Home » Brussels Eyes Puigdemont’s Get-Out-of-Jail Free Card
Brussels Europe European Union Featured Global News News World News

Brussels Eyes Puigdemont’s Get-Out-of-Jail Free Card

GOOD MORNING. Spain’s Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez faces questions from Brussels over a still-secret draft amnesty law. EU sanctions against Russia’s oil have a €1 billion loophole, an investigation reveals. Commission Vice President Věra Jourová tells Playbook about a law to reveal influence by foreign governments. And activists are launching a campaign warning about the return of dirty mining to Europe. Strap in for a jam-packed Brussels Playbook.

REYNDERS WANTS DETAILS ON AMNESTY AS SÁNCHEZ AND PUIGDEMONT NEAR DEAL: Just as Pedro Sánchez and self-exiled Catalan separatist Carles Puigdemont are set to announce a deal that would grant the rebels amnesty in exchange for their party’s votes, EU Justice Commissioner Didier Reynders has intervened with a bombshell.

Please explain: In a letter addressed to Spain’s justice and presidency ministers, Reynders asks for information on the “possible adoption of an amnesty law,” and seeks details “as regards the personal, material and temporal scope of this envisaged law.”

Why Brussels cares: Officials close to the case told Playbook the Commission had received “numerous concerns from citizens and others about this planned law,” and that Reynders “would like to receive more details from the Spanish authorities to form an opinion.”

**A message from ETNO: Have you missed this week’s FT-ETNO event? Watch Nobel Prize Winner Maria Ressa and award-winning author Shoshana Zuboff discuss “Freedom, the Internet and Democracy” in an exclusive interview.**

Rule-of-law relevance: Catalan politicians and civil society leaders who organized the illegal 2017 independence referendum have faced prosecution for embezzlement and maladministration over allegations they syphoned off public funds intended for other purposes and redirected them to finance the pro-independence cause. If those politicians now design a law to avoid their own prosecution, the Commission could get involved over rule-of-law concerns.

Geopolitical relevance: Another possible prosecution angle that Spanish judges have pursued involves Catalan links to the Kremlin. After a Puigdemont aide traveled to Russia, the New York Times reported he had sought help from Moscow to break away from Spain, according to a Western intelligence report. But the amnesty law may also close the door on any investigations linked to Russia’s role in the independence push.

Madrid hits back: In a letter Wednesday night, obtained by Playbook, Spain’s Presidency Minister Félix Bolaños replied to Reynders’ letter, which he said he “learned about through the media.” Bolaños claimed that since the government is currently fulfilling caretaker functions, it cannot propose any laws. “Any bill that may be registered in the Congress of Deputies [Spain’s parliament] will come from the parliamentary groups and not from the council of ministers.”

No info yet: Asked if that meant Sánchez and his government did not know what his representatives were negotiating with Puigdemont in Belgium — where the Catalan leader is in self-exile — a spokesperson for Sánchez insisted “it is not yet a matter for the Government.”

Schrödinger’s negotiation: While “it is true that there is a negotiation between parties, the law has not even reached the Congress of Deputies yet,” the spokesperson pointed out.


HOW RUSSIA WINS BIG FROM GAPS IN EU OIL SANCTIONS: Last year, the EU gave Bulgaria an exemption to protect its citizens from oil shortages.

But Sofia took advantage of loopholes to refine the oil and export it abroad — helping Russia make around €1 billion, according to an investigation by the NGO Global Witness, the think tanks Center for the Study of Democracy (CSD) and Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air (CREA) and independent reporting by POLITICO’s Victor Jack.

Background: In December last year, the European Commission gave Bulgaria a “special derogation” from the EU’s ban on Russian oil imports, allowing it to buy crude from Moscow until the end of 2024.

There was a condition: The derogation was to protect the country’s security of supply, and not for Bulgaria’s giant Russian-owned refinery to process the fuels and sell them abroad for profits. 

But using loopholes, Bulgaria allowed millions of barrels of Moscow’s oil to reach the Lukoil refinery that the Russian firm then exported as refined fuels abroad, including to EU countries. Between March and July alone, the Lukoil refinery exported around 3 million barrels of likely Russian-origin fuels.

Slipping through the cracks: Legally, this doesn’t breach sanctions, experts said. Ambiguities in the EU’s rules, including on what counts as a trade, which fuels Bulgaria can export if it can’t store them, and how the Commission tallies data, create legal avenues for Lukoil to take advantage of. 

Mind the gap: Countries are calling for Brussels to act now to close these loopholes: three EU diplomats said the Commission should review Bulgaria’s opt-out ahead of its 12th package of sanctions that’s expected in the coming days. “If the purpose of exemption was to help [ordinary Bulgarians] survive … then we have failed,” said one of the diplomats. POLITICO Energy and Climate and Trade Pros can read Victor’s full story here.


MACRON’S GAZA CONFERENCE: Delegates are meeting today for the Paris Peace Forum, an annual assembly and one of President Emmanuel Macron’s many pet diplomatic projects. Solving the humanitarian crisis in the Gaza Strip is the latest addition to the gathering’s agenda — but it’s not exactly clear what the conference can achieve.

It’s all too much: “There’s an international overkill of conferences with similar participants. It’s a lot about France’s visibility on the global stage,” said an EU diplomat. Read Clea Caulcutt’s curtain-raiser here.

EU BALKS AT NEW HAMAS SANCTIONS: Israel and the United States are piling pressure on the EU to impose sanctions on Hamas in the wake of its October 7 attack. But diplomats say the EU won’t do so — at least for the time being. Portugal’s Foreign Minister João Gomes Cravinho said sanctions were a “diversionary tactic” distracting from the key question of Palestinian statehood. Nick Vinocur, Barbara Moens and Jacopo Barigazzi have more here.

Meanwhile, Belgian deputy PM calls for sanctions against Israel: Petra De Sutter, from the Greens, called on Belgium to sanction Israel on Wednesday. De Sutter said people and companies who supply Hamas with money must also be sanctioned. Playbook’s own Ketrin Jochecová has more.

MITSOTAKIS: ISRAEL’S FRIENDS MUST SPEAK ‘HARD TRUTHS’: Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said Israel’s allies must speak “hard truths” about its “aggressive” military response against Hamas. “While we recognize that Israel has the right to defend itself, how it does so actually matters,” Mitsotakis told POLITICO’s Power Play podcast. Write-up here, and listen here.

NOW READ THIS: Carla Del Ponte and Graham Blewitt, two former International Criminal Tribunal prosecutors, argue in an opinion article for POLITICO that international justice must serve the victims of the war’s atrocities.


DEFENDING DEMOCRACY: Playbook spoke with Věra Jourová on Tuesday, with the EU’s transparency and values chief filling us in on the Defense of Democracy Package, which she said she expects the Commission to adopt by the end of the year.

NGOs, look away now: Don’t expect the controversial requirement for NGOs to disclose third-country funding to disappear from the text, Jourová told Playbook. The commissioner’s team consulted with intelligence services, and remain convinced “it is still a good idea,” she insisted.

Background: The package was drafted in a bid to prevent foreign interference in EU democracies, but civil society groups are furious at requirements to reveal non-EU funding, which some have likened to Russia’s malign foreign agents law.

Silver lining: In light of NGOs’ concerns about potential retaliation if they disclose their funding sources, those that face a “justified risk” could request to be included in a “nonpublic part of the register,” Jourová said.

TIKTOK RUNDOWN: Playbook’s conversation with Jourová came just after the commissioner met (separately) with TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew and X’s Head of Global Government Affairs Nick Pickles.

What the Commission wants from TikTok: Asked what message she had for the chief of the Chinese-owned video app, Jourová said she had spoken mainly about its responsibility to protect children. “We want them to go the extra mile to look into their system” to ensure there’s no harassment or pro-suicide content, with recent studies showing “the mental health of the young people is worsening,” she said.

What the Commission wants from X: As for her message for the company formally known as Twitter? “The Digital Services Act is in force, and we expect them to be proactively acting against terrorist content, for example in connection with Hamas recently. To proactively work against hate speech, child pornography and other illegal content.”

Free speech has its limits, Elon: Jourová also said she “tried to explain why in Europe we cannot be absolute protectors of the freedom of speech. That we have in our laws for strong reason, some speech which is prohibited because it can be pretty dangerous.” And she’s ready to deliver that message herself: I directly asked for a possibility to have this conceptual discussion with [X owner] Elon Musk, because he should understand maybe better why we have the laws we have in Europe.”

Check it before you wreck it: “What we want in Europe is fact checking,” Jourová said, which is different to preventing people from expressing differing opinions. “We want the facts to be provided to the people to make a choice. If somebody wants to believe a lie, it is his or her right, but I think that is the obligation of the platforms … to offer a set of facts that people can use for their own consideration.


**What will the future of Europe’s defense policy look like? Join our speaker line-up at POLITICO Live’s Defense Launch event on November 21 to learn about this and much more. The event will start with an exclusive joint interview and will be followed by a high-level panel discussion. Register to watch online!**


FEAR OF A RETURN OF THE MINES: Brussels is preparing a new law — the Critical Raw Materials Act — to facilitate mining in Europe. But activists are now mobilizing against it, warning the law would steamroll over local environmental opposition and even allow the construction of mines in protected natural reserves.

There’s always a news hook: “In Portugal the prime minister resigned over a probe into corruption over lithium mining,” Bojana Novakovic, a Serbian-Australian actor-turned-activist who is campaigning against mining projects, told Playbook. “Communities on the ground … have been expressing grave concerns about lack of transparency relating to this project for years.”

Corruption warning: “Corruption is endemic to mining, and the Critical Raw Materials [Act] is a law which would simply make more of that corruption legal,” Novakovic said. “It would make the lives of local communities, the lands we care for and the nature we live with even more difficult than it is now.”

Background: The law — currently in negotiations — establishes a benchmark that at least 10 percent of the “strategic raw materials” consumed by the EU should be extracted in domestic mines. As part of the measures to speed up mining projects, the regulation would reduce opportunities for local opposition groups to delay permits for new mines.

‘Overriding public interest’: The act currently sets a deadline for authorities of a maximum of 24 months to grant extraction permits. It also limits the public consultation period for environmental impact assessments to 90 days, pointing to an “overriding public interest” that such projects move forward.

Activists gear up: “The Critical Raw Materials Act is set to take a wrecking ball to human rights and environmental protection,” Laura Sullivan from the WeMove Europe activist network told Playbook. Together with Novakovic and other local organizations, WeMove is launching an online petition to scrap the act.

Re-shoring pollution: “Supplying Europe used to be a Global South problem and was arguably easier to hide,” Sullivan argued. “But the Critical Raw Materials Act will bring the mining scale up to European countries like Portugal, Spain, Ireland … it’s about to become a major problem for people in Europe.”

EU BUDGET        

BUDGET TALKS: Ahead of today’s meeting of finance ministers, Denmark, Sweden and Austria have each sent proposals to their colleagues on how they want to avoid a top-up of the EU budget — except to finance Ukraine.

Background: The Commission said it needs more money to finance pressing priorities such as migration and increased interest costs for NextGenerationEU bonds. But the three countries each propose measures to reprioritize EU funds to finance more pressing needs, according to three “non-papers” seen by Playbook.

Denmark says that while the top-up for Ukraine is justified, the rest should be financed with €18.2 billion of unallocated funds and should be combined with the “redeployment” of allocated funds.

Sweden also proposes “horizontal redeployments,” listing how much would be available from each program if legal commitments are deducted.

Austria reckons that instead of €18.9 billion in fresh funding to finance interest costs, “the Commission could be empowered to deduct from future [recovery fund] grants disbursements an ‘interest fee’ commensurate to cover the additional interest needs in a given year.” For migration, Austria proposes budget “reallocations.” Rather than giving Brussels €1.9 billion in additional funding for increased administration costs, the EU should adhere to a “stable staffing policy” and “lower salary increases.”

**Global climate policy is shaped at events like COP28 – and Global Playbook will be there. Count on our global newsletter to bring you every detail you need to know from the event that shapes international climate policy. Never miss a global beat with Global Playbook – sign up today.**

Source: Politico