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October 27, 2017

What exactly happened in Catalonia yesterday?

Yesterday, the stage was set for a declaration of independence in the Catalan parliament, and for a Spanish senate authorisation to the government to take the necessary measures - under Article 155 of the Spanish constitution - to return the Catalan region to the fold. But in the morning it was announced that Catalan regional premier Carles Puigdemont would call snap regional elections. An institutional declaration was scheduled for 1:30pm, then delayed for an hour, then cancelled. And then around 5pm Puigdemont finally appeared to state that he had exhausted all possibilities for a negotiated solution to the political crisis in Catalonia, including calling snap elections, but that he did not have the necessary guarantees that the elections could be held under normal conditions. Failing that, it now fell to the Catalan parliament to decide what to do in relation with the consequences of the Art 155 process.

So, what actually happened yesterday? The Art 155 measures requested by the Spanish government include dismissing the Catalan cabinet in full, and acquiring the right to veto Catalan parliament resolutions. Also, control over Catalan finances, regional police, and public media. All points to Puigdemont wanting assurances that these measures would not be applied. Also to the backlash from the separatist camp forcing him to backtrack. 

According to this account by Fernando Garea, an agreement between the Spanish and Catalan governments was almost at hand. The Spanish government refused to stop the Art 155 authorisation in the Senate, but was open to stopping the application of the measures with a decree immediately after the Senate approval. Puigdemont pulled back partly because he never got the text of this decree as he demanded. On the other hand, Spanish government sources complain that Puigdemont was demanding also the release of the two imprisoned separatist grass-roots leaders, as well as the withdrawal of the Guardia Civil and National Police from Catalonia, without any guarantees that the Catalan government would indeed be returning to the Spanish legal fold.

The PSOE, meantime, has introduced an amendment in the Senate that would suspend the Art 155 authorisation if regional elections are called under Spanish law. So, if the PP majority in the Senate accepts this amendment, Puigdemont can still call snap elections and defuse the whole process. The PP, so far, rejects this amendment.

In addition, the PSOE has introduced amendments to exclude the control of Catalan public media, and to make the application of the rest of the measures gradual. The PP accepts the first and is studying the second.

There is a possibility that the PSOE might not support the Art 155 authorisation in the end if the PP rejects the election amendment. In that case, the PP would approve the authorisation by itself. The political climate would probably sour immediately, with the PP accusing the PSOE of undermining the constitution, and the PSOE accusing the PP of refusing a democratic way out.

As to the Catalan side, Puigdemont's election announcement sparked protests, and threats of resignation among Puigdemont's allies. In the end, regional business secretary Santi Vila resigned from the government saying his efforts for a negotiated solution had failed. Today there will be parallel plenary sessions of the Spanish Senate and the Catalan Parliament, in which the baseline scenario is a unilateral declaration of independence and an unconditional authorisation of Art 155. But anything can happen. There is a possibility of backbench revolt in Puigdemont's camp which would deprive the separatists of their majority in an independence vote - assuming the opposition does not boycott the session. 

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October 27, 2017

Transactional versus strategic foreign policy

We had an article yesterday in which we - and the authors we cited - made the point that Germany is politically not ready for a strategic foreign policy. We were reminded of this by an event yesterday. Gerhard Schröder interceded personally with his old buddy Recep Tayyip Erdogan, to seek the release of German human rights activist Peter Steudtner, who was under arrest in Turkey. Schröder acted with the knowledge of both Angela Merkel and Sigmar Gabriel. It is not known what undertaking Schröder gave to Erdogan, but we would now expect to see a softening of Merkel‘s increasingly hard line towards Turkey.

Schröder‘s intervention reminded Germans of his policy style, which was hugely popular during his time as chancellor from 1998 until 2005. The former chancellor used to pull stunts like these, for example when he personally intervened with companies to stop planned plant closures.

But this type of transactional politics, popular as it no doubt is, stands in contradiction to the goal of a strategic foreign policy. Erdogan has started to arrest German citizens in Turkey to exert pressure on the German government. It is hardly a good strategy to start negotiating their release. The decision to release one of several innocently imprisoned people will not affect the others - many of whom have dual German and Turkish citizenship. Erdogan now knows that he can use these prisoners to soften EU policy towards Turkey. 

Handelsblatt reminds us of a similar mission in 2013, by the late former German foreign minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher, who interceded with Vladimir Putin in favour of the release of Mikhail Khodorkovsky. In Germany this is regarded as Realpolitik. In reality it is the foreign policy of a small country.

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