Still no way forward in Catalonia

A rare piece of good news last week for Catalonia’s fugitive ex-premier Carles Puigdemont, when a German court rejected Spain’s attempt to have him extradited for rebellion and released him from custody.

There was much outrage last month among the usual suspects when Puigdemont was arrested in Germany while on his way from Denmark to Belgium, pursuant to a European Arrest Warrant issued by the Spanish government. But while the warrant required the German authorities to apprehend Puigdemont, the courts can still refuse to send him back if they find his alleged conduct would not amount to a crime in Germany.

So far, Puigdemont is only free on bail; although it rejected the claim that “rebellion” was ground for extradition, the court sought further information on the charge of misappropriation of public funds, relating to Catalonia’s unauthorised independence referendum last year. But even if it accepts Spain’s case on that point, it seems unlikely that Puigdemont would have any qualms about skipping bail.

The ex-premier’s personal fate, however, is something of a sideshow in the broader question of Catalan independence. More significant is the failure of the Catalan parliament to appoint a new regional government, which is now taking the crisis into a new stage.

Three attempts have been made, all unsuccessful. First Puigdemont withdrew a month ago after the courts ruled that he could not be remotely sworn in from Belgium; then pro-independence activist Jordi Sànchez was nominated but also withdrew after he was unable to obtain bail to attend the parliamentary debate.

Finally, two weeks ago, Jordi Turull, Puigdemont’s former chief of staff, was defeated on an investiture vote 64 to 65, after the four MPs from left-wing hardline independence group Popular Unity Candidacy (CUP) made a last-minute decision to abstain. All the anti-independence parties voted against him, including the far left, which had abstained in January on the election of a speaker.

But since Turull’s candidacy, unlike the other two, actually went to a vote, that started the clock ticking for the legal requirement to have a government approved within two months – otherwise parliament must be dissolved for a fresh election.

It’s not clear that either side has much of a game plan at this point. With most of the key separatist leaders now either in jail (including Turull himself) or on the run, the chance of a pro-independence government being formed seems slim, even if the CUP can be induced to change its mind. Evidently the supporters of independence would have been better off installing someone who was at liberty at the first opportunity, rather than waste time arguing about Puigdemont’s ability to do the job remotely.

Madrid may hope that if enough of the separatists are put out of action, a majority can be constructed for an anti-independence government. The undemocratic nature of such a move could be argued to be more apparent than real, since the anti-independence forces did after all win a majority of the vote. But their extreme ideological diversity would make agreement difficult, to say the least.

Puigdemont after his release appealed for dialogue with the central government, which remains just as desirable and just as unlikely as it has for the last four years.

But unless the two sides are willing to seriously talk to each other, Catalonia looks like heading back to the polls – and it’s hard to imagine that that will solve anything either.

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