Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Near anarchy in the EU election jungle

The European parliamentary elections have resulted in convolutions bordering on chaos - but then what else did we expect from one of the biggest democratic events in the world, which spanned four days, 28 countries and almost 400 million citizens?
The European Union is such a befuddling and annoying phenomenon that a record number of voters in Portugal and elsewhere did not bother to turn out. A record number of those who did cast their vote do not even want to remain part of the union.
A toxic mix of apathy and antipathy produced an abstention rate in Portugal of 66 percent. In the EU as a whole, it was 56 percent.
The low turnout figures – 34% in Portugal, 44% throughout the EU - raise serious questions about the union’s democratic credentials, but more importantly for now, what does the bewildering array of other statistics add up to?
In short, a great deal of confusion and uncertainty.
For starters, a continent-wide protest vote giving unprecedented support to extremist parties has more than doubled the number of seats of MEPs who want their countries to quit or radically change the EU.
A third of the new parliamentarians come from fired-up, factious fringe groups representing a variety of anti-establishment, anti-immigration and anti-austerity views.
In France, Marine Le Pen’s Front National topped a poll for the first time ever by demanding that their country be run “by the French, for the French and with the French,” rather than “foreign commissioners” in Brussels. Le Penn described her victory as “a first step in a long march to liberty” away from the EU.
The far right polled strongly in Denmark and Austria, but in the Netherlands too close an alliance with Miss Le Pen was seen as the key factor in Geert Wilders and his far-right Dutch Freedom Party unexpectedly losing rather than gaining seats.
In Italy, the governing Democratic Party of reformist Prime Minister Matteo Renzi surprised even its own most optimistic supporters by trouncing the eurosceptic Five Star party led by an ex-comedian.
The anti-immigration UKIP party triumphed in Britain where the number of European migrants is almost exactly balanced by the number of Britons living elsewhere in the EU, including at least 40,000 in Portugal. Some analysts think the chance of Britain leaving the EU in the next five years has now risen to 50%.
Angela Merkel’s party prevailed in Germany although it suffered its worst  ever result in a European parliamentary election and saw a right-wing surge from the new Alternative for Germany party, which wants Europe’s largest nation to ditch the euro currency. 
An even more extreme German party, which has been likened to the Nazis, will be sending a MEP to Brussels for the first time, as will Greece’s ultra-nationalist Golden Dawn party, though its leader and several of his colleagues are in prison awaiting trial on charges involving murder, arson and extortion.
On the other side of the political spectrum, the election in Greece was won by the radical left Syriza party. It had campaigned against European leaders for turning Greeks into “the guinea pigs” of the economic crisis and causing “a social catastrophe.”
Disaffection, disillusionment and downright hostility to the EU because of severe austerity and high unemployment secured third place for the Communist-Greens alliance in Portugal.
Despite the maverick onslaught from both left and right, all is far from lost for those who greatly value the EU as a bastion for peace and relative stability in a topsy-turvey world.
In Portugal, the opposition Socialists dominated the election with 31.45 percent. The ruling coalition of Social Democrats and their smaller rightist CDS-PP partner came in second with 27.7 percent.
Overall, the mainstream pro-European centre-right and centre-left groups will continue to hold a broad majority, with the anti-EU rebels too much of a motley crew to form a cohesive threat.
Even the outgoing Portuguese president of the European Commission, José Manuel Barroso, admitted to being a bit baffled after the counting was over. He described the elections as the EU's “biggest test of stress ever”  and said it would take an in-depth analysis to understand the results.
Meanwhile, many citizens of Europe haven’t a clue what MEPs actually do except regularly perambulate at great expense between Brussels and Strasbourg, and complicate what individual national governments and the unelected European Commission are doing.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

A cat story with a purrfect ending

Eva Schelfhout never wanted to own a cat. That changed when her eldest granddaughter, Christiana, brought home an abandoned kitten ten years ago. As they grew older, Eva and the cat became inseparable, but the relationship very nearly came to an ignominious end.
Christiana called the kitten Resie. Eva preferred the more matter-of-fact name Kätzchen, meaning ‘little cat’ in German.
Upon adoption, the white tabby found herself living in the Schelfhout family home near the Algarve International School, which Eva and her late husband, Paul, founded in the early 1970s.
Kätzchen became an increasingly popular pet. “She was very cuddly and sweet,” said Eva. But she started catching birds, mice and rats. These creatures - or their leftovers - would sometimes end up in Eva's bedroom or bathroom. 
“She could also be a nuisance as she always wanted to be close to us, even to guests who were not particularly fond of cats. When I wore black trousers, Kätzchen would stroll around my legs and quickly make sure they were covered in white hair.
“Still, Kätzchen became part of our inventory. It would have been unthinkable not to have her around any longer.”
Kätzchen normally lived in the lavandaria, the laundry room. She was fed there and enjoyed a selection of several beds there.
“Should we forget to cover up a basket of clean clothing, we would, of course, find her right on top of it,”  said Eva.
It was in the laundry that Kätzchen came within a whisker of death.
It happened four months ago, but the story is still so sensitive that  only now is it being told in public for the first time. Eva has not even dared to tell Christiana about it yet.
“Friday night, January 17th.  I put Kätzchen to bed in the lavandaria as usual around 8.0pm,” Eva told me.
“I saw that the tumble dryer’s program was finished so I turned it off and opened the door.  
“My daughter-in-law's maid must have come into the room later, put her hand in the dryer and found that the washing in there was not totally dry. So she turned the dryer on again - on to program 11, which is a 20-minute high heat program.
“When my daughter-in-law came in around 10.30pm, she opened the dryer and saw a huge mess in there. The washing was filthy, with blood and faeces and hair and, and, and…… in the middle of it all was our little cat - still alive!
Eva continued the story: “My daughter-in-law got her out of the dryer and put her on the floor, covered her in towels, cleaned up as far as possible and then called me.  
“When I came down I saw Kätzchen flat as a doormat on the floor. I was certain she was dying. We called the emergency number of a vet and drove to the clinic in Alcantarilha where we were helped by a young woman.
“I thought it would be reasonable to put Kätzchen to sleep, but the woman vet wanted to try and save her. She gave injections, put her on a drip and left her in a cage overnight. 
“The next day Kätzchen was still alive but nobody believed that she would survive this. The vet took a blood sample. It was yellow and it was impossible to get any blood values from it. Her liver seemed to be cooked.
“To everyone’s surprise, Kätzchen survived one day, two days, three days…..
“On the 20th of January I took her home from the clinic. We pampered her and gave her medication and a special paste for her liver. She is still alive today!
“Not only that, she seems to be her old self again. I had not received any more birds, mice or rats until last night when she brought me a present again.
“She doesn’t jump as high or as far as she used to, but otherwise she seems unchanged.  
“I’ve never told this to Christiana who now lives on Long Island, New York, but if you write the story, I will tell her to read your blog.”

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Fraternity in the far-off picking fields

      A foreign community of workers employed by a Danish company has just come to the end of another season of harvesting a specialised crop in Portugal. They are now on their way to picking fields in Denmark.
Since the beginning of March, more than 100 workers from various European countries, mostly Romania, have been picking peas close to the west coast of the Alentejo.
They are not ordinary peas for cooking. They are small, sweet peas eaten in Denmark directly from the pods at any time of the day as a snack. The Danes devour hundreds of tonnes of them every year.
The company, GreenPeas, employs men and women able to work hard in the open air and show a high degree of self-motivation, flexibility and fellowship. The jobs are open to all nationalities. Not many Portuguese apply or stay on the job for long, but a few are in the team going to Denmark.
The pickers are not only in it for the money. The job offers a convivial social life and the recreational attractions of two countries they might otherwise not get to visit.
 “In GreenPeas you are not working in a traditional way,” says Brian Knudsen, who oversees operations here. He places great importance on the moral dimension. “It’s essential that we trust each other, that we have mutual respect and behave as equals,” he says.
Instead of bosses lording it over things, group decisions are made by discussion and agreement. Phillipos Dimarilis, a Greek who started out as a picker for the company ten years ago and now has a coordinating role, explains that he is always open to suggestions. “When I’m deciding what part the fields to move on to, pickers will sometimes come up with a better idea and we talk it over.”
Ten years ago pickers from richer European countries were free spirits looking for adventure. Now more than ever it is about money and, of course, the bureaucracy has been cranked up.
Operations in Portugal as in Denmark are conducted within a very transparent framework that adheres closely to the legal, commercial and social requirements of both countries, says Peter Skov Johansen who founded GreenPeas in Denmark 40 years ago.
Last year, which was just the second year of operations in Portugal, he had a fallout with officialdom in Santarém but relations with the various relevant authorities based in Beja this year have been good.
The work and living conditions in Portugal and Denmark differ. From the beginning of March to the end of May the workers pick in fields in the Alentejo and live in fully equipped apartments or hotel accommodation. From June to September near Nyborg in central Denmark they live under canvas.
The job is not easy and the pay is not great. The pickers arrive at the fields at sunrise and work eight-hour days, six days a week. In Portugal they earn a minimum gross of about €650 a month all inclusive, with the opportunity of bonuses for those who pick more than a basic required quantity. The same applies in Denmark, except that only very skilled and specialised pickers - who are able to achieve the high Danish minimum salary of about €17 an hour by piecework - will be allowed to stay. 
In talking to a number of Romanians working along the vast rows of peas in the fields of the Alentejo last week, Aurelian Iordache, 39, who has been picking for six years, told me that he and his companions had to pick with their eyes as well as their fingers. This is to ensure they collect pods of just the right size and ripeness, “otherwise the shoppers in Denmark will not buy them.”
The workers kneel on padded knees and move slowly forward picking from the rows of plants on either side. A few pickers talk with those around them, most are silent. Some let their minds wander, others listen to music through earphones, but their eyes stay focused.
Eugen Ciornei, 38, said that after eight months he was happy with the work and living conditions in Portugal and that he had made good friends here. “The payment in Romania is not so good. The minimum salary there is about €200 a month and here it €600” He is  looking forward to his first trip to Denmark. “I’ve never been there so I don’t know what it’s like, but I can adjust anywhere,” he said.
Several rows away, his wife, Loredana, 36, was full of smiles but didn’t stop picking when asked about community life. “The work is hard but it’s okay. The people here are nice.” She sometimes goes fishing on the nearby beach or partying in the evening. She admitted missing her 11-yea-old-son who is being looked after at home by her mother, “but I talk to him every day on Skype.”
Brian Knudsen believes the sweet peas grown in Portugal are the finest in Europe. Nearly all of each season’s crop goes to Scandinavia, mostly Denmark. The company also exports around 40,000 kg of peas for cooking to the UK.
The future of the export trade is dependant, however, on precise timing in terms of growing, picking and transporting to ensure the optimum level of ripeness and freshness when the peas reach their market, a 55-hour non-stop drive to the north.
Profit margins are vulnerable because the spring weather in Portugal is less predictable than the summer weather in Denmark. It was at times wetter and warmer than usual in the Alentejo in recent months. This has complicated things. It has raised doubt about viability and whether GreenPeas can continue production in Portugal as scheduled, from September to Christmas this year and again from March to June next year.  They hope so.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Is the Madeleine case at a crossroad?

The Madeleine McCann case seems to have reached a critical juncture: police are planning to start a new phase in the investigation, but there is a very real risk it may collapse in disarray.
The paradox is explained by a fundamental difference in the way the Portuguese and British police go about their business.
The forthcoming investigative activities will be conducted by the Polícia Judiciária working on behalf of the Metropolitan Police Service.
The normal and preferred practice of the Met is to brief the media on an ongoing basis. They do not necessarily reveal full details, but pass on as much information as possible while still safeguarding operations.
The Met says this usually ensures that media coverage assists rather than damages an investigation.
The policy of the PJ is very different. It does not brief the media on current investigations. The Portuguese penal code forbids this in order to avoid releasing anything that might prejudice a case.
The PJ has made its position very clear to the Met and the Met has alerted the British media: there will be no briefings on the joint operation from either side.
The PJ has warned that if the British police do pass on information, or if journalists cause any disruption, the new phase of the Madeleine investigation will be closed, at least until any infringement is sorted out. 
After talks with his PJ counterpart, the Met’s assistant commissioner, Mark Rowley, fully accepted this. “We respect the Portuguese position as we would expect them to respect our position if we were carrying out work on their behalf in the UK,” he said in a letter to editors. “Collectively we all need to think carefully about our actions in this case.”
In a statement on Facebook last week, Kate and Gerry McCann said that “interference” by journalists in the latest phase of the investigation “not only makes the work of the police more difficult, it can potentially damage and destroy the investigation altogether – and hence the chances of us finding Madeleine and discovering what has happened to her.”
Just before the 7th anniversary of Madeleine’s disappearance on May 3, the British media were full of stories about a lone sexual predator assaulting British girls on holiday in the Algarve.
Immediately after the anniversary, the spotlight switched to ground searches planned for specific sites.
The Mirror started the rash of stories on the searches with a “world exclusive” headlined “Maddie cops to start digging up resort.” It reported a source close to the McCanns as saying that “Kate and Gerry have been told police will be conducting the searches in and around Praia da Luz as soon as they get the green light from Portuguese authorities.”
The Mirror’s unnamed source went on to say that Kate and Gerry “don’t believe police are acting on any new tip off. They just need to carry out their own digs, looking for any possible clues that Portuguese authorities may have missed on their previous searches.”
Reports followed in several papers about growing tensions between the Met and the PJ. The Met was frustrated by the slowness of the bureaucratic process needed to get the searches underway. The PJ was irritated not only by media briefings, but also by the nature of the new phase of the investigation.
The PJ is said to have dismissed the Met’s theory that Madeleine may have been abducted by a lone predator suspected of attacking British girls. Furthermore, the PJ is said to consider digging for evidence in Praia da Luz a waste of time.
A point the mainstream media almost never touch on is that a great many sceptical observers, privately or in online forums, seriously question why the Met and the British media do not budge from the abduction hypothesis. The sceptics also wonder if the investigation is going anywhere except into oblivion.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Madeleine: digging for the truth?

The Portuguese Polícia Judiciária, often denigrated in the UK for their handling of the Madeleine McCann case, have made in clear they are in charge of the latest phase of the investigation and that the Metropolitan Police Service and the British media had better toe the line.  
Mark Rowley, assistant commissioner of the Met, says he has discussed with his PJ counterpart the high level of interest in the forthcoming ground search activity, some of which is likely to take place in public.
In an open letter to the British media, Rowley warned that “if we provide any briefings or information on the work they are undertaking on our behalf, or if reporters cause any disruption to their work in Portugal, activity will cease.”
The Met appealed for “media restraint” when it upped its two-year review to a fully-fledged investigation in July last year, but since then there has been an almost non-stop torrent of  media reports - mostly highly speculative and many plainly absurd - about ‘new leads’ and ‘prime suspects.’
The Mirror broke the latest news about the ground searches by quoting - not the Met police - but a source close to Madeleine’s parents.
“Kate and Gerry have been told police will be conducting the searches in and around Praia da Luz as soon as they get the green light from Portuguese authorities,” said the source.
Scotland Yard refused to comment, but the Mirror felt able to inform its readers, “There will be earth diggers everywhere and it will look very dramatic and it will be a heartbreaking and hugely emotional time for Madeleine’s poor parents.”
The paper’s unnamed source went on to make the assertion that “police have assured Kate and Gerry that it does not mean they are specifically searching for her body. They are doing searches as much as to rule scenarios out as much as rule them in.”
If the intention is not to search specifically for a body, “how many holes do you have to dig to rule out the existence of a body?” wondered an unnamed Portuguese police source quoted by the Portugal News.
“Why does the Metropolitan Police Service want to dig up holes if they believe Madeleine is still alive? How do you prove that somebody is alive by digging up holes?” the Portuguese police source added.
In questioning the usefulness of serious excavations in the village, a Praia da Luz resident told the Algarve Resident newspaper: “We’ve had so many people suspected of abducting the child, but none of them were thought to have been in the possession of heavy-duty, earth-digging equipment when they did so.”
The fact is, apart from the beach, the terrain in most of the neighbourhood consists of limestone bedrock. Even in the patches of shallow hard soil, how could an abductor have buried a body, or any other material evidence, unobserved and without tools?
In a wry observation, the Portugal News source said about the British detectives:  “Sincerely, it is not easy to understand them. But I’m sure they know what they are doing.”
A Portuguese judge apparently did not entirely agree and turned down as unwarranted a British police request to do house searches on ‘people of interest’ who worked at the complex where the McCanns were staying.
Meanwhile, the hope in the tranquil resort of Praia da Luz, and in the rest of Portugal, is that detectives from the PJ and the Met can work quietly and harmoniously as an efficient team and come up with some hard evidence that leads to justice for Madeleine.

Monday, May 5, 2014

May, a momentous month for Portugal

For Portugal’s main political parties, the country’s exit this month from its bailout programme happily coincides with the European parliamentary election.
With the economy showing signs of improvement thanks to the 2011 bailout and fierce austerity since then, the prospects for the pro-bailout parties have been boosted and they are certain to dominate the EU election.
Despite efforts by the main parties to keep Portugal at the heart of European integration, enthusiasm for the EU has been severely dented by the economic crisis within the eurozone.
Far-right, anti-EU parties are enjoying a surge in popularity across Europe. Portugal does not have a hard right party. In this country it is the radical left who are vehemently critical of the union.
In addition to condemnation from left wing politicians, the Portuguese government has had to cope with widespread public anger against the austerity demanded by the EU and IMF bailout deal. This may mellow with the country returning to growth, but optimism about the EU among the Portuguese people has been at a low ebb since enlargement of the union with Central and Eastern European countries in 2004.
As part of the largest trans-national democratic electorate in the world, with more than 375 million eligible voters spread over 28 member states, the Portuguese will go to the polls on Sunday May 25. They will elect 21 candidates to the 766-member parliament.
A poll last month showed Portugal’s centre-left Socialists leading with 37.5% of the vote, the centre-right Social Democrat-People’s Party coalition with 32.5% and the communist-‘green’ Democratic Unity Coalition with 10.9%.
As in this country, mainstream centre-left and centre-right groups elsewhere are expected to hold control for another five years, but up to one-third of the elected parliamentarians could remain bitterly anti-EU.
In addition to the share of the votes picked up by each of the mainstream and radical political parties, it will interesting to see how many voters in Portugal and elsewhere choose not to vote.
The voter turnout in the EU has been in decline since the first election in 1979. It was down to 43% in the last election in 2009. A further decline this year will raise questions about the union’s democratic legitimacy.
Before then – on May 17 – Portugal will follow in Ireland’s footsteps and emerge from its €78 billion bailout and thus no longer have to answer to foreign creditors.
The Portuguese cabinet’s decision to make a “clean” exit without requesting any precautionary credit line has been formally conveyed to Europe’s finance ministers.
It means that the country now intends to stand on its own feet and rely on markets for financing rather than seeking further help from the bailout lenders.
“The decision to exit the bailout without a security net is a major success for the government, which has won over investor confidence by sticking to the harsh austerity and reforms required by the bailout,” Reuters reported after Prime Minister Pedro Passos Coelho made the announcement in a televised address flanked by his entire government.
Still, all is far from well with the economy. Years of austerity and high unemployment may lie ahead. The prime minister said in his address that the country was now “on the right path,” but he admitted that “the return of economic growth in the last year is yet to be translated into better day-to-day lives for a lot of people.”
Commented the Wall Street Journal: “The clean exit from the three-year rescue program caps a surprising turnaround for Western Europe's poorest economy, which last year began a slow climb out of recession but remains burdened by high unemployment, debt and inefficiencies that could take years to overcome.” 
    Meanwhile, we are in the midst of a momentous month that, no doubt, will turn out to be a contentious one too.