On the Wings of Hope

AVE at Sants Station

This essay ponders the interplay of risk, debt and optimism, with specific reference to the expansion of Spain’s high speed railway network. It summarises the renaissance of AVE expansion, reconciling different approaches to risk in the construction of transport infrastructure. The interaction of external finance within the Spanish societal structure is hypothesised as reliance on external debt with no internal counter-balances – a virtual economy characterised as Gross Domestic Optimism. The postscript asks what it means to invest in state, with reference to two evolving models – people and perception.

“On the Wings of Hope” is the final essay in a sequence of four titled, “The Art of Public Competition“, which together explore the competitive model underlying Spanish public transport. An anthropological analysis of the tension between this internal model and that of globalised economics, reveals the distortion of external finance on the internal workings of the art of public competition. The first essay in the sequence establishes the policy context for the liberalisation of public transport in Spain. The second explores the workings of the art of public competition using the example of interurban buses around Barcelona. The third examines how the art of public competition functions when one of its most important competitors is absent, using the case of post-Independència Catalunya.

AVE or Bust

Given all that has so far been described in this sequence of essays, it should be self-evident that grand public infrastructure, of the type Catalans and Spaniards came to expect in the early 2000s, can no longer be funded publicly. That the Generalitat de Catalunya’s post-Independència hiatus merely emphasised a reality first exposed by the 2008 Crisis. There is some evidence that the Generalitat, the regional government of Catalunya, had already shifted policy prior to the Referèndum, for example its 2017 proposal to replace the tolls levied on users of recently built strategic roads (those still under concession), with an annual “vignette” (tariff) paid by motorists for access to all such roads – which would generate a constant revenue stream with which to fund subsequent network development. With half these roads still administered centrally by Spain, Catalan policy would have to be shared with the Spanish government, which is itself deciding whether to maintain tolls when concession periods end. The 131st President of the Generalitat‘s personal commitment to the non-payment of tolls during 2012’s #NoVullPagar campaign, highlights how road tolls are a thorny issue in Spanish politics, not least in the wake of the recent financial failure, and consequent government rescue, of several high-profile highway concessions around Madrid. Funding the construction of new roads via private toll-raising concessionaires is broadly accepted (even if only by historic precedent), while perpetuating tolls on roads that are ostensibly already paid for resembles state taxation (even if the proceeds are hypothecated into transport projects). The resulting shift between private and public sectors has complex, long-term socio-political connotations. In the meantime, the evidence suggests that, unlike the Generalitat de Catalunya, the government of Spain has not accepted the “reality” that grand public infrastructure can no longer be funded publicly, and that it only need better risk management to achieve its pre-Crisis policies, as best illustrated by its current approach to high speed railways:

For several post-Crisis years Spain pursued ugly engineering compromises to maintain the illusion (in its Anglo-Castellano meaning of both ambition and deception) of a high speed railway building programme it could no longer afford. For example, by re-using historic railway alignments, even where those alignments mock “high speed”, as is the case for the ongoing integration of the 30 km/h Loja curves (on the line to Granada) into a network intended to reach 300 km/h. The “AVE” from Valencia to Castellón epitomised the problem: Implemented by dual-gauging (Iberian and International) one of the existing two tracks, (International gauge) AVE trains operated no faster than other trains on the same track, thus offered no additional utility beyond what could have been achieved by simply passing the AVE rolling stock through a gauge-changer. The claim that Castellón had been added to Spain’s high speed railway network was met with a good degree of Valencian cynicism, and did nothing to assuage the view that the government in Madrid ascribed a low priority to the Mediterranean Corridor (along the east coast).

2018 heralded a return to pre-Crisis high speed railway building, particularly in the north of Spain where none of the intended network had been completed beyond Valladolid – the Crisis having left an eclectic mix of disconnected infrastructure in its wake, from stations served by no trains, to depots maintaining no rolling stock. Works agreed in 2018 include Bilbao station, the most expensive railway station project in the history of Spain, a 720 million euro investment that makes the 240 million euros lavished on the temple to AVE that is Zaragoza Delicias, look cheap.

Compared to Castilla, the geology of northern Spain increases construction costs, as the Norte discovered in the 1860s – its route from Madrid to Irun cost around 550 thousand Pesetas per kilometre, compared to 208 thousand Francs per kilometre from Madrid to Zaragoza (the two currencies directly comparable because the Peseta and Franc maintained parity via the Gold Standard – although it should be noted that the Norte was actually dealing in “Reales de Vellón”, in a decade when the Spanish currency changed twice). Modern engineering techniques, such as the New Austrian tunneling method, may make many AVE route alignments possible, but such construction carries increased geological risk, as epitomised by the Pajares tunnels on the route to León and Asturias: Construction costs have more than tripled, to over 3 billion euros, as has construction time, from the five years anticipated in 2003 to perhaps twenty – while water leaks from punctured aquifers, and relentless landslides, raise doubts as to whether the line will ever open to its intended specification.

Risk is not necessarily so visual: For example, in the case of the failed highway concessions around Madrid, land purchases were budgeted on the assumption the land was categorised as rural, however that land was ultimately judged urban, greatly inflating the cost of acquiring it. Similarly, project management, even of relatively unambitious projects such as Girona’s concrete box of an AVE station, can get bogged down in local political disputes – not to mention the equivalent project in Barcelona, which was stalled for several years by anti-corruption audits. That ADIF-AV budgeted half a billion euros in 2017 to deal with litigation by its own construction contractors paints a dismal picture.

In 2017 the Spanish government legislated to moderate risk in public contracting: To spread risk across more contractors by encouraging the participation of smaller contractors through the contesting of more minor contracts, splitting large contracts, and measures such as ensuring prompt payment and improving transparency. And in parallel, to transfer risk to contractors, notably by limiting the modification of contracts with the private sector to no more than 50% of the original bid price. On genuinely risky projects, this dual policy of spread and transfer naturally tends to contradiction, since only larger companies can carry larger risks. Mid-sized construction companies remain unconvinced that the Spanish government’s approach to procuring transport infrastructure has actually changed. That the new legislation is simply patching up the cracks in the original (internal societally structured) model, is borne out by the counsel of the larger Spanish construction companies, who consider risk as a far more fluid, flexible component of project financing than the government: Shifting risk to reflect the capacity of each sector to manage it, adding value through the private sector management of projects over a longer period than the political electoral cycle, and conversely reacting faster than the public sector to offer short term flexibility. Not least because of their temporality, these are unmistakably lessons from the external, globalised environment in which these companies now operate.

Since the Crisis of 2008 Spanish construction companies have learnt to thrive in markets outside of Spain, their global dominance now second only to China: Their technical competence is not in doubt, nor is their ability to work effectively in different societal and administrative environments. Which makes their domestic environment all the more intriguing. Spanish national transport infrastructure is theoretically ripe for the application of externalised risk models:

  • The Spanish construction industry are both willing and able to adjust to more external organisational models. That adjustment does not necessarily suppose a radical change in epistemology. Rather that the internal societal model of knowable groups has the potential to be arranged differently, should it be exposed to a different environment.
  • The existing internal societal model has never worked well at the scale of national transport infrastructure, as described in The Expectations of Competition. Indeed the purpose of such transport infrastructure’s “presence” is precisely to bind groups that cannot know one another through the base societal “family” model.
  • The theological root of infrastructure presence – the boundary at which the state manifests the external (God) in nature – is surely just as capable of delivering alternative external concepts.

The inhibiting factor is elementary: The nation of Spain, by Westphalian definition, cannot be global. Spain, like other sovereign nations, is predicated on its ability to differentiate itself from the global whole. Since every element of the external that Spain accepts weakens itself as an entity, it is crucial that it uses external elements to strengthen itself as an entity. Since losing the European intellectual hegemony to the Dutch Republic, the question of what strengthens itself as an entity has plagued Spain, because its internal strength manifests in a different manner to the way the external (at least northern European) world measures strength. AVE is a contemporary example – its presence strengthens the internal idea of Spain, while its utility strengthens the external notion of economy. In practice a compromise between these internal and external assessments which perhaps satisfies neither adequately. A relentless tension – here between presence and utility – rather than a happy equilibrium be found, with respite ominously implying isolation. Given the stakes, exposure to externalised risk is moderated by the state: Unfettered external finance could weaken Spain more than it strengthens her, or might negatively alter the balance between presence and utility.

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The Moral of Sovereignty

Blanket Coverage

“The Moral of Sovereignty” is the fifth essay in a sequence that explores the current Catalan independence process. The first essay introduces The Act of Referèndum. The second, on hope, 1714 and All That. The third, Patria and Patrimonio, on state. Absolute Devolution, the fourth essay, on power. This essay characterises condominium.

“Spain tells UK not to lose its cool”, glanced the Guardian. “UK accused of losing cool … by Spanish minister”, gawked the BBC. “Spain taunts Britain for losing its composure”, glared the Sun. In the “Did you spill my pint?” prelude to the perennial pub brawl that is Gibraltar, only the reasonable protagonist, Spanish foreign minister Alfonso Dastis, had reason to be confused. Lord Howard’s evocation of Margaret Thatcher’s military defense of the Falklands (Malvinas) hardly evoked the reasonable tone with which Spain had become accustomed to dealing with its European partners. A tri-century grievance born of the same succession war as 1714 and All That. A rock whose thirty thousand residents remain fiercely loyal to both Britain and Europe. And now a very particular problem for Brexit, the United Kingdom’s anticipated exit from the European Union.

Gibraltar is reasonably considered a colony within the European Union because its territorial status as a British Overseas Territory is shared with an array of small colonial outposts, all internally autonomous but reliant on United Kingdom foreign policy. Unlike the Crown Dependencies (Isles of Man, Jersey and Guernsey – those within the broad definition of the British Isles, but not the United Kingdom), Gibraltar is not part of the European Union Customs Union, but is part of the European Union: Gibraltar shares its European Union membership with the United Kingdom, although Gibraltar’s autonomy means European directives have to be specifically passed by Gibraltar’s legislature. Such a complicated arrangement, for so few people, inevitably perpetuates its own exception – an exception the likes of which that none could reasonably establish afresh. The United Kingdom’s Brexit thusly also applies to Gilbratar, regardless of the will of the people of Gibraltar. While colonial status implies a genuine claim to self-determination, and hence a theoretical return to Europe as an independent state, that would force an almost impossible choice on Gibraltarians, apparently between Britain and Europe.

In 2002 the British government attempted to resolve Spanish claims by proposing the shared sovereignty, condominium, of Gibraltar. The concept was not so unfamiliar to Spain, even if the only territory it currently shares (on a six month rotation with France) is a small uninhabited island in the Bidasoa river. Catalunya’s Pyrenean borderlands contained several oddities: Andorra’s sovereignty was shared after 1278, albeit as a suzerainty – a vassalage offering tribute to both the Count of Foix (later France) and the Bishop of La Seu d’Urgell (later Spain). The arrangement effectively lasted until the French revolutionaries of 1793 renounced their share, although Andorra wasn’t admitted to the United Nations, and thus definitively sovereign, until 1993. A similar conflict was resolved differently in Val d’Aran, which in 1313 swore fealty to the Crown of Aragon (later Spain) in return for the valley’s local autonomy – an agreement that held until 1834. And again for Cerdanya, which was partitioned by the 1659 Treaty of the Pyrenees to leave Llívia (the ancient capital of Cerdanya) surrounded by France – albeit only a mile from the principal bordertown of Puigcerdà, and thereafter a tough border to enforce. All three examples were defined by the disagreements of surrounding dominant sovereign powers, but in each case the actual outcome was locally pragmatic, as befits the reality of Pyrenean geography. Such pragmatism acknowledges the de facto, the situation in fact or in practice: For example, an Aragonese monarch may have had a de jure (in law) claim on Val d’Aran, but since the valley was inaccessible from the south during winter, de facto Val d’Aran functioned with a degree of autonomy, and it was eminently sensible to acknowledge that reality.

The idea of shared sovereignty for Gibraltar was overwhelmingly rejected in a referendum, ostensibly because Gibraltarians did not wish to be “Spanish” – a view thus far unchanged by Brexit. Spain may justifiably be considered the enemy, but this is primarily a de jure fear. De facto, Gibraltar is strongly influenced by adjacent areas of Andalucía: 12 million people visit Gibraltar each year, daily visitor numbers roughly equal to the entire resident population, indicative of high economic and social inter-dependence. Likewise, Gibraltarians are far more culturally mixed than their British colonial status may imply, as likely to carry a British name as a Spanish name. Gibraltar’s “Britishness” is necessarily overstated to foster cultural unity – a direct reflection on the contemporary dominance of sovereign power, that the pragmatism of local coexistence is so readily overwhelmed by the power structure of national authority. So while a British-Spanish condominium would reflect the local character of Gibraltar, the very involvement of such sovereign powers now renders the feudal pragmatism of the Pyrenees impossible.

The rejection of shared sovereignty reflects a wider trend in international law, where condominium has become the exception for the awkward cases, not the norm: Deployed by treaty or convention to territories with no intrinsic social complexity, such as Antarctica or the deep ocean seabed, or to manage states during transition, typically post conflict or colonialism. Catalunya’s contemporary state of ambiguity, described in Absolute Devolution, is not a traditional condominium: Not just because it lacks an agreed resolution, but more fundamentally because The Act of Referèndum emphasises the relative unimportance of territory.

As Lassa Oppenheim highlighted, “a state without a territory is not possible”, because since 1648 international law has followed the principles of the Peace of Westphalia, which resolved the European conflicts of the Reformation, and formalised early modern understanding of state as that territory belonging to a ruler. Any alternative notion of state, such as one that reflects its people, must be retrofitted onto a geographic territory: Westphalia’s territorial presumption is increasingly arcane, even for modern democratic, self-identifyingly European, virtually connected, Westphalia. As argued in Patria and Patrimonio, this definition of state is firmly linked to Enlightenment thinking. Spain had failed to dominate the early modern intellectual hegemony, her global dominance usurped by the Dutch, and was thus forced to internalise her social (knowledge) model within her territory and present that territory to the wider world as an absolute power, a Westphalian sovereignty. The idea of Spain, as explored in 1714 and All That, provided an appropriately robust structure – an internally liberating bouncy castle and an ilusión of the external – an external that could theoretically never be achieved.

Independence from Spain necessarily breaks the idea of Spain for that which becomes independent. In the most basic scenario – the continuation of prior societal norms as a new independent state – independence requires the idea of Spain to be cloned locally. That implies a transitional period, during which the independent state exists in the Westphalian world, but is not yet adapted to it: Catalunya risks exposure to the actual external its society had previously been protected from by the idea of Spain, and requires Catalunya to behave appropriately, to exude control, quite different from the internal bouncy castle of Spain. However, the state of ambiguity is inherently self-transitioning, since both states are simultaneous within – change does not occur at one moment, nor is the whole in flux at once. The nature of within is social, focused upon that area of social knowledge best able to readjust: So long as state remains conceived with the intensity of family, and does not fall in the void in transactional responsibility that bedevils the Spanish political state, any changes can be managed with efficacy. Thus change is through the ambiguity of both, not the objective cause and effect of a singular revolutionary act. The familiar philosophy of the idea of Spain is cloned without leaving the comfort of home, sparing much of the trauma that normally accompanies the birth of a sovereign state.

The theoretical weakness of that scenario lay in what is cloned: The idea of Spain manifests the external in the physical, a physical which apparently cannot be rendered in ambiguity, and so the independent state will tend to conflict over the same physicality as the Spanish state. However both states share the same concept of the idea of Spain, where the physical is relatively unimportant in the social model. The physical has always been the common domain in the political state, and thus the physical can also serve to counterbalance two concurrent political states: More competition than conflict, this balance of states serves the function of a Quantum ballot of the polis – both states perpetuate primarily in social simulacres, their relative support manifest in the physical. While all that may sound exotic, it is little different from the practice of many modern democratic states, albeit without the veneer of singular power. Spain is already highly developed in this regard: Its autonomic policy-making process has almost no reliance on absolute power, while its legal structure bridges a chasm between power and people, affording considerable flexibility between corpus of law and enforcement. The loss of the veneer of singular power would not primarily be a problem internally. It is simply not how sovereign states are supposed to function, and thus primarily confusing for the external.

The already highly autonomous Catalunya gains almost nothing from Westphalian independence, since the territorial state remains more-or-less the same. Little more is gained than the right to be called a nation and register a claim on Catalunya Nord. Full fiscal autonomy is moot within the monetary union of the Eurozone – greater responsibility for debt may even disadvantage an independent Catalunya. In spite of appearances, the Westphalian independence is not the type of independence sought by Independència. That confusion lay in the prior tradition of manifesting the external in the physical, which thus over-emphasises the physical, territory, in matters regarding the external. But as this sequence of essays has demonstrated, the physical is relatively unimportant to the function of Catalunya’s society. The consequent unimportance of Westphalian sovereignty allows Catalunya’s independence movement to safely deploy it as a charade – a game of perception, the demos at the heart of Independència. As an internal rebellion, Independència has no realistic prospect of success. But by embroiling the European Union, on terms which the European Union cannot readily respond, Catalunya strengthens its hand. A game hitherto played as Spain is now primed to take international law – and perhaps even the Enlightenment concept of state – by surprise.

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The Act of Referèndum

Campaign posters for the Catalunya 1-O Referèndum

Foreign observers are easily confused by the Catalan referendum, the supposed 1st October 2017 (mischievously notated “1-O”) self-determination of the hitherto Spanish region of Catalunya. The British libertarian press, whose readership naturally warms to stories of plucky little Catalans struggling against the oppression of the Spanish Empire, is invariably befuddled by the lack of political plurality in the process. The very observed absence of such plurality, on a topic that routinely divides the population of Catalunya, itself reveals the “Referèndum” as the action solely of the independentist cause, not the holistic process of resolving the actions of all parties, which is what the word referendum usually indicates. The linguistic deception hidden in plain sight remains remarkably enduring propaganda.

The Referèndum script is similarly obvious to those who would see: The Parliament of Catalunya is the elected assembly intended to legislate for the autonomous region of Catalunya, to legislative principles established by its Statute of Autonomy, which derive from the post-Francoist Constitution that embodies Spanish democracy. The Parliament has no power by Statute to legislate on independence from Spain, but that doesn’t physically stop the Parliament from passing laws to establish both the referendum and the template for an independent state. The Spanish Constitutional Court may promptly declare the legislation unconstitutional, but no punishable offense occurs until a law is acted upon. This is a common principle in Spanish law, and to a good degree wider culture (reaction, rather than prediction), but is reduced to farce by an act that frees itself from the authority binding it. The deception at the heart of the Spanish Constitution, its unchallengeablity, challenged. Clever Catalans.

In the meantime a wild goose chase commences, in which the Spanish authorities attempt to stop acts related to the referendum. In practice that results in a lot of incendiary media coverage, as the Guardia Civil (one of the national Spanish police forces) impounds harmless pallets of contraband referendum publicity. The detention of the civil servants responsible just increases the stakes. Such Spanish oppression of human rights, free speech, democracy, autonomy, you name it, is actually in defence of just that – the Constitutional imperative that is protecting those principles on behalf of the entire Spanish population. But because the crime is called Referèndum it looks quite the opposite. Again, the deception hidden in plain sight.

Spanish adherence to Constitution is not dogmatic pedantry. Not merely a convenient mechanism for Spanish government to counter the separatist threat without actively engaging in political discourse. As the collective memory tells it (which is not always the same as what actually happened), all the communities comprising Spain fought (Francoism) to establish democracy, and it is that collective contribution that is now being disrespected by the Catalans. An insult to both modern democracy and the shared notion of equality between communities, a notion found in the 1812 liberal constitution of Cádiz that continually bubbles to the surface without ever properly overcoming absolutism. This is no small reconciliation that you ask.

Assuming the rule of law holds its nerve until polling day, the choice is expressed primarily in attendance, not the position of the cross on the ballot paper: It is a conflicted, certainly brave, possibly stupid, citizen who knowingly performs an unconstitutional act in order to register, in effect, their support for the very constitution they’ve just broken by their act. That’s the kind of moral legal argument that won’t trouble most of the populace of Catalunya, but it serves as a stark explanation of why the Referèndum is for those that wish to vote Sí, and why a genuine referendum could only be organised under the auspices of the Spanish Constitution. Albeit, as explored later in this text, logically impossible to organise as the idea of leaving Spain from within Spain undermines the very idea of Spain. Details, details. Surveys typically suggest a clear majority of those against independence will not vote, yielding a strong vote in favour of independence on a turnout of 50-60%. Turnout isn’t considered by the law (of the Parliament of Catalunya) that creates the independent state two days after a yes vote (Catalan politicians typically cite constitutional changes passed on similarly low turnouts, although that rather understates the magnitude of this change). So, like clockwork, Referèndum will deliver the Brave New Republic of Catalunya in the middle of the first week of October 2017. Historians may later judge this Referèndum to be a coup. A propaganda coup, obviously, because a coup d’état wouldn’t be very democratic.

Cue the musica epica, as the Spanish tanks roll down the Diagonal, and those plucky little Catalans make one glorious last stand against their oppressors… Simultaneously resolving the independentists’ problem with Spaniards – and Barcelona’s problem with turismos. Such legends are more attractive in the telling than the living. If anyone in Catalunya genuinely has the stomach for that, again, they are not obvious in the mainstream of independentists: Those whose demonstrations encompass a family picnic in the park, before standing politely where they are told and gesturing appropriately at the camera when instructed by the director. More plausible to picture a pair of rutting Stags, mammalian heavyweights keen to assert themselves in the herd, yet not so keen as to lose their antlers, and well aware that when the rut ends they’ll have to learn to live with one another. The Familia España may have a few more fraught years of Catalan angst to deal with, but ultimately All’s Well That Ends Well. And no, that doesn’t imply the return of “Catalunya Nord”, as Catalunya’s public television clone, TV3, affectionately refers to (contemporary French) Roussillon.

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