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December 07, 2017

Schengen suspended

Greeks may have secured the third review and gained credibility, but not when it comes to the refugee crisis and Schengen. Greek travellers have to go through a thorough passport control when travelling to Germany. After Germany and Italy increased their controls in November, Belgium beefed up its controls on airports, too.

Germany's interior ministry says the measures were enforced after authorities documented more than 1000 illegal entries from Greece since the start of the year. They said security measures across the board were being beefed up amid fears of a terror attack during the holiday season.

Whatever the reason, Greek travellers including some MEPs are furious. This is an unilateral suspension of Schengen. Even if you agree that the Greek government handles the refugee crisis badly, the Greeks see themselves as scapegoats once again for a failure that is much more systemic. “After Germany, now Belgium ignores the Schengen agreement and checks us on flights from Greece,” Sofia Sakorafa, one of the MEPs, wrote on Facebook.

The security reasons are real, though, writes Deutsche Welle. With about 60,000 refugees and asylum seekers Greece has become a major hub for human trafficking. Fake passports are promoted openly among refugees, and the EU counter terrorism agency identified forged passports for alleged members of the Islamic State group in the refugee camps. Last year, France offered help to identify the false documents, but Athens refused the request pointing to Turkey instead.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan is due in Athens on Thursday for a two-day visit, where the uptick of refugee arrivals and Turkey's relations with the EU will be on the agenda. Let's hope that Erdogan's provocative remarks calling for an update of the Treaty of Lausanne, which sets out the modern borders between Greece and Turkey, do not jeopardise the talks.

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December 07, 2017

Puigdemont's European arrest warrant withdrawn

The European arrest warrant for Carles Puigdemont, the former Catalan president, who heads one of the lists taking parts in the election, has now been withdrawn. This means that he's now free to travel outside Belgium as far as the Spanish courts are concerned, though he is still obligated to appear before the court if he set foot in Spain. The lack of an international arrest warrant somewhat undermines Puigdemont's case that he's being persecuted, and so he called a press conference in Brussels last night to explain why the situation has not changed. He and the rest of the former members of the Catalan government who are in Brussels said that they will not return to Spain until the court cases open against them are closed. They argue that the withdrawal of the European arrest warrant demonstrates that the trial is political. 

What the judge did, in addition, was to free all the people that were in pre-emptive prison pending trial, except four. The four that remain in jail are the two grass-roots leaders Jordi Sánchez and Jordi Cuixart, Puigdemont's deputy premier Oriol Junqueras, and their interior secretary. The four remain in jail because in their case the risk of reiterating their alleged crimes is more serious than for the others. This is not because of the likelihood, but because of their position in the separatist movement according to the judge. For instance, the interior secretary was in charge of the regional police, and is accused of ensuring its inaction at critical times. This singling out of the four to remain in jail is based on a document called "EnfoCATs" (a play on words between "focused" - on the task - and Catalonia) composed in 2015 and found in the home of a Catalan government official, which laid out a strategy which appears to be what played out earlier this year. This indicates that the events of September and October, now under trial, were not spontaneous but premeditated.

Commenting in Agenda Pública, Jordi Nieva-Fenoll calls this document "apocriphal and at times ridiculous". On the other hand, in El mundo Tsevan Rabtan accepts that the document can underpin the arguments of the judge.

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December 07, 2017

Another Greek red line crossed

Alexis Tsipras will have to find a way to get strike law through parliament, as agreed with the institutions, while preventing a party revolt at the same time. This regulation raises up the quorum needed to agree on strike action from a third to at least half of the union's membership. The reform has been one of the big red lines only months ago and now, all of the sudden, the government agreed to it with no apparent resistance. Not only unionists are outraged, some Syriza MPs and ministers are too. The coalition was forced to withdraw the relevant amendment hours after submitting it, according to Macropolis

The question is not whether it will pass parliament: it will, as New Democracy already indicated that they will vote for it. But Tsipras can hardly afford a rebellion in his own party so shortly before the end of the third programme. Expect some horse-trading and arm-twisting behind the scenes. 

This comes as a recent poll by ProRata suggests that the gap between Syriza and New Democracy continues to narrow. Conservatives are on 33% and Syriza on 24.5% in November. New Democracy’s lead over Syriza has been reduced from 16 points in June to 8.5 points, according to this survey. Another positive sign is that a majority of respondents (59%) who voted for Syriza in September 2015 say they would consider voting for the left-wing party again. This is still less than the 95% ND voters are certain to vote for ND again, but still encouraging for Syriza. The poll also notes the rise of the new alliance party formed by Pasok and Potami - with the catchy name Movement for Change - shooting up to 18%. 

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December 07, 2017

What the (failed) agreement on the Northern Irish border tells us

Kevin O’Rourke has an excellent essay in the Irish Times, in which he goes into the history of the British/Irish customs union of 1923, and the Anglo-Irish free-trade area of 1965. These historical episodes offer important lessons on the binary nature of customs agreements, which is relevant for today's Brexit discussion. You have to be in both customs union and a single market if you want border controls to disappear. If you have one, but not the other, then border posts are necessary. In this sense, it makes little difference whether you talk about "regulatory alignment" as the now-rejected compromise between Theresa May and the Irish government put it, or whether you call by its straight name of "regulatory convergence". Whatever you call it, if the rules are different you need a border of some sort.

O'Rourke dismisses the two solutions offered by the UK as impossible. The first is to limit regulatory alignment to a few sectors. The other is to extend regulatory alignment to the whole of the UK. 

"All traded goods will have to be covered if a hard Border is to be avoided. Furthermore, if the UK were to strike such sectoral deals with the EU, both the UK and the EU would be in breach of their obligations to other World Trade Organisation members not to discriminate against their exports. This obligation can only be waived in the context of free trade agreements covering 'substantially all' trade."

O'Rourke concludes, correctly in our view, that the EU will end up offering the UK only off-the-shelf solutions - a standard third-country trade deal, or membership of the EEA - but not the kind of deal the UK is seeking. 

On a completely different note: a glimpse of how UK government ministers think about Brexit was provided by David Davies. He made a revealing statement in the UK parliament yesterday, when he defended his decision to reject the impact assessment of Brexit:

"I am not a fan of economic models as they have all been proven wrong. When you have a paradigm change as in 2008, all the models are wrong. As we are dealing with here [with a] free trade agreement or a WTO outcome, it’s a paradigm change."

On Davis: What is often ignored by economists is the impact the financial crisis has had on public perception of economists and their models. While Davis' assertion may be somewhat pedestrian, it does reflect a trend that economic thought plays a decreasing role in political decision-making, not only in the UK. On the issue of the impact assessment, we would actually agree with him. The impact of Brexit will depend on factors that are themselves uncertain - like the nature of the final agreement and, most importantly, the future economic policies of the UK.

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