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This one man in Belgium could decide Spain’s future

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IT’S WEDNESDAY. I’m politics reporter Eddy Wax bringing you an eclectic diet of news from Brussels and beyond, from the latest European Parliament seat projections to a brewing spat between Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki and EPP chief Manfred Weber.

But first to rainy Waterloo, where once again a battle for the future of Europe is taking place, (sort of).


PUIGDEMONT COULD DECIDE SPAIN’S NEXT LEADER: The complex arithmetic in the fallout from Spain’s July election could bring former Catalan President Carles Puigdemont back in from the political wilderness. In self-imposed exile in the Belgian town of Waterloo since 2017, and still wanted by the Spanish judiciary for his role in an illegal independence referendum, the separatist MEP could keep the Socialists in power in Madrid — or condemn Spain to yet more elections. It all depends on him.

Puig-demands: Neither Spain’s Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez nor the center-right’s Alberto Núñez Feijóo have enough seats to govern alone. But Sánchez could cling to power if he gets Puigdemont’s seven MPs to back him. The issue is, there’s next to no trust between the two camps, and what Puigdemont wants — an amnesty for everyone facing legal retribution for the 2017 Catalan independence referendum and a fresh independence poll — is too much for Sánchez to swallow. Full-on negotiations are yet to start. 

Alone in Wallonia: The separatist movement has deflated since Puigdemont led the failed bid to make Catalonia a republic. But in his Waterloo HQ, he remains convinced that he continues to lead — even embody — the independence dream.

The man is the movement: “There is Puigdemont the person, the one who has spent six years in exile, persecuted and ridiculed,” the writer and journalist Jordi Amat told Playbook. “But that person is merged with his own conception of himself as the leader of the independence movement.” Puigdemont holds not just the future of Catalan independence, but of Spain, in his hands.

Now read this: Top colleague Aitor Hernández-Morales and I explore how Puigdemont is living out this fleeting window of political leverage in a profile you can read here.

ROAD TO 2024

CENTRISTS AND EUROSKEPTICS HEADING FOR DEAD HEAT: New exclusive polling analysis by POLITICO predicts the centrist Renew Europe and right-wing ECR groups could win joint third place with 89 seats apiece at next year’s EU election, behind the center-right EPP (165) and center-left Socialists and Democrats (145) groups, in results that would tilt the Parliament to the right.

Renew down, ECR up: Under this scenario, one of two analyzed by our Research and Analysis Division, Renew would lose 12 seats while the Euroskeptic ECR would gain 23 in a stunning jump from fifth- to third-largest group in Parliament — one which is dominated by Italian PM Giorgia Meloni’s Brothers of Italy and Poland’s Law and Justice. To get these figures our experts took the extra step of assigning new unaffiliated MEPs to their likely groupings, after digesting pan-EU polling trends this month.

The center can hold … But under both this scenario and the baseline — available on our magical Poll of Polls portal — the current ruling coalition of EPP, S&D and Renew would still have a clear majority, while an alliance of the EPP, ECR and Renew would fall short. In both scenarios it’s looking grim for the Greens and Left who are set to get a hammering. Meanwhile a far-right surge in countries like Germany is boosting the numbers for the Identity and Democracy group.

Read all about it: POLITICO Pro Analysis subscribers will get the full report in their inboxes later today. 


LAW AND JUSTICE CASTS EPP CHIEF AS THE BOOGEYMAN: Poland’s President Andrzej Duda on Tuesday scheduled the country’s showstopper election for October 15, as the country’s Law and Justice (PiS) Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki spoils for a fight with EPP chief Manfred Weber, who’s been chiding Warsaw for rule-of-law failings.

Meddling melodrama: On Tuesday evening Morawiecki published a letter on social media platform X (what cool people still call Twitter) describing Weber as an interfering German who is guilty of “defamation” and actions “without precedent in modern history.” Weber is obviously more than just his nationality: He is the president of the European People’s Party, which is home to Polish opposition Civic Coalition party, led by Donald Tusk.

Picking on Manfred: That makes Weber a prime target two months before an election where PiS is leading narrowly in the polls and may need to rely on an insurgent far-right party called Confederation to cling to power. 

Oh PiS off: Morawiecki’s letter was ostensibly an invitation to a debate on October 2. Weber dismissed the invite — “No, we stay totally out of that,” his team told POLITICO in a message Tuesday.

Mark these words: “The future of democracy in Poland is at stake — nothing less,” renowned academic Timothy Garton Ash wrote Tuesday.


TRADE UNIONS WADE INTO INDUSTRIAL POLICY BRAWL: Competition chief Margrethe Vestager’s summer isn’t getting any easier. After her departing top EU economist shrugged about the demise of European industry, trade unions are now demanding answers from her in a letter seen by Playbook. 

Your thoughts, please: Trade unions’ rep ETUC labeled the remarks that Pierre Régibeau made in an interview with Belgian paper L’Echo “irresponsible” and a gift to “the far-right ahead of the European elections.” In the letter, addressed to Vestager and with fellow Commissioners Frans Timmermans, Thierry Breton and Nicolas Schmit cc’d, the ETUC asked Vestager to clarify that she does not share Régibeau’s views. 

A rumbling row: Commission Vice President Margaritis Schinas has already piled in, saying the retiree’s remarks “under no circumstances represent” the Commission’s view. Vestager already had a headache picking Régibeau’s replacement, after a strong French-led backlash against her American choice.

COMMISSION DROPS CONTRACT WITH BIG TECH LOBBYIST: Vestager said Tuesday that the EU’s antitrust regulator canceled a contract with a consulting firm because of scrutiny over its close ties to Big Tech, my colleagues Edith Hancock and Mari Eccles write in to report. Consultancy RBB Economics was hired to analyze policy in a 2021 procurement deal, but campaigners from Corporate Europe Observatory complained about “a stunning conflict of interest,” triggering an investigation by the European Ombudsman, leading the Commission to pull the plug.


ARMING UKRAINE UPDATE: An unnamed European country has bought dozens of second-hand Leopard 1 tanks that were once Belgium’s to send to Ukraine, Reuters reports, citing Freddy Versluys, the CEO of defense company OIP Land Systems, from whom the tanks were purchased.

DEFENDING POLAND UPDATE: Germany has offered to extend the deployment of its Patriot missile defense systems in Poland, likely until the end of 2023, Berlin said Tuesday. VOA has a write-up.

ROUGH WATERS ON THE BLACK SEA: Dubbed the “Inhospitable Sea” by the ancient Greeks, there have been few centuries when the Black Sea wasn’t marked by war, writes POLITICO’s Jamie Dettmer in this analysis.

AFRICA AND UKRAINE: Africa is flexing its diplomatic muscles, philanthropist Ivor Ichikowitz writes in an opinion piece published on POLITICO today. The continent’s leaders want to find ways of ending Russia’s war in Ukraine, which also threatens the lives of Africans, he argues.

**POLITICO’s Power Play podcast unveils the world of policy, politics, and power, with just a play button. Dive into the ideas driving the trends of tomorrow with exclusive interviews hosted by award-winning journalist Anne McElvoy, starting this September. Don’t miss an episode – sign up today.** 


MERCOSUR TROUBLE: Paraguay’s President-elect Santiago Peña labeled the EU’s demands in Mercosur trade deal negotiations “unacceptable” and said talks on the agreement should be shelved. “From our point of view, negotiations should be closed and the decision simply made: Do we want this to happen or do we not want this to happen?” Peña told Reuters.

CHINA DEFLATES: Chinese consumer prices slipped into deflation last month for the first time in more than two years. The Guardian has a write-up.

ITALIAN BANK TAX: In a move that surprised investors and political observers alike, Italy’s far-right government led by Giorgia Meloni announced plans on Monday to slap a 40 percent one-off windfall tax on bank profits. The announcement followed weeks of criticism of lenders’ profits and of European Central Bank policy.

But but but … After bank shares tumbled, the government appeared to backtrack on Tuesday, with the finance ministry saying it would place a cap on the windfall tax in the interest of “financial stability.” More from the FT.

GERMANY GETS CHIPPY: My colleagues Pieter Haeck and Gian Volpicelli have more here on Tuesday’s big news that Taiwan-based chips manufacturer TSMC will invest around €3.5 billion in a microchip production plant in Germany.

DEADLY HOOLIGANISM IN GREECE: A man died and others were injured in Greece after being stabbed in violent clashes between fans of Greece’s AEK and Croatia’s Dinamo Zagreb football clubs, ahead of a scheduled match on Tuesday, Nektaria Stamouli writes in to report. 

Questions for the cops: Dozens of the football hooligans arrived by road in Athens from Croatia despite a ban imposed on visitors. Footage shared on social media showed them heading into the stadium carrying bats and knives. Leaked internal documents indicated the Greek police had been informed of their arrival on Monday afternoon. Opposition parties called for Minister of Citizen Protection Giannis Oikonomou to resign. He refused.

THE GREEN DEAL’S WEAKNESS: The EU’s Green Deal has a weak point, my colleague Charlie Cooper writes: To meet clean-energy targets, Europe needs to train up a whole new workforce.

EU’S MISSING FIREFIGHTERS: The number of firefighters in the EU is declining, even as the bloc faces more wildfires as a result of climate change. According to Eurostat, 10 countries cut firefighting jobs between 2021 and 2022, with the largest drops recorded in France, Romania, Portugal, Slovakia, Bulgaria and Belgium. Louise Guillot has more.

BRITAIN BARGES ON: Despite overseeing a shambolic asylum processing system, Britain’s Conservative Party is keen to shout about its plan to house migrants that cross the English Channel from France on a floating barge. My U.K. colleagues Annabelle Dickson and Esther Webber look at why tough migration policies are so popular among crucial swing voters in Conservative held seats.


— European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen visits Slovenia to witness the destruction caused by the floods and discuss EU support … meets Prime Minister Robert Golob. Press point after, time TBC. Watch.


CHEMICAL ATTACK IN METRO: Pickpockets aiming to rob passengers on the metro threw a toxic substance into carriages on Saturday, the Brussels public prosecutor office confirmed Monday. Two people were taken to hospital after the incident due to eye irritation and breathing difficulties.

MOST FLIGHTS OUT OF ANTWERP ARE SHORT-HAUL: Around 72 percent of flights out of Antwerp Airport in 2022 were domestic, according to numbers requested by the Flemish Green Party. The airport says there are a high number of domestic flights by pilots-in-training conducted there.

Private jets boom: Belgium also saw a 52 percent increase in private flights in 2022, reaching over 10,000. The most popular routes were London to Brussels as well as Antwerp to Brussels.

Plane crazy: The Flemish government sparked controversy at the end of 2022 by deciding to keep regional airports in Antwerp, Ostend-Bruges and Kortrijk-Wevelgem open until 2040, despite the fact they’re unprofitable without government subsidies. The Greens criticized the decision. “It is completely irrational for the Flemish government to pump millions of euros of taxpayers’ money into a loss-making, redundant airport for air traffic within its borders … it is ridiculous to fly from Antwerp to Brussels or around Antwerp just for fun,” said the party.

ETTERBEEK TRAIN STATION RENOVATION: SNCB plans to completely renovate the Etterbeek train station from 2025. The station is a crucial transport hub for nearby universities. More info via the Brussels Times.

CALLING RUGBY FANS: Belgian rugby club BBRFC Celtic, which hosts around 400 registered players across 19 teams, is accepting both new and veteran members. Find out more here.

NAPOLEON’S BIRTHDAY CELEBRATION: The Walloon town of Waterloo is not just Carles Puigdemont’s hideout. It will celebrate Napoleon’s birthday this weekend, with various activities relating to the 1815 Battle of Waterloo, including demonstrations of cavalry, combat, horse riding and workshops. There will also be food and fireworks. Tickets must be booked in advance.

CONDOLENCES: Longtime Czech diplomat Martin Povejšil died this week aged 62. Povejšil, who held many senior roles in the Czech ministry of foreign affairs, served as ambassador to NATO from 2009 until 2012 and as ambassador to the EU from 2012 until 2018.

A legend: Czech Foreign Minister Jan Lipavský told my colleague Lili Bayer: “Martin was not only an esteemed colleague but also someone I really admired,” calling the diplomat a “legend and an embodiment of the best qualities of Czech diplomacy.” Jakub Landovský, the current Czech ambassador to NATO, said Povejšil was a “good friend and influenced many generations of diplomats.” The foreign ministry statement is here.

BIRTHDAYS: Former MEP Helga Stevens; Former European Commission President and ex-Italian PM Romano Prodi; WHO Special Envoy for the European Region Vytenis Andriukaitis, a former European commissioner; Former Secretary-General of the Council of the European Union and Angela Merkel’s Chief Adviser on Europe Uwe Corsepius; New York Times’ Julian E. Barnes; Amazon Web Services’ Katarzyna Kozioł.

EDDY’S SPECIAL THANKS GO TO: Aitor Hernández-Morales, Playbook reporter Ketrin Jochecová, Lili Bayer, Nektaria Stamouli, Giovanna Faggionato, Edith Hancock, Mari Eccles, Playbook editor Jack Lahart, producers Seb Starcevic and Dato Parulava and my ever patient editors Sonya Diehn and Tim Ross. 

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