Nadia Calviño. EFE
A fiscal pilgrimage

A fiscal pilgrimage

Illuminating parallels between long-distance walking and political negotiation

Friday, 22 September 2023, 14:07


At a meeting of EU finance ministers in Santiago de Compostela last weekend, Spain's representative Nadia Calviño described the negotiations as a 'fiscal Camino'. This was a reference to the Galican capital's status as the final destination for pilgrims walking the Camino de Santiago (most of whom take the 770-kilometre French Way from the Pyrenees across northern Spain) and it got me thinking about whether there are any interesting parallels to be made here: do multi-state wranglings and long-distance hiking really have anything in common?

As a (non-religious) pilgrim myself, I'm well placed to compare two apparently incomparable activities or experiences. In May 2019, I walked 450 kilometres on the Via de la Plata from Zamora to Santiago de Compostela. For the first few days I was obsessed with destinations, not just the towns or villages in which I stopped every evening, but also with reaching what I thought was my ultimate goal - the city in which Calviño and her EU counterparts gathered last weekend to discuss the bloc's suspended fiscal framework.

Then, slowly, I began to realise that the real experience consisted in the journey itself, not in ticking off its various stages. By definition, once you've reached the end of a big walk, the best part's already over. I should have expected from the outset that arriving in Santiago would be the most anti-climactic day of my Camino.

The same can be said of the ongoing fiscal negotiations. The end goal for Calviño and her colleagues is reinstating the Growth and Stability Pact at the beginning of 2024 (it was suspended because of lockdowns in 2020 and again in 2022 when Russia invaded Ukraine). But it also matters how that's done, not just that the end-of-year deadline is met. As acting president of the EU Commission, Spain has to broker a compromise between France and Germany, which currently have opposing ideas on how to reimpose the Pact.

There is also another illuminating parallel between long-distance walking and political negotiation (I know: it sounds absurd). Once I realised that I didn't want my Camino to end, I cut down my daily distances and added in unplanned stops to make it last longer. In that way, I extended my original itinerary by five or six days. Politicians do this too, although they claim it's not by choice.

The meeting in Santiago last weekend yielded no decisive conclusions, so the finance ministers will convene again next month in Madrid. After that, they'll probably move on to another city to carry on the discussion: like an actual Camino, theirs also progresses physically, from place to place. And so on until they strike a deal. But they're clearly in it for the journey, for the thrill of high-level negotiations, for the wrangling. Like every true pilgrim, they're constantly deferring their final destination.

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