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December 21, 2017

Catalonia votes

Catalonia goes to the polls today for a regional election called by Spain's central government after dissolving the rebel government of Carles Puigdemont, who is contesting the election from self-imposed exile in Brussels. What the polls tell us is that the outcome is essentially a toss-up between a repeat of the previous situation - a separatist majority in the regional parliament, but likely without a majority of the votes behind it due to the under-representation of Barcelona - or a gridlock. There is a slim chance (El País' poll aggregator puts it at one in twenty-five) of a unionist majority in the parliament. Polls close at 8pm and the results will likely be known by midnight.

Apart from whether or not the separatists repeat their majority, the other open question is which individual party will get the most votes and seats. Just two months ago it looked like the (separatist) republican left of Catalonia (ERC) would win by a wide margin. but since then there have been two clear trends in the polls. One is Puigdemont's list (JxC) taking votes away from ERC and the other is the growing support for Ciudadanos, the leading unionist party in Catalonia. The latter correlates with a loss of support for the Catalan People's Party. This to us looks like strategic voting as conservative unionists see the chance that Ciudadanos will win the election, and shift their vote to make it happen. 

In case the separatists win a majority of seats, ERC will try to get their leader Oriol Junqueras, formerly Puigdemont's deputy premier and now in jail, to be voted in as the next regional premier. The Spanish supreme court will have to decide whether to keep Junqueras in jail pending trial, or to release him. The issue here is that ERC's face in the election campaign, Marta Rovira, has been insisting that the independent Catalonia has been declared and what needs to happen now is the implementation of the independent republic. They hope the Spanish government will enter into negotiations on this. Puigdemont, who has an outside chance of coming first, is actually the preferred next regional premier according to opinion polls. In his case, the issue is that he would probably be arrested the minute he set foot in Spain, as he has missed several court summons in the same case involving Junqueras.

In the also likely case that there is no separatist or unionist majority, the kingmaker will be Catalunya en Comú/Podem, the grass-roots "commons" associated with Podemos nationally and which keeps an uncomfortably ambiguous position. They would prefer to break the separatist/unionist frame and form a left government with ERC and the Catalan socialists, but neither of these two parties are interested, and in any case the odds of that alliance having a majority are not better than maybe one in six.

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December 21, 2017

A deputy prime minister resigns

Theresa May yesterday put the boot into Damien Green, her de-facto deputy, after she received the report of an inquiry addressing two separate allegations - that pornography was found on one of this computers almost ten years ago, and that he sexually molested a Times journalist. 

The fiercely loyal Green took on his role after May's narrow election result in June. His departure is a blow to the prime minister, but it is not existential and, as far as we can see today, it will not impact the political process of Brexit in any way. At most, it will trigger a cabinet reshuffle after the New Year.

We noted a comment by Tim Stanley that it remains hard to imagine the Tories dropping their pilot at this stage in the Brexit talks. We broadly agree with his conclusion:

"And the assumption that Mr Green can go and the PM can remain in power, despite how politically and personally close he is to her, is indicative of how her position has changed since the election. It’s a position that isn’t so much strong as miraculously stubborn."

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December 21, 2017

Will Gibraltar result in another Irish fudge?

There are so many contentious aspects of the Brexit negotiations, that it is much easier for attention to pass from one issue to the next in succession rather than considering all of them together. So, it seems like every week the press discovers a new Brexit outrage. The latest is Gibraltar. Yesterday the European Commission issued draft negotiating guidelines for the second phase of the Brexit talks, and in them, with a single mention of Gibraltar in the annex which is to say that the guidelines issued in April this year continue to apply in their entirety. And what those guidelines said was that the status of Gibraltar is a bilateral issue between the UK and Spain, and that the EU will incorporate whatever deal the UK and Spain can agree to. This is a sticking point because of the UK. The Financial Times quotes an unnamed British official saying that 

"The April guidelines made clear that the Article 50 negotiations applied to our overseas territories, and that transition is part of that process. They are also explicit that a transition period should use current terms, structures and the acquis. Consistency and clarity must flow both ways"

We think this is a deliberate misreading of the April 29 guidelines, whose only reference to Gibraltar is: 

"After the United Kingdom leaves the Union, no agreement between the EU and the United Kingdom may apply to the territory of Gibraltar without the agreement between the Kingdom of Spain and the United Kingdom."

The British official implied this was an internal contradiction in the EU position. Theresa May told the British parliament yesterday that her government has no intention of excluding Gibraltar from the negotiations on the transition deal or the future arrangement. Meanwhile, the Spanish government has taken the conclusion of phase one of the Brexit negotiations as the cue to start working on a bilateral deal with the UK on Gibraltar. Foreign minister Alfonso Dastis reassured the mayors of the Spanish towns near Gibraltar that the goal of the Spanish government is to preserve the status of the Spanish workers in Gibraltar. The Financial Times notes that Spain is not interested in bringing up the issue of sovereignty over Gibraltar as part of the talks.

The open question is whether this will be a real stumbling block in the negotiations or it will result in a fudge similar to the one on Northern Ireland. 

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December 21, 2017

Blood, sweat and tears

For the sake of the country, sacrifices have to be made. And sleep seems to be one of them. There are reports that Emmanual Macron hardly ever sleeps, and that for many of his team a second working day begins at 22h at night. Micromanaging on a large scale takes colossal effort. His finance minister Bruno Le Maire is one of the few who resists temptation and switches off his mobile phone before going to sleep, answering Macron's sms in the morning only. He is the exception. Some magazines start to wonder whether they are all ripe for massive burnout. 

Cécile Cornudet writes that this intense work schedule is not new to politics, what is new is that it is talked about. Could this be that the French want to see their politicians taking this extraordinary effort? They don't want to wake up to news of comfortable journeys, like the one from Édouard Philippe this week in a private jet to Tokyo. They want blood, sweat, and tears. And between displays of exhaustion, limiting expenses, and complaints, there is a narrative that just fits the bill.

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