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January 05, 2018

Catalonia's government by Skype

The Catalan regional election took place just before the Christmas week-end, and Spain being a catholic country it observes the feast of the epiphany this coming week-end, so there has not been time for much to happen officially in Catalonia. But there has been a lot of informal activity among the separatist camp, which once against gained a majority of seats in the parliament. The judicial front remains crucial, with several MP-elects and two leading candidates either in jail pending trial for the events of the autumn, or in Brussels under threat of arrest for ignoring a court summons if they return to Spain. In addition, the debate has been spiced up with the invention of a new region - Tabarnia - to separate from the separatists.

Mariano Rajoy - who exceptionally called the regional election under Art. 155 of the Spanish constitution, intended to rein in a recalcitrant regional government - has scheduled the constituent session of the Catalan parliament for the week after next, on January 17. This will be exceedingly important. The board of the regional parliament played a key role in the separatist challenge during the past two years. Without a militant speaker and a separatist majority on the board the parliament would not have taken votes contrary to the Spanish constitution. A first attempt to elect a new regional premier must happen by the end of the month.

Here is where politics interacts with the justice system. The separatist parties have a majority of 70 seats in the 135-strong regional parliament, but three of them including the region's former deputy premier Oriol Junqueras are in pre-emptive jail near Madrid, and five including the dismissed regional premier Carles Puigdemont are avoiding it in Brussels. To guarantee separatist control of the parliament's board, or a majority to elect the next regional premier, at least four of these must take their seats. The ones in jail presumably will, while those in Brussels except Puigdemont might consider giving up their seats for substitutes. There is a precedent for jailed politicians to be allowed out of prison to take part in parliamentary sessions. But the candidate for regional PM must presumably be present at the session though Puigdemont's party has already suggested that the rules of procedure of the parliament are vague enough to allow Puigdemont to take part in the debate on his own appointment by video conference. If this is not possible, as Argelia Queralt argues from a legal and political point of view, Oriol Junqueras' party might attempt to get him appointed instead. Or a separatist majority of the board might ask the parliament to consider an amendment of the rules of procedure that explicitly allows what has been disparagingly described as a "government in Skype"

If the separatists fail to agree among themselves to ensure a separatist majority, liberal unionist party Ciudadanos would propose its own candidate Inés Arrimadas. This would require the support of Podemos' Catalan ally CeCP, and the regional PP is open to the possibility of Arrimadas garnering their support, too. Ciudadanos, meanwhile, has also put forth the new region of Tabarnia (Tarragona and Barcelona), the metropolitan area of Catalonia's south-east coast where the separatists are in a minority, which they say should be allowed to secede from Catalonia and remain in Spain. This doesn't seem like a serious proposal, but just a way to hold a mirror up to the Catalan separatists. If a regional premier fails to be appointed by March, the region faces new elections in May.

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January 05, 2018

The case for EEA membership

This is one of best analyses we have yet read about Brexit - by George Yarrow, chairman of the Regulatory Policy Institute. We do not agree with all of his points - including his main point that the UK can unilaterally exercise its right to remain a member of the EEA by international law. But what impresses us is the clear strategic approach with which Yarrow analyses the UK's post-Brexit options. His overall conclusion is that EEA membership for a long transitional period constitutes the superior choice, because it is the option that gives the UK maximum leverage in the negotiations for a subsequent trade and association deal. 

The main point in his 22-page paper is that EEA membership has an "option value" that arises from the benefits of treaty rights. It would make no sense to surrender that value unless the UK gains something of similar value in the negotiations. 

"This points immediately to a twin-track policy strategy based on clear distinction between shorter-term and longer-term issues: secure satisfactory trading arrangements in the short term whilst continuing to seek out improved arrangements for the longer-term."

We strongly agree with his assertion that temporary membership of the EEA is the superior choice to make Brexit work. This is also why some of the most hardcore Remain supporters reject the EEA, as it would frustrate their goal of reversing Brexit before 2019. 

We are sceptical about Yarrow's assertion that the Vienna Convention on International Treaties gives the UK a unilateral right to remain in the EEA. He argues that there is no mandated link between withdrawal from the EU and from the EEA, a view that is disputed by the EU. We do not know whether it matters that the EU itself, in contrast to its members, is not a signatory to the Vienna Convention. But, in any case, since the EU has explicitly offered the UK the option of continued membership of both the single market and the customs union, these legal issues are unlikely to matter in the real world. An EEA option would be available to the UK if it wanted it. The EU would almost certain try to exert conditions on EEA membership, like the insistence on continued free movement of labour. 

We also agree with Yarrow's assertion that the main economic issue is not Brexit itself, but the uncertainty caused by the British government's long period of dithering. The economy will adjust to any regime, but there is persistent uncertainty about the type of regime that will emerge from Brexit. We also agree with his assertion that the government's strategy should not be about the end-game at this stage, but what he calls "proximate objectives".

The main conclusion from this discussion is that time-limited EEA membership is vastly superior to the transitional arrangement being offered by the EU. 

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