Friday, October 31, 2014

Expats in limbo if UK exits the EU?

British expats in Portugal could be excused for wincing at recent utterances by Prime Minister David Cameron.
In declaring that he was drawing a “red line” on the number of unskilled immigrants flooding into the UK, Mr Cameron said he would be demanding restrictions on freedom of movement within the EU.
“I will go to Brussels, I will not take no for an answer….”
This drew a crystal clear response from Angela Merkel and both the old and new presidents of the European Commission: forget it - the fundamental principle of freedom of movement within the EU is “non-negotiable.”
If Mr Cameron runs into a brick wall on this, Britain’s relationship with Brussels may come a sticky end sooner rather than later. The chances of this happening seem to be growing almost by the day. And, of course, there would be consequences for British expats.
In arguing for a renegotiation of the terms of EU membership, Mr Cameron’s defence minister said British towns were being ‘swamped’ by immigrants.
The same could be rudely said of parts of Portugal. The Algarve in particular is awash with British immigrants. Though few are a burden on the state, a great many are unemployed or unemployable because they are retired.
If the UK no longer intends to abide by the rules of the club and decides to opt out, would the Portuguese and Spanish governments be justified in drawing some sort of red line on the number of Brit immigrants lolling about in the southern European sun?
On a related issue, more rather than less freedom of movement may be available to expat criminals if several senior ministers in Mr Cameron’s cabinet and many of his parliamentary backbenchers have their way. They want to scrap Britain’s membership of the European Arrest Warrant system.
Benefit fraudsters abroad have reportedly cost British taxpayers an estimated £82 million over the past 12 months. A hotline has been set up in Portugal so that members of the public can whistle-blow on such cheats.
But without the benefit of the admittedly somewhat flawed European Search Warrant system, arresting and extraditing convicted criminals on the run, as well as serious benefit shysters, will be even more difficult than it already is.
Perhaps the biggest disservice of late to Brits abroad was the sort of public behaviour one does not expect from a right honourable gentleman.
With barely concealed fury, Mr Cameron flatly told the House of Commons that Britain was not going to pay an EU bill of £1.7 billion, due by 1st December.
His blunt indignation was redolent of a spoilt child being told to stop staring into their smartphone at the dinner table, but it went down quite well with British taxpayers when they realised that the shock bill worked out at £56 a head.
The danger is that some expats may have been impressed by Mr Cameron’s defiant show of fortitude. Should they be tempted to replicate it with a thumping rejection of a shock demand from the Portuguese taxman, for example, the result will probably be a whopping fine.
Incidentally, I’m told that if you have a problem with the Portuguese taxman, it’s a good idea to go and politely discuss it with him.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Are you being fed too much bad news?

A Times columnist recently pointed out that compared with any period in the past half century, the world as a whole is “healthier, wealthier, happier, cleverer, cleaner, kinder, freer, safer, more peaceful and more equal.”
Probably true. Trouble is, that kind of news doesn’t sell papers and attract advertisers.
Newspapers, television, radio and online news services provide an unrelenting torrent of negativity. There is never any shortage of bad news but, blimey, hasn’t there been a surfeit of it lately!
Even at the best of times, bad news stories far outnumber and are given far more prominence than the good ones. As if that were not bad enough, far from “telling it like it is,” journalists nowadays often feel the need to add spice, distort, exaggerate or emotionalise in order to make the news sound even worse.
Hacks nowadays are under pressure to ratchet things up amid a multiplying profusion of competitors all covering the same stories. 
Taking more notice of the bad than the good is a natural trait we humans have been stuck with since the Stone Age when we needed to quickly identify trouble in order to avoid it and survive.
But bad news can be toxic. Like a drug, it can become addictive. Psychologists say that regular doses can harm our mental health.
In Portugal, for example, a daily injection of gloomy economic news has been difficult to avoid in recent years. For many people it’s hard enough struggling to cope with the basic practicalities of austerity without the media rubbing it in and provoking feelings of pessimism, fearfulness, anxiety  and anger.
Terrorist atrocities raging in the Middle East, a new ‘Cold War’ fermenting in Ukraine, paedophilia rampant in the UK, Ebola out of control in West Africa, climate change threatening the whole damn planet. There’s no let-up. The subjects and the locations change, but the overall picture remains bleak. That said, it’s not entirely hopeless.
The death toll in Syria’s three-year civil war has climbed past 160,000. More than a million were killed in the Vietnam War and 55 million in World War II.
The number of Ebola deaths is still measured in the low thousands and although the dangers of it multiplying exponentially should not be underestimated, it’s worth remembering that in 2012 about 1.6 million people died from AIDS, 1.3 million from tuberculosis and 627,000 from malaria. The good news is that the overall number of people dying annually from infectious diseases has been dropping dramatically.
It seems like only yesterday that we had all that media malarkey about the Y2K millennium bug that was going to end life as we know it by sparking a catastrophic meltdown in computer systems. Pity it didn’t, some might say, given the spiralling abuse and hate on social media.
A couple of centuries ago - 21 October 1805 to be exact - the British defeated the Spanish at the Battle of Trafalgar. The mighty victory was somewhat overshadowed by the fact that Lord Nelson was shot and killed in the battle. It took a fortnight to get the news to London.
Today, such an event would be transmitted around the entire globe in minutes. It might even be broadcast on TV live.
And don’t tell me you wouldn’t watch it.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Is expression ever a freedom too far?

While freedom of expression is said to be the cornerstone of democracy, of late it seems to be on shaky ground.
It remains on a steady footing here in Portugal compared to most countries and that is probably because of prevailing moral attitudes as much as the fact that it is enshrined in the Portuguese Constitution.
Throughout most of Portugal’s history, monarchs, the Catholic Church and political dictators have done their best to stop people from expressing anti-establishment opinions.
That changed dramatically after the 1974 revolution. Article 37 of the Constitution lays down that “everyone shall possess the right to freely express and publicise his thoughts in words, images or by any other means, as well as the right to inform others, inform himself and be informed without hindrance or discrimination. Exercise of the said rights shall not be hindered or limited by any type or form of censorship.”
Strong as that sounds, freedom of expression in Portugal is not absolute.
The 2014 Press Freedom Index published by Reporters Without Borders ranks Portugal at number 30 out of the 180 countries covered. That is three places ahead of the UK and 16 places ahead of the USA.
Finland tops the index for the fourth year running, closely followed again by the Netherlands and Norway. Down at the bottom, Turkmenistan, North Korea and Eritrea are countries where such freedoms simply do not exist.
Among the main obstacles to freedom of the press in Portugal as in other European countries are national security restrictions, curbs on information about criminal investigations and defamation suits involving demands for large amounts in damages.
In even the freest countries, defamation against a private individual is a crime, as is blasphemy and hate speech against religion or race.
The courts in Portugal are occasionally asked to step in to exercise control when freedom seems to have been pushed too far.
A few years ago, the Lisbon-based weekly Sol was fined €1.5 million for defying a court injunction by publishing details from phone conversations recorded in a police surveillance operation.  
Last year, Portugal’s attorney general opened an investigation into a well-known journalist and author who described President Aníbal Cavaco Silva as “a clown.” Insulting the honour of the head of state constitutes an offence under Article 328 of the country’s Penal Code and may attract a punishment of up to three years imprisonment.
This summer a 30-year-old Algarve artist appeared in court charged with demeaning a national symbol by hanging a Portuguese flag on a gallows in an abandoned field near Faro. It was an expression of personal protest as part of a university project. He avoided a possible five-year sentence when the court ruled he was exercising his freedom of expression. Even in Finland demeaning the national flag is a punishable crime.
Then there is the stalled McCanns vs Gonçalo Amaral civil action in which the British couple are seeking €1.2 in damages from publication of the former detective’s controversial book, Maddie: A Verdade da Mentira (The truth of the Lie). While Amaral is claiming his right to freedom of expression, the McCanns have argued that he has deeply harmed them personally and also hindered the search for their daughter.
The McCann couple said recently that press regulation in Britain was still not working. This came after they were awarded £55,000 in libel damages from the Sunday Times.
As if regulating print media was not complicated enough, online social networking has opened up a completely new frontier, bringing new privileges and pleasures - and also new concerns and challenges.
Unlike the legally accountable mainstream media, social media users operate largely at will. Lord Leveson in his report noted that some called the internet a ‘‘wild west,’’ but he preferred to use the term “ethical vacuum.”
Security services have been monitoring internet communications between terrorists, political extremist groups and criminal organisations. Paedophile rings have also become a focus of special attention. In the main, though, internet users have been largely beyond the remit of regulation.
Things may be changing. Increasingly, hateful ‘trolls’ operating in anonyminity from the comfort of their tablets or smartphones risk being tracked down, as indicated by the Metropolitan Police Service’s investigation of a catalogue of threats and vile insults aimed at the McCanns.
In a case thought to be unprecedented in Portugal, court of appeal judges in the northern city of Oporto have unanimously upheld the dismissal of an employee for comments on Facebook. The employee had claimed “right to privacy” and “freedom of expression” in response to allegations that his comments were offensive, but the judge in the court of first instance argued, “it is unacceptable that freedom of expression and communication does not have any type of outer limits.”
A court of appeal in Texas last month seemed to be manouevering in the outer limits when it ruled that Texans had the constitutional right to take photographs of strangers, even if that involved surreptitious “upskirt” pictures of women or close-up body shots of children in bathing suits for the purposes of sexual arousal or gratification.
The judges in Texas said this was an essential component of freedom of expression and to deny it was a “paternalistic” intrusion on a person’s civil rights.
Was this further securing a cornerstone of democracy, or conceding a freedom too far?

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Missing Scotsman may still be working

“My name is Jon, I am 30 years old and a chef from eastern Scotland... I have a lot of hospitality experience in kitchens and also in bar work as well as general hotel experience.”
That is how Jon Anderson Edwards introduced himself on a ‘workaway’ information website, which he last logged into on 12 September, just before he went missing in the Algarve.
Portuguese police are helping worried parents and friends in trying to locate the 30-year-old Scotsman who left his Lagos apartment on September 15, leaving behind his passport, clothes and mobile phone.
His disappearance was of all the more concern because he seemed very happy working as a chef in a Lagos café but had to take a few days off after falling and hitting his head while out drinking one night. It was while recovering from the fall that he disappeared without telling his employer or friends in Lagos.
In his website post, Jon went on to say: “I am a very hard worker and would be willing to turn my hand to most tasks, or even learn new skills that could benefit both myself and the host. I have no problem with long hours or physically arduous jobs, I actually really enjoy throwing myself fully into a project because of the satisfaction that it brings to be part of something.
“I am not looking for a free holiday though, I am looking for challenges, experiences, meeting people I would otherwise have never met.
“I want to see as much of the world as possible while I'm still (fairly) young and will work my hind legs off in doing so :)”
He has already travelled widely in the world but he would not have had to travel far to join another workaway or wwoofing community. One such community in the Algarve advertised for a chef on September 7, but it has been establised he is not there. There are thought to be many other workaway or wwoofing places in the region. Police have already checked a hippie commune. 
Jon’s mother, Lesley Edwards, and his sister, Kenna Balion, flew out from Scotland to put up posters and help the search for him. They are now both back home anxiously awaiting news.