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Spain calls for ‘common sense’ after Christmas shoppers throng the streets



Scenes of packed city centers over the weekend have raised alarm bells, with health authorities asking the public to act responsibly to prevent a new spike in coronavirus cases

Spain’s secretary of state for health, Silvia Calzón, called on the public on Monday to show “responsibility and prudence” after crowds flooded the streets at the weekend to go Christmas shopping and see the traditional festive lights go on. The packed scenes – seen in several cities, including Madrid, Barcelona, Valencia and Málaga – prompted Calzón to recommend that citizens “avoid crowds” in the lead-up to Christmas to avoid worsening the coronavirus situation in Spain. “This is not over,” she warned.

“We would like to make a call for responsibility and prudence,” said Calzón in a radio interview with Spanish station Canal Sur on Monday “It has taken a lot of work and sacrifice to flatten the curve.” The incidence rate of the coronavirus has been steadily falling across Spain, but health authorities warn it still remains at “very high” levels. Although the sharp rise in new cases seen after the summer holidays may have eased, experts warn that increased social gatherings and travel over the festive season could lead to a new spike in infections.

“We cannot forget how badly many families have suffered,” or the impact the virus has had “on the most vulnerable,” said Calzón. “If we like Christmas, let’s ensure that we are all here for next Christmas,” she added, arguing “it’s worth the sacrifice.”

The health official also called on citizens to use “common sense.” She recommended that the public hold gatherings outdoors and avoid crowds to limit the risk of possible contagion. Calzón said the Christmas period was “an especially dear time” but would be “special” this year in a bid to reduce contagions. “We have to focus on protecting those we most love,” she said. “Perhaps we have to sacrifice our way of socializing with lots of people from lots of different areas in order to enjoy more and protect more those we love, especially elderly people.”

With the festive season approaching, the Spanish Health Ministry has proposed a series of measures aimed at preventing the spread of the virus, namely limiting social gatherings to 10 people and setting a 1am curfew for Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve. But the final decision on what rules will be in place will fall to the regions. Calzón defended this position on Monday, arguing that regional governments “need to have the necessary autonomy” to set restrictions and adapt them to their “different epidemiological situations.”

Calzón said a group was working on designing “basic measures” that could be applied across Spain, adding that this plan would likely be discussed on Wednesday at the next meeting of the Inter-Territorial Council of the National Health System, which brings together central and regional health chiefs. The raft of measures is aimed at “sending a unified message to the public,” said Calzón, who admitted the restrictions are unlikely to be exactly the same in each region given the differences between each territory.

Packed streets in Madrid “expected”

In Madrid, the city center was packed this weekend with people who had come to take advantage of Black Friday shopping deals and to see the Christmas lights. In response to the crowded scenes, the deputy premier of the Madrid region, Ignacio Aguado, said on Monday that he would prefer for people to “be out on the street than at home, which is where there is more risk” of contagion. In an interview with the Spanish television station La Sexta, which was published by Europa Press, Aguado added: “I fear the concentration of people in enclosed spaces, people going out on the street is not the problem. The problem is in homes, which are hotspots, not on the street or on public transport.” Aguado argued the images of packed streets were “normal Christmas scenes.”

Madrid’s popular Preciados street and the landmark Puerta del Sol square were overwhelmed by crowds over the weekend, but sources from Madrid City Hall told Spanish news agency EFE that the large numbers had been “expected” by local authorities.

Last Friday, the local police force began a special Christmas operation, involving 75 to 100 officers who monitor the city center and decide whether or not to cut off pedestrian access to the streets surrounding Puerta del Sol. The mayor of Madrid, José Luis Martínez-Almeida, said more time was needed for police chiefs and experts to define if more restrictions need to be introduced ahead of the upcoming long weekends. December 8 is a national holiday in Spain, while December 7 is a holiday in all regions except Cantabria, Castilla-La Mancha, Catalonia, Valencia, Galicia and the Basque Country. But he warned: “My advice to Madrileños is to not go to the city center.”

Málaga: “Let’s act as if we were infected”

Similar scenes were also seen in Málaga on Friday, when thousands of people packed into the city’s main avenue, Larios street, to see the Christmas lights go on. Málaga City Hall had not announced what time the lights would be switched on to prevent crowds from gathering, but that did not deter residents from flooding into the historical center. Police forces and volunteers from the Civil Protection service worked all evening to ensure that the public maintained safe distances and did not stop to take photos. Although the mayor of Málaga, Francisco de la Torre, did not directly mention the crowds, he did share a video on social media calling on the public to show “greater responsibility every day.” “Let’s act as if we were all infected: face masks, hand washing, social distancing, avoid transmitting to others the terribleness of an infection,” he said in the video. Local authorities have suspended the traditional light and sound displays in Larios street to prevent crowds and will instead use a single track of Christmas carols.

Valencia recommends staggering shopping

In Valencia, thousands of shoppers descended upon stores for Black Friday discounts, with long lines of people waiting at entrances, especially in smaller establishments, where staff were at the doors to monitor capacity. In the main shopping strip, patient buyers waited to enter stores in search of a deal. “Black Friday has shown the efficiency of the measures introduced, juggling the increase in crowds with strict adherence to health measures,” said Joaquín Cerveró, the spokesperson of the National Association of Large Distribution Companies (ANGED) in Valencia. According to Cerveró, “the early beginning of sales helped more staggered visits to shops, preventing the crowds of other years.” The premier of Valencia, Ximo Puig, has recommended that citizens make their purchases early and in stages to avoid crowds.

Seville suspends light show

The city center of Seville, in the southern Andalusia region, was also crowded on Saturday. In a bid to prevent further crowding, Seville City Hall has suspended all special light and music shows. Local authorities have also decided to delay turning on its Christmas lights “based on the experience of other cities,” according to municipal sources. These sources say the decorative lights will be turned on without prior notice during or after the upcoming long weekend. Currently, in Andalusia all non-essential businesses must close at 6pm. If these rules change, Seville City Hall has said it will introduce measures to prevent crowds.

No safe distances at Barcelona beach bars

Under the restrictions introduced by the Catalan regional government, tables at bars and restaurants must be at least two meters apart. But many of the bars that line Barcelona’s beach decided last weekend to ignore these rules in order to be able to accept more patrons. The local police did not fine any of these establishments, but they did remove 323 people from outdoor drinking sessions – known in Spain as botellones – and fined 143 people for not wearing a face mask and 384 for breaking the curfew.

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Storm Filomena: Spain sees ‘exceptional’ snowfall




Storm Filomena has blanketed parts of Spain in heavy snow, with half of the country on red alert for more on Saturday.

Road, rail and air travel has been disrupted and interior minister Fernando Grande-Marlaska said the country was facing “the most intense storm in the last 50 years”.

Madrid, one of the worst affected areas, is set to see up to 20cm (eight inches) of snow in the next 24 hours.

Further south the storm caused rivers to burst their banks.

Four deaths have been reported so far as a result of Filomena. Officials said two people had been found frozen to death – one in the town of Zarzalejo, north-west of Madrid, and the other in the eastern city of Calatayud. Two people travelling in a car were swept away by floods near the southern city of Malaga.

As snow fell on Madrid on Friday evening, a number of vehicles became stranded on a motorway near the capital.

The city’s Barajas airport has closed, along with a number of roads, and all trains to and from Madrid have been cancelled.

Firefighters were called in to assist drivers who had become stuck. In some areas the military were called in to help clear roads.

Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez urged people to stay at home and to follow the instructions of emergency services. King Felipe and Queen Letizia took to Twitter to urge “extreme caution against the risks of accumulation of ice and snow”.

The country’s AEMET weather agency said the snowfall was “exceptional and most likely historic”.

A number of people were seen making the most of the snowy scenery, walking through Madrid’s Puerta del Sol square.

Large parks in Madrid have since been closed as a precaution, AFP news agency reports.

One man was pictured skiing along the Gran Via, the capital’s famous shopping street.

In Cañada Real, the largest shanty town in western Europe, residents were seen creating a bonfire to keep warm.

The cold weather is set to continue beyond the weekend with temperatures in Madrid predicted to hit -12C on Thursday.


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Spain, UK reach ‘preliminary agreement’ that will see an end to the border with Gibraltar




The border that separates Gibraltar from La Línea de la Concepción, which is known in Spanish as La Verja and was closed for 13 years (1969 to 1982), will cease to exist in six months’ time. Spain and the United Kingdom have reached a “preliminary agreement” to avoid the British Overseas Territory from becoming a hard border of the European Union. The two delegations, headed by the Spanish Foreign Minister Arancha González Laya and her British counterpart Dominic Raab, were negotiating the deal late into Wednesday night, with just hours to go before Brexit becomes a reality, and the United Kingdom definitively leaves the European Union at midnight tonight.

According to the Spanish minister, who gave a press conference today from La Moncloa, the prime ministerial palace, Gibraltar will be joining the Schengen area, a European free-travel zone that is made up of 26 countries (22 from the EU, plus Norway, Switzerland, Iceland and Liechtenstein), meaning that the border to enter the British Overseas Territory will no longer be at La Verja, but rather at Gibraltar’s port and airport.

During the so-called “implementation period,” which will last for four years, these border controls will be headed up by the European border agency Frontex, but Spain will be responsible for the Schengen rules being observed in Gibraltar. That means that the European agents will have to render account to the Spanish authorities regarding who is permitted to enter the area and the policy of conceding visas. Anyone traveling to Gibraltar from Spanish territory will not require a passport, but British arrivals will, given that the United Kingdom is not part of the Schengen area.

The deal, which sources from La Moncloa described as “historic,” has been subject to negotiations between Spanish and British delegations since June, with Gibraltarian representatives forming part of the latter. But a final sprint was needed to get it across the line ahead of the Brexit deadline. The text has already been sent to Brussels and must now be enshrined in a treaty between the UK and the EU, given that the European Commission is the competent authority on the issue. The deal would not have been possible had Spain not managed to secure a veto over the future relationship with Gibraltar during the Brexit negotiations.

The Spanish foreign minister highlighted the fact that the measures agreed with the United Kingdom will be adopted “without prejudice to the inalienable claims of both sides in terms of the sovereignty [of Gibraltar], which have been safeguarded.”

While the necessary steps are taken to finalize the treaty, something that is forecast to take six months, “arrangements that are allowed by Schengen to ease the controls at La Verja” will be applied, in order to ensure that mobility (which is already greatly limited due to the pandemic) be “as fluid as possible,” in the words of the minister.

González Laya did not offer details about how Spain would exercise its responsibility over the Gibraltar border, nor whether, after four years, Spanish police would be stationed in the port and the airport of The Rock, as the territory is commonly known. She only went so far as to say that at the end of this period, a round of consultation is planned, and that the role of Frontex is to “assist the Spanish authorities” and to serve as a “confidence builder” – that’s to say, dispel any misgivings on the part of the Gibraltarians.

As well as forming part of Schengen, Gibraltar will be able to benefit from other EU policies, such as a customs regime for the trade of goods, always with the intermediation and support of Spain, and guaranteeing loyal competition in terms of taxation, environmental issues and work relations. This will create a paradox whereby Gibraltar – 96% of whose inhabitants voted against Brexit in the 2016 referendum – could be more integrated in the EU now that it is out of it than when the UK was part of the bloc, given that it was not part of Schengen, nor the customs union or common market.

In theory, the nearly 10,000 Spaniards who work in Gibraltar (two-thirds of the 15,000 cross-border workers, had their access via La Verja guaranteed, even if there had been no deal, provided they figured on a registry that would have let them come and go just by showing an ID card such as the Spanish DNI.

The problem is that a hard border would have seen the end of many of these jobs in Gibraltar, as well as depriving the nearby Spanish population of customers with high spending power. As such, on Monday, the mayors of eight Spanish municipalities in the neighboring area called on the governments in Madrid and London to reach an “urgent and positive” deal that would put the “interests of the citizens above any other aspect.”

For her part, González Laya said on Monday that Spain was willing to “raise La Verja” to facilitate the free circulation of people with Gibraltar, but warned that if there was no deal, it would be “the only place where there was a hard Brexit.”

The Rock was expressly excluded from the Brexit deal reached between the UK and the EU on December 24, meaning that its future was entirely dependent on the results of the negotiations between Madrid and London.

Via a statement, British Foreign Minister Dominic Raab celebrated the deal, saying that “working side by side with the Chief Minister of Gibraltar, and following intensive discussions with the Spanish government, we reached agreement on a political framework to form the basis of a separate treaty between the UK and the EU regarding Gibraltar.” In the meantime, he continued, “all sides are committed to mitigating the effects of the end of the Transition Period on Gibraltar, and in particular ensure border fluidity, which is clearly in the best interests of the people living on both sides.” Raab reiterated his government’s firm commitment to “Gibraltar and its sovereignty,” and thanked his Spanish counterpart for her “positive and constructive approach.” He concluded saying: “We have a warm and strong relationship with Spain, and we look forward to building on it in 2021.”

Writing via Twitter, Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez said that the deal was the start of “a new era,” saying that the preliminary agreement will “allow for barriers to be eliminated and to move toward an area of shared prosperity.” He also thanked the negotiators from the Foreign Ministry.

British Prime Minister Borish Johnson also published a tweet on Thursday afternoon, welcoming the deal.

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The Spanish prime minister’s migration journey




Separating the destinies of Abdoul, a 16-year-old from Sierra Leone, and Moroccan Yassin Esadik, 23, is an abyss of two-and-a-half years. The former disembarked from the Aquarius rescue ship in Valencia in June, 2018. The red-carpet treatment rolled out in the port meant there were 600 journalists on site, humanitarian aid and a coordinated administration focused on accelerating the procedures to process the migrants’ arrival.

Two-and-a-half years later, at the end of October, Esadik arrived in the overcrowded Arguineguín dock in Gran Canaria, where migrant arrivals had been accumulating for 20 days. Sandwiches were handed out for breakfast, lunch and dinner, there was a lack of water and hygiene, journalists were kept behind a barrier and an overwhelmed system meant that he was unlikely to be able to leave the island until he was deported. It’s not just time that separates the fate of these two young men; nor is it exactly an ideological shift. It is realpolitik.

In the case of Abdoul, a then-unknown humanitarian rescue ship gave Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez the opportunity to declare his intentions to the European Union as soon as he took power in June 2018. The Aquarius was the first ship to become embroiled in a humanitarian crisis due to the closed port strategy of the Italian interior minister at the time, Matteo Salvini. While Europe looked the other way, the vessel was left in limbo for eight days. Implicit in Sánchez’s gesture was the message that Spain could lead the approach of Europe’s southern states to migration, could manage the flows and control borders while respecting human rights. But reality soon chewed up that message and spat it out.

Another incident involving a ship that has long been forgotten showed how quickly Spain ditched this role. In late November 2018, the Alicante fishing boat Nuestra Madre Loreto was left in limbo for 10 days after rescuing 12 migrants off the coast of Libya. Once again, neither Italy nor Malta allowed it to dock, and Sanchez’s government, in contrast with its previous message, tried to resolve the crisis by forcing the ship to leave the migrants in what it considered the closest and safest port – Libya, a chaotic country, according to migration experts, where migrants are extorted and abused. The captain of Nuestra Madre Loreto, Pascual Durá, refused and set sail for the Spanish coast. The crisis was only resolved at the last minute when Malta allowed the boat to dock on the condition that the migrants were subsequently taken to Spain.

Since that incident, there has been a U-turn in Spain’s migration politics. The vast majority of the Aquarius migrants plus those rescued by the Catalan NGO ship Proactiva Open Arms arriving in Spain in 2018 have had their request for legal residency rejected; Spanish rescue boats have been forbidden to trawl the central Mediterranean and the Maritime Rescue service has also had its hands tied. For the time being, the coalition government has agreed not to stop immediate deportation, and the enclosure in Ceuta and Melilla is being maintained and is now being tried in the Canary Islands.

“Spanish migration strategy is more stable than it seems,” says Gemma Pinyol, director of the Instrategies think tank. “There are some changes in the narrative depending on who is in power, but the border control policies, which are the ones that continue to be imposed, haven’t changed that much. We need to take a good look and promote serious debate on migration. We can discuss which model is better or worse, but we must seek a comprehensive mobility policy.”

While Spain has been spared Europe’s migratory crises until recently, over the past two and a half years it has been left to face unprecedented situations practically alone. In 2018, irregular entries rocketed by more than 64,000 and, a year later, the number of asylum applications rose to 118,000, collapsing an already precarious system. Now, in the midst of the pandemic, the Canary Islands is bearing the brunt of the situation, leading to migrant macro-camps such as were set up in the Greek islands.

Thanks to the European Union and its interior ministers, the chance of Spain leading a migration approach of its own has dwindled. “From the Pyrenees down, Europe only cares about two words: secondary migrations,” says a member of the current administration, referring to the obsession with stopping the transit of migrants to the rest of Europe through Mediterranean countries.

In fact it is the demands of European countries to the north and east of the continent that have done much to curb Spain’s early initiative. “There has been a total rejection of what was originally proposed and a lack of leadership,” says a spokesman involved in national immigration policy. “There was a positive, serious, orderly approach; obviously not perfect, but, on paper at least, the line on immigration policy was clear. In practice, it turns out to be something else; you do what [Spain’s interior minister] Fernando Grande-Marlaska says.”

The new migration agreement currently being negotiated in Brussels rules out a solidarity-based distribution of immigrants and instead focuses on border controls, putting aside the debate on legal migration models and an adequate response to the demographic needs of an aging continent. “In Europe, the view of immigration is strictly about limiting and repressing it,” says political scientist Sami Naïr. “There is no prospective concept of what could be a great Mediterranean policy between the two shores, nor a true policy of cooperation. I have been advocating for years that limitation is necessary, but it has to run alongside proposals that offer stability to the populations of the countries of origin.”

Meanwhile, Spain still harbors a certain transformative impulse inspired by Minister of Inclusion, Social Security and Migration José Luis Escrivá, who advocates attracting foreigners to the labor market legally as a way to save the welfare state and mitigate Spain’s the demographic decline. Escrivá is committed to making procedures more flexible, attracting talent and facilitating the inclusion of foreign minors. But the minister is more or less on his own and the impact of these initiatives is slight within the context of the great immigration conundrum. Now, the fallout from the coronavirus pandemic, which has triggered unemployment, complicates policy further. Once again, it is realpolitik.


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