are due to make sure they get paid.

Spanish Govt Introduces More Austerity Measures, Cuts Taxes on New Homes

As pressure mounts on Spain’s socialist led government from the EU and finance markets, the government has announced further austerity measures in its hopes of reducing the budget deficit and convince investors that positive economic growth can be expected.

Announcing the measures, Development Minister José Blanco stated that 700,000 new homes remain unsold after the property market crash in Spain, and that reducing the IVA on new homes from 8% down to 4% until the end of the year.

Spain’s decade of housing boom ended with the beginning of the financial crisis in 2008, leaving an estimated 2 million new properties unsold, and leading to Spain having the highest private debt burden in the Eurozone. Though the almost complete meltdown of the construction industry has meant more than half of these new properties have since been sold, the resultant slashing of home prices by as much as 50% in some markets has not been without pain to Spanish home buyers.

Corporate tax payments worth some 2.5 billion euros have been brought forward to 2011 with a decree aimed at boosting government coffers before the Nov 20 election. The socialist government is currently polling to lose the election and appears to be frantically aiming to minimise election losses by introducing measures to bring more stability to the economy.

As well, the government announced restrictions on doctors prescribing branded medications, instead insisting the generic or unbranded medicines must now be prescribed in an effort to shave a further 2.4 billion euros off the national debt.

In the last week, the European Central Bank has been buying up Spanish debt to avoid a possible default by Spain, and at the same time German Chancellor Merkel, and French President Sarkozy have been increasing pressure on Spain to make concerted efforts to cut the budget deficit now, and not after the election.

Previous efforts to stabilise the economy and reduce the debt burden included a sales tax (IVA) increase, slashing of public sector wages, and freezing of pensions.

Economic growth has been affected by the austerity measures, with 2011 forecast growth of 1.8% downgraded to 1.3%, though current forecasts from the National Statistics Institute suggest 0.7% growth might be more realistic. This on top of an official unemployment rate above 20%, the highest in the Eurozone.

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