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June 01, 2018

MADRID (AP) — Socialist leader Pedro Sanchez will become Spain’s new prime minister after a no-confidence vote Friday in parliament unseated Mariano Rajoy’s conservative government. He came in vowing to address the “social emergencies” of the country’s citizens after years of austerity measures.

Sanchez, until now the head of Spain’s largest opposition party, could be sworn in by King Felipe VI as early as Saturday and will appoint his Cabinet over the coming days. The 46-year-old takes the helm of the eurozone’s fourth-largest economy at a time when the European Union has to resolve numerous problems, including Britain’s impending departure from the bloc and political tensions over the tens of thousands of migrants who are still entering the continent from North Africa.

On the domestic front, Sanchez will head a minority government that will need to negotiate potentially difficult deals with other parties to get its legislation passed. To prevent a power vacuum after a no-confidence motion, Spanish law makes the motion’s author — in this case, Sanchez — the country’s new leader as soon as the king swears him in.

The Madrid stock exchange was up 2 percent after Sanchez won the vote and earned a standing ovation from his party’s lawmakers. The end of Rajoy’s more than six-year reign as prime minister was the first ouster of a serving leader by parliament in Spain’s four decades of democracy.

It also was a rare success for a center-left party in Europe in recent times. Sanchez and his party are staunch supporters of the EU and the euro currency shared by 19 EU nations. In a brief speech before the vote, Rajoy told lawmakers “it has been an honor to leave Spain better than I found it.”

He then shook hands with Sanchez after the result was announced. Rajoy has been in power since December 2011, successfully steering Spain out of its worst economic crisis in decades during the eurozone debt crisis and achieving some of the strongest economic growth in Europe. Last year, gross domestic product growth reached 3.1 percent.

But the reputation of Rajoy’s Popular Party’s was badly damaged by a court verdict last week that identified it as a beneficiary of a large kickbacks-for-contracts scheme. Sanchez saw that as his opening and managed to muster enough support from smaller parties to send him to La Moncloa palace, the seat of government in Madrid.

Sanchez, who will be Spain’s seventh prime minister since the country’s return to democracy in the late 1970s, arrives in power after a spectacular turnaround in his political fortunes. He was ousted by his own party in 2016 over back-to-back losses in general elections and after he tried to block Rajoy’s bid to form a government.

The former economics professor and career politician regained the Socialists’ leadership last year. The incoming prime minister says his priorities will be social issues — including more measures to help young people and the elderly. He told reporters Friday that he was “aware of the responsibility and the complex political moment of our country.”

He vowed to build consensus among political parties to “transform and modernize” Spain and “address the social urgencies of many people who suffer precariousness and inequality.” He has promised to call a new election before the end of this term in 2020.

Still, Sanchez will face a tough time catering to demands from the small parties whose votes he captured in the no-confidence motion, among them Catalan separatists. A new Catalan Cabinet is scheduled to regain the prosperous region’s self-government on Saturday, ending a seven-month takeover by central authorities in Madrid over the separatists bid to secede from Spain.

In a reversal from Rajoy’s aversion to Catalonia’s aspirations for greater autonomy, Sanchez has promised to open a dialogue with new Catalan President Quim Torra despite having called the fervent separatist’s comments “xenophobic.”

In other challenges, the center-right Ciudadanos (Citizens) party — which has been leading recent opinion polls — is demanding an early election and is vowing fierce opposition to Sanchez.

Hatton reported from Lisbon, Portugal.


June 01, 2018

MADRID (AP) — Socialist opposition leader Pedro Sanchez is on the brink of ending Mariano Rajoy’s more than six-year reign as Spanish prime minister in what would be the first ouster of a serving leader by parliament in four decades of democracy.

Barring last-minute surprises, a no-confidence vote that would oust Rajoy and make Sanchez prime minister-designate is expected to pass by a narrow majority in parliament’s 350-seat lower house. Rajoy’s likely removal follows corruption convictions last week involving former members of his conservative Popular Party.

The prime minister wasn’t in the Congress of Deputies on Friday morning when the debate resumed on the motion ahead of a final vote. He didn’t attend Thursday afternoon either, going instead to a central Madrid restaurant with some members of his cabinet.

April 24, 2018

ROTA, Spain (AP) — Spain looks set to take charge of the European Union’s anti-piracy operation off Somalia despite a challenge from Italy, as EU countries compete for the spoils from Britain’s departure from the bloc next year.

With Brexit due in just 11 months, Spain wants to host the headquarters of the EUNAVFOR Atalanta operation at its southern port of Rota, where U.S. troops are also stationed. It would form part of a joint effort that would see France assume responsibility for a parallel civilian maritime surveillance facility based in Brest.

Italy, which narrowly lost its bid to host the EU’s banking authority — another agency leaving Britain for the Netherlands next year — in a tie breaker, entered the running late and its candidacy appears dwarfed by the offer from two of Europe’s historic naval powers. Still, time is running out for a decision to be made, and EU countries are concerned that a potentially embarrassing vote might be required to break the deadlock.

Launched in 2008, as Somali pirates were wreaking havoc in some of the world’s busiest shipping lanes, hijacking vessels and taking hostages, the agency has been run from Northwood, just outside London. An estimated 95 percent of EU trade by volume passes through or near the Gulf of Aden.

Its mission, Spanish Defense Minister Maria Dolores Cospedal said, “requires an exclusively dedicated (operational headquarters) allowing a strategic direction and control in a geographical area of great interest for Europe.”

In a show of its prowess this week aimed at convincing senior EU diplomats, military advisers and experts of Rota’s suitability, Spain’s armed forces put on a major naval and air show off its southern coast, in waters near Britain’s territory of Gibraltar.

Warships launched jump jets, attack and transport helicopters while special forces were deployed in fast boat teams and parachuted into the Mediterranean in an exercise aimed at repelling a pirate raid and rescuing hostages.

Spain has been involved in the EU’s anti-piracy operation in the Gulf of Aden since the beginning and as its biggest military contributor claims to know EUNAVFOR inside out. “We find it truly important to maintain the EU’s ability to command and control operations,” said Spain’s defense chief, General Fernando Alejandre Martinez. “Brexit would affect all this, but we stand ready to fill the gap left by Northwood.”

The HQ at Rota, he said, would be able to command any kind of EU security or defense mission. But the decision is not a foregone conclusion and the EU must make up its mind soon. Officials calculate that the headquarters move will take around 9 months, and it is hoped that Italy will withdraw its bid next month so that no potentially divisive vote becomes necessary and the transfer can be completed before Brexit at the end of March 2019.

It all appears a lot of work for very little, as the mandate for EUNAVFOR expires at the end of this year. But Spain and France are banking on it being renewed amid growing instability in Somalia. In any case, for senior EU officials, Spain’s naval credentials are impeccable.

“It was from this part of Spain that actually the trans-Atlantic adventure was launched five centuries ago,” said Pedro Serrano, a top EU official running the bloc’s security operations and crisis response.

Spain, he said, “is contributing with a depth of history and experience that will probably help Europe be what it needs to be in confronting today’s challenges.”

March 15, 2018

The French customs service, in cooperation with its Spanish counterpart, confiscated the property of the current Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad’s uncle, which amounted to 600 million Euros. Quoting the French newspaper Le Figaro, the Russian news agency Tass reported that around 503 facilities worth 600 million Euros, owned by Rifaat Al-Assad and his relatives in the Spanish city of Marbella, were confiscated.

The agency pointed out that there is also talk about hotels, restaurants and luxury acquisitions.

In April 2017, the Spanish National Judicial Council opened an investigation into the case of money laundering by Rifaat Al-Assad. The Spanish authorities froze the bank accounts of 16 people and 76 institutions associated with the name of Al-Assad’s uncle. It also opened an investigation into his property in Marbella and Puerto Banus towns.

Syrian city at the heart of Spain

Rifaat al-Assad, 80, planned to build a huge housing complex to house Syrians belonging to his sect. He has chosen lands where Spanish spruce and cork trees flourish. These lands occupy one third of Benahavis municipality, located in Malaga province in the southern Andalusia region of Spain. According to the statements of the judge of the Spanish National Court, Rifaat owns some of the most expensive lands in the city that is located on the coasts of Costa del Sol and adjacent to the luxury town of Marbella, which has become a model of extreme luxury, and aspires to build a “Syrian city” with the utmost caution and secrecy.

A decision was made by the Spanish court to seize the properties of Al-Assad, including 16 properties in Marbella and Puerto Banus. In this regard, a Spanish judge revealed that Rifaat Al-Assad had committed himself to continuing the “legal struggle” in this case as he is accused of turning his “real estate machine,” which consists of 3,300 hectares worth 60 million Euros, into a private urban area. The areas controlled by Rifaat Al-Assad have already been registered as areas of public interest, according to the European classification. In addition, the Andalusian government has incorporated these properties within the areas of special protection.

The source of Rifaat Al-Assad’s funds

On the other hand, the Spanish judge confirmed that the main source of Rifaat Al-Assad’s wealth is the money looted from the coffers of the Syrian state provided by his brother Hafez Al-Assad before sending him into exile, and which is estimated at 300 million Euros.

In a similar vein, many people in the Spanish society and those who dealt with him in the business field reported that he was not proficient in negotiating in this area and had his own strategy of non-discipline. In this regard, one of the parties which had negotiated with him in business explained that “it is possible to agree on the first day about a certain price, and he comes the next day to ask you double the amount agreed upon.” These parties also revealed that he followed a relatively austere pattern of consumption in his daily life in Marbella.

In general, a businessman who was surprised by the size of the properties of Rifaat Al-Assad, which includes at least 503 facilities located in Marbella and Puerto Banos, stated that “Rifaat Al-Assad and the businessmen Adnan Khashogg are incomparable, as Rifaat has no friends and I always see him having dinner alone in Puerto Banus, accompanied only by his bodyguard and his driver. The same source added that “the authorities must deal with all the hotel apartments he possesses as individual property.”

In addition to the “amazing real estate machine,” Rifaat Al-Assad owns the Panapola Hotel in Puerto Banus, a 4-Star hotel consisting of 101 apartments and 247 parking spaces. Besides, Al-Assad owns a residential building under the name of Gerry de Albion, in the same sports port in Marbella where he lives.

Moreover, Rifaat Al-Assad owns the parking spaces in Marbella Harbor. Recently, he has sold some of the land for construction in the Milla de Oro area of Marbella, near the Marbella Club Hotel. According to sources familiar with the deal, the sale was made at a price much lower than the prices offered in the market in this area. In addition, Rifaat Al-Assad managed to administer the Beach Club Bar at the Penapola Hotel, the Hollywood Café and other hotel companies based in Puerto Banus, but some of them are now closed due to losses.

Source: Middle East Monitor.


May 17, 2018

MADRID (AP) — Fervent Catalan secessionist Quim Torra was sworn in Thursday as the restive Spanish region’s new leader, with his demands for an independent Catalonia set to prolong a standoff with Spain’s national government.

Torra formally took office at a ceremony in the Catalan capital, Barcelona. He was elected by the Catalan parliament’s secessionist lawmakers on Monday. In a sign of the simmering tension, Spain’s national government in Madrid, which usually sends a representative to regional government ceremonies, declined to attend the swearing-in. It said Catalan authorities had tried to dictate which central government officials could be present — a condition that Madrid rejected.

The spat over Catalonia’s future has brought Spain’s worst political crisis in decades, though its three main political parties stand united against Catalan independence. Thursday’s ceremony was heavy on symbolism, with pointed signals apparently aimed at the central Spanish authorities.

Torra had only the red-and-yellow Catalan flag behind him during the ceremony. The Spanish flag was absent. Also, in his oath he pledged only to be faithful to the people of Catalonia. He made no reference to upholding the Spanish Constitution nor loyalty to Spain’s king. The Spanish government says it cannot grant Catalonia independence, among other reasons, because the Constitution says Spain is “indivisible.” King Felipe VI has publicly supported the government’s stance.

Torra also wore a yellow ribbon in his lapel, symbolizing support for separatist leaders being held in Spanish jails over last year’s outlawed independence referendum and illegal declaration of a separate Catalan state.

April 15, 2018

BARCELONA, Spain (AP) — Hundreds of thousands of Catalan separatists rallied in downtown Barcelona on Sunday to demand the release of high-profile secessionist leaders being held in pre-trial detention.

Protesters waved Catalan separatist flags behind a huge banner that read “for rights and liberties, for democracy and unity, we want them back home!” The demonstration was organized by two pro-independence grassroots groups, the National Catalan Assembly and Omnium, whose presidents are among the nine separatists in prison awaiting trial for their roles in last year’s failed breakaway bid by the northeastern Spanish region.

The regional chapters of Spain’s two leading labor unions, along with other civil society groups, supported the protest despite the complaints from some members who don’t want secession for Catalonia. Barcelona police said 315,000 people participated in the protest.

“The majority of Catalans, regardless of their political position, agree that pre-trial jail is not justified,” said regional UGT union leader Camil Ros. “What we as labor unions are asking for now is dialogue.”

The secession movement in the wealthy region has plunged Spain into its deepest institutional crisis in decades. Separatist lawmakers defied court orders and held an ad-hoc referendum on independence in October. Their subsequent declaration of independence for the region led to a crackdown by Spanish authorities acting to defend the Spanish Constitution, which declares the nation “indivisible.”

Pro-independence parties retained a slim majority in Catalonia’s parliament after an election in December, but courts have blocked their attempts to elect as regional chief any lawmaker who is either behind bars or has fled the country.

The latest opinion poll published by the Catalan government in February said that support for independence had decreased to 40 percent from near 49 percent in October. The poll surveyed 1,200 people and had a margin of error of 2.8 percent.

April 06, 2018

NEUMUENSTER, Germany (AP) — German prosecutors on Friday ordered the immediate release of ex-Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont after he posted 75,000 euros ($92,000) bail, which will allow him to move freely in Germany pending a decision on his extradition sought by Spain.

The Schleswig prosecutor’s office said Puigdemont also provided authorities with an address in Germany where he will reside pending the decision. “No information will be provided about his current whereabouts,” prosecutors said in a statement.

Lawyers for Puigdemont had arrived at the Neumuenster prison early Friday but it wasn’t immediately clear how and when the 55-year-old would leave jail. Supporters said Puigdemont planned a news conference later Friday.

Puigdemont was detained by German police March 25 after crossing the border from Denmark. Spain is seeking his extradition for rebellion and misuse of public funds in organizing an unauthorized referendum last year on Catalonia’s independence from Spain.

The state court in Schleswig ruled Thursday that Puigdemont can’t be extradited for rebellion because the equivalent German law presumes the use or threat of force sufficient to bend the will of authorities. He can still be extradited on misuse of funds charges.

The German court’s decision is a setback for the Spanish judiciary’s efforts to crack down on the separatist movement. It is also an embarrassing blow for Spain’s conservative government, which has insisted the dispute over Catalan separatism is a legal issue, not a political one, and has refused to be drawn into negotiations with Puigdemont and his supporters since October’s banned referendum.

Spain’s Deputy Prime Minister Soraya Saenz de Santamaria said the government would respect the German ruling and awaited further details of it before deciding on appropriate action. She also took a swipe at the Catalan pro-independence parties, which the government accuses of flouting the Constitution and disobeying court orders, by adding that Spain is “a state that is shows its character by respecting the decisions of the courts in whatever direction that decision is made.”

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