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the euro zone

Above the law?

Spain's Supreme Court can't make up its mind about who should pay a mortgage stamp duty known as the Impuesto sobre Actos Jurídicos Documentados (AJD). In a mid-October ruling that reversed 20 years of jurisprudence, the Court ruled that banks should pay the tax; but on Tuesday that decision was reversed, and the Court decided that clients will cover the stamp duty.

Leading the criticism of this unprecedented dithering is Spanish prime minister Pedro Sánchez, who has vowed to reverse the reversal so that "the Spanish will no longer pay this fee". Is this the same politician, you might be wondering, who has repeatedly praised the independence of the Spanish judiciary and who refuses to intervene with its decisions in other areas, specifically those relating to Catalonia? Indeed, it is. Announcing his intention to challenge the AJD ruling on Wednesday, Sánchez said, "I respect the independence of the judiciary, but no power is free from criticism."

The Spanish prime minister does respect the Spanish Supreme Court's decisions - but only when he agrees with them, it seems. Speaking at a NATO summit in Brussels in July, Sánchez declared that "we do not comment on court rulings, we respect them". We can now add a caveat to that solemn declaration of trust in the judiciary: "in some cases".

At the NATO summit, Sánchez was referring to a German court's decision to extradite former Catalan president Carles Puigdemont - orchestrator of last October's Catalonian independence referendum (O-1) - to Spain for misuse of public funds. The Socialist leader has also been supportive of his own country's judiciary in its treatment of Catalan separatists. Most recently, he's refused to challenge the Spanish Supreme Court's ruling to put eighteen 'independistas' on trial for their role in O-1. Why? Because he respects the independence of the judiciary, obviously!

Sánchez's decision to challenge the Spanish Supreme Court over its latest AJD decision shouldn't be surprising. The PSOE leader is a consummate PR man, always with his eye on a trendy policy; and it looks much better, he's obviously decided, to speak out in favour of homeowners than to treat Catalan separatists with leniency.

Ironically, though, Sánchez's intention to reverse the mortgage tax ruling undermines his stance on Catalonia. If "no power is free from criticism", then the Court's decision to put politicians on trial for arranging O-1 - for "political crimes", as secessionists call them - could also be challenged, at least in principal.

Don't hold your breath for that to happen, though. Sánchez is just as opposed to Catalonian independence as his Conservative predecessor Mariano Rajoy was. His choice not to intervene in the Court's treatment of Catalan separatists, then, is precisely that - a choice. What the AJD case shows is that the Spanish prime minister doesn't regard his country's judiciary as being above its own laws.