the euro zone


Spain is holding onto financial whistleblower Hervé Falciani for the time being. When he was arrested by Spanish police in April in Madrid, Falciani faced an extradition request from Swiss authorities on charges of "aggravated financial espionage". Although this grand-sounding misdemeanour is a crime in Switzerland - a country known for its Fort-Knox-style banking secrecy - it isn't in Spain; so this week, Spanish courts denied Switzerland's extradition request, just as they did in 2012 when Falciani was arrested in Barcelona.

French-Italian national Falciani was an IT engineer at the Swiss offices of HSBC's private bank, which offers financial services to wealthy individuals. In 2008, he leaked data pertaining to more than 100,000 HSBC clients allegedly involved in complex tax avoidance schemes; his motivation, as he said at the time, was to expose the workings of a "broken banking system".

Although Swiss authorities claim that the information passed on by Hervini was stolen and therefore legally invalid, several countries launched investigations on the back of his data. Spain is among them and, since 2009, the Spanish courts have been working with Falciani, using the "Swiss Leaks" to secure thousands of convictions.

HSBC has had to pay two fines since the data-leak: one of forty million Swiss francs (€35 million) to Swiss authorities in 2015, for "organisational failings" resulting in money laundering; and another of €300 million to French authorities last year, to settle allegations that clients of its Swiss private bank had evaded taxes (tax evasion is legal but morally ambiguous. Tax avoidance is straightforwardly illegal).

So as far as the Spanish courts are concerned, then, Hervini is not a financial spy (or he is, but for the good).

But might there be another reason that Spain is reluctant to extradite the French whistleblower just now?

In the spring, Catalan separatist Marta Rovira fled to Switzerland. The deputy of ERC, a leftist pro-Catalan independence party, Rovira exiled herself to avoid charges relating to her role in organising last October's illegal Catalonian independence referendum. She's still in Switzerland, awaiting a decision by the Swiss courts on whether she can be extradited back to Spain; if they rule that she can, Rovira faces charges that could land her decades behind bars. Her boss, ERC leader Oriol Junqueras, has been in custody in Spain since last November, awaiting trial on similarly grave allegations.

The Spanish government have denied a role in Falciani's most recent arrest, but you can't help wondering whether a politically-motivated swap is on the cards. Switzerland, a country that prides itself on financial discretion, is itching to make an example of Hervini. And Madrid wants to punish Rovira for her role in causing a constitutional crisis that's still unresolved. Whether either country will see these as grounds for a mutually-beneficial exchange remains to be seen.