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October 31, 2017

Puigdemont's flight of fancy

The big news of the day is that Carles Puigdemont has absconded to Brussels with five other members of his government in one of the most extraordinary political developments in modern European history.

We think this Tintin spoof says it all, via @cathallittle:

The extraordinary events follow the decision by Spanish state prosecutor to indict the whole regional government and the board of the Catalan parliament for crimes ranging from misuse of public funds to rebellion. The question yesterday after the news broke was whether he was asking for asylum in Belgium. From what we understand this is an unlikely scenario. More likely we are talking about blocking extradition. He has also called a press conference at an undisclosed location near Brussels at 12.30pm local time, today. Is he preparing a government in exile? A spokeswoman for Puigdemont’s Catalan Democratic party (PDeCat) insinuated this by referring to Josep Tarradellas, the Catalan leader who lived in exile in France during the Franco dictatorship. All balls are still in the air.

The only fact we know at this moment in time is that Puigdemont is now the client of the controversial lawyer Paul Bekaert, a man who in the last decades has defended several members of the terrorist group ETA residing in Belgium, to prevent their extradition. 

Though he told the press that there is no dossier yet for him to work on, he told El Mundo that European legislation, which eliminated asylum for citizens of another EU Member State, does not matter too much: "The Treaty of Amsterdam eliminated political asylum, but Belgium has not accepted it, everyone here can ask for it, I have done it in the past for three Spaniards." This still does not mean that Puigdemont will or can go down this route. Even if it is theoretically possible, it never happened in the last 10 years. Not only would the Belgian courts have to conclude that there are serious signs of persecution, but also that Puigdemont cannot obtain protection in Spain. This would be a serious allegation against another member state, ultimately incompatible with Schengen and the EU treaties.

As FAZ noted in a legal opinion, an exception would only be considered if an EU member state decided to suspend the European Convention on Human Rights, or if a country were accused of undermining the democratic order. Neither is the case here. In the unlikely case that Puigdemont asks for asylum, his application would be dealt with within five days. He would then have 30 days to appeal, but the appeal court would only consider procedural issues - whether the actual case was correctly handled formally. It would not reopen the case itself. That's the end of the process. Belgium has no provision for a political override.

The legally more realistic scenario for Puigdemont is to prevent extradition. For this the Spanish would have first to request extradition of the Catalan prime minister with a arrest warrant. A first-instance court would then decide on the conditions of the extradition, according to an extradition procedure that relies mainly on case law. If then Puigdemont were to object to his extradition, the Belgian justice minister would decide on the extradition based on the advice of the court of appeal. Even if the extradition is granted at this stage, an appeal against the order can be logded within 60 days from the date of its notification. It is also our understanding that there are further time delays for the execution of the sentence, of up to ten years, that can possibly be prolonged. The two key factors to take away from this procedure is that there is a political element and a long time frame. And this may be what Puigdemont needs. But imagine for a moment the consequences of a decision by the Belgian government to grant Puigdemont asylum - as the immigration minister Theo Francken suggested was not impossible - or at least not to extradite him. This would trigger a diplomatic crisis between Belgium and Spain, and by extension within the EU. Would Spain not close down its borders to Belgians?

The reaction in Catalonia and Spain has been one of shock and more amusement than worry. It will be important to watch out for the potential effect of Puigdemont's move on the separatist movement. Fleeing prosecution goes against the epic of resistance, but on the other hand some of Puigdemont's political associates are beginning to refer to him as the Catalan president-in-exile as we noted above. The separatist grass-roots are highly susceptible to the idea that there is no hope of a fair trial under Spain's justice system, which will help the separatist parties sustain the narrative of confrontation, even as they prepare to participate in the regional elections called by Mariano Rajoy for December 21. The only separatist party that is likely to sit the elections out is the radical left CUP, a municipalist party that may be more interested in moving on to a strategy of civil disobedience.

The immediate effect of Puigdemont's action may be to harden the precautionary measures likely to be imposed by the judges in charge of investigating the indictments of Catalan officials. "Risk of flight" is a major condition for pre-emptive imprisonment pending trial. In this connection we note that the grass-roots leaders Jordi Sánchez and Jordi Cuixart are as we speak appealing against their pre-emptive imprisonment on sedition charges. At his press conference today Puigdemont has the opportunity to destroy the two Jordis' chances of release. Their reaction, and that of their organisations ANC and Ómnium, will be important to watch in the coming days.

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October 31, 2017

Hopeless but not serious

We have noted before that national separatist leaders have a somewhat warped idea of the EU, and have a tendency to forge strange alliances that are ultimately counter-productive to their political goals. We recall how Alex Salmond, the former SNP leader of Scotland, ran a referendum on the basis of Scotland keeping the pound - ignorant of the stipulation that new EU member states have to make preparations to adopt the euro. While the EU would never force a member state to adopt the euro against its own will, it would not accept an applicant declaring from the outset that it has no intention of joining the monetary union.

For the Catalan leader to go to Brussels and even to consider an asylum application is in a category of its own. Consider the political impact. His move could open up serious divisions between Spain and Belgium. What if Spain asks for Puigdemont to be extradited, and Belgium refuses? Just as nobody outside the UK ended up supporting Scottish independence, Catalonia has lost its last genuine friends in the EU. The only people in the EU who now support Catalan independence outside Catalonia are a bunch of extreme right wingers, like the NV-A, who are abusing the situation for their own narrow political purposes. We struggle to recall a political own-goal of quite such magnitude. 

The whole episode smacks of panic, and a realisation that Catalonia's leaders were unprepared for independence and lacked the stomach for a fight. European history is littered with unsuccessful revolutions. This is going be another one. It reminds us of an old German-Austrian joke: "In Berlin, things are serious but not hopeless; in Vienna they are hopeless but not serious."

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October 31, 2017

Serious but not hopeless

The Berlin part of the "hopeless, but not serious" quote, still holds: Berlin is serious but not hopeless. The Jamaica coalition talks are still on track despite the massive amount of noise. The only formal decision that seems to have been taken is to respect the commitment not to run a deficit, which is stricter than what is required under the constitutional balanced-budget rule. And that rule is already stricter than the European fiscal rules. Nevertheless, it will give the coalition plenty of room for fiscal manoeuvre, which is what makes us confident to think there is going to be a deal.

But we can't be certain. The Greens may falter at the last hurdle when they ask their notoriously volatile grassroots to ratify the agreement. There is also a discussion in the FDP on whether it is the best strategy for the party to head straight back into government. The doubters within the FDP must have had a collective heart attack when they read an extraordinary story in Spiegel magazine - we presume, with Peter Altmaier as the source - according to which the CDU wants to take all eurozone business away from the finance ministry in case the FDP takes the finance ministry job. The proposal has a certain too-clever-by-half quality. The article makes no mention of how the FDP would react. While CDU strategists will undoubtedly draw up all sorts of strategic plans, the reality is that FDP leader Christian Lindner would probably rather walk away from coalition talks, especially given the argument in favour of weakening the finance ministry: Merkel does not trust him. This is why we ultimately discount the story. It falls under the category of a nice try.

We are more concerned, however, about Germany's position on Emmanuel Macron's eurozone reforms. The FDP does not like anything he proposes, and Macron's negative reference to Lindner's red lines during his Sorbonne speech may have closed the doors. The CDU is not keen on much of his agenda either, and Germany may not be able to secure a majority for its proposals of a European Monetary Fund with an automatic debt restructuring mechanism. It might be more expedient - as it is so often is - not to do anything. We agree with Joschka Fischer's warning that Germany is missing a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reform Europe. But our sense of the political discussion in Berlin is that they are mostly focused on rather specific domestic issues, which we think are too irrelevant even to list. Our expectation remains unchanged: Merkel will do everything in order to remain chancellor. Lindner will ask for the whole of the finance ministry. And the eurozone agenda will remain difficult. 

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