Catalonia's Separatists Need a Reset After Puigdemont's Arrest

(Bloomberg View) -- The end of the road for former Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont came literally by the side of a highway -- at a rest stop on the A7 in the German state of Schleswig-Holstein, not far from the Danish border. Wanted in Spain for his role in Catalonia's unilateral declaration of independence last October, Puigdemont has traveled to other European Union countries. But Germany, because of its special role in the EU, couldn't afford to let him go. On Sunday, he was taken into custody, and it's likely that Spain will eventually get its hands on him.

In Spain, Puigdemont originally faced charges of rebellion and sedition. The Spanish authorities issued a European arrest warrant for him but canceled it in December. Belgium, where the Catalan separatist leader had fled, didn't have such crimes on its books, and there was a risk that Spain would lose face if Belgium refused to hand him over. The threat that the warrant would be reissued hung over Puigdemont as he traveled to Denmark in January, but nothing happened; he has since made a trip to Geneva, where the authorities said at the time that there was no legal basis for his arrest, and finally to Finland, on the invitation of some pro-Catalonia legislators there. It was on the way back from the Finnish trip that German police detained him. Spain had issued a new warrant after all, adding misuse of government funds to the charges. Danish police failed to act on it, taking advantage of a delay afforded them by the Spanish government's failure to send the order in English. German cops, however, held true to their reputation as sticklers to the rules.

There have been reasons lately to doubt that European countries still respect each other's legal systems. In Ireland earlier this month, the High Court decided to ask the European Court of Justice whether it really had to honor an arrest warrant for Artur Celmer, wanted in Poland on drug trafficking charges. The judge wondered if, after its recent controversial judiciary reform, Poland still qualified as a law-governed state. Puigdemont's apparent freedom to travel in Northern Europe despite being wanted in the continent's southwest was another example of the erosion of European cooperation in criminal justice matters. 

Germany isn't just Europe's economic powerhouse, though: It sees itself as a guarantor of EU rules. On Monday, German government spokesman Steffen Siebert said that Spain was "a democratic law-governed state" and the conflict in Catalonia needed to be settled "within the Spanish legal and constitutional order." So it's up to the top Schleswig-Holstein court to decide, probably sometime after the Easter holidays, whether to hand Puigdemont over. Though there aren't such crimes as rebellion and sedition in Germany, government lawyers could argue Puigdemont is wanted for the equivalent of high treason; and misuse of public funds is certainly a crime everywhere in Europe.

European unity is a fragile thing these days. It's hard to get the EU nations to agree on much, from refugee resettlement to the structure of the bloc's budget. After taking more than five months to form a government after an inconclusive election, Chancellor Angela Merkel generally wants as little conflict in the EU as possible. 

Miscalculation is nothing new to Puigdemont or the Catalan separatists in general. They counted on European support in the lead-up to the ill-fated independence announcement. Instead, the EU aligned with Rajoy, who introduced direct rule from Madrid and called a regional election for December. After getting a shaky majority in the election, the separatists first tried to annoy Rajoy by re-electing Puigdemont as regional leader so he could rule from exile via Skype, but Spanish courts intervened and he was forced to give up the novel idea. Ever since, the opposition parties have been trying to get a replacement elected -- but their next choice, Jordi Sanchez, who is in jail, didn't cut it for legal reasons, either -- and now the next candidate, Jordi Turull, is in jail, too. 

The separatists' problem is that they keep pushing forward figures who took an active part in last year's independence drive. These are radical politicians whom Madrid doesn't see as potential negotiating partners. Rajoy's government feels more comfortable prosecuting them than facing them across a table. The separatists should have realized by now that if they want to form a government, they need to reach deeper into the pool of pro-independence politicians to find a more moderate leader, perhaps someone who worked with Artur Mas, who ran Catalonia somewhat less flamboyantly between 2010 and 2016. Instead, the independence supporters continue to bang their heads against a wall erected by Rajoy.

They protested in Catalonia against Puigdemont's arrest, leading to a few arrests and about 100 injuries. That, however, is not the level of determination that will topple Spanish power in Catalonia. There aren't enough radicals to fight off the rest of Spain, where not just Rajoy's party but also its rivals firmly oppose independence for the region. Burning dumpsters and fisticuffs -- especially on a scale that suggests hooliganism rather than a mass popular uprising -- won't endear the separatists to anyone in Europe, either.

Under such circumstances, it's not up to Madrid to come up with compromise proposals to defuse the crisis. It's up to the parties that won the December election to calm down their supporters and put forward a realistic plan to obtain something well short of outright independence. Rajoy and and pretty much any successor Spaniards may elect in the next few years -- especially Albert Rivera, leader of Ciudadanos, the centrist party vying with Rajoy's allies for poll leadership and presenting the strongest opposition to the separatists in Catalonia -- won't entertain anything more ambitious. Puigdemont's arrest should be a signal for the independence supporters to stop playing pointless games and consider what they realistically can achieve.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website

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