BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Belgium has given a cool welcome to Catalonia’s ousted leader and may not offer the safe haven from Spanish justice that it once extended as it grapples with separatist troubles of its own.
Carles Puigdemont was not invited by the Belgian government, Prime Minister Charles Michel said in a curt statement, a day after he arrived unannounced following his dismissal by Madrid on charges of rebellion over Catalonia’s independence bid.
“He will be treated like any other European citizen,” Michel said, noting Puigdemont was entitled to move freely within the EU. “He has the same rights and duties ... no more, no less.”
Deputy premier Kris Peeters was even brusquer, saying: “When you declare independence, it’s better to stay with your people.”
Puigdemont himself told a news conference in Brussels that he was there to engage with the European Union — which has shunned his pleas — and not to exploit Belgium’s reputation as a place of political asylum for citizens of other EU states.
Nonetheless, he travelled to a small town in western Flanders on Monday to hire a human rights lawyer with a successful track record of fighting extradition to Spain on behalf of Basque separatist sympathisers.
The lawyer, Paul Bekaert warned, however, that EU rules have made it harder. He told Reuters that the European Arrest Warrant system had removed exceptions previously made for extraditions to face “political” charges like sedition in other EU states.
Politics, too, may play a part. Eighteen months before the next Belgian federal election, there have already been tensions over Catalonia within the coalition, where Flemish nationalists sympathetic to the Catalans are a major force and Michel, a French-speaking liberal, has lately tried to mollify Madrid.
On Tuesday, Spain’s High Court called Puigdemont and 13 members of his sacked administration to testify on Thursday. It also said it had started processing rebellion and sedition charges against Puigdemont and other Catalan leaders.
Bekaert said Puigdemont, who faces up to 30 years in jail if Spanish prosecutors follow through on plans to charge him with sedition and misuse of public funds, saw no hurry to file for asylum, a simple procedure that would halt any extradition.
However, asylum requests from EU citizens are rarely accepted nowadays and are often rejected within days.
“As an EU citizen, Puigdemont has to demonstrate that there is a clear risk of prosecution against him, that the sentence he could face could be disproportionate, that he doesn’t have a fair trial in Spain,” said Dirk Vanheule, a law professor at Antwerp University and president of Belgium’s Refugee Council.
“If he fails to demonstrate that from the beginning, the asylum proceeding can be terminated within five days.”
Koen Lemmens, a human rights lawyer and professor at Leuven University, said the Belgian asylum agency would not take into account potential diplomatic embarrassment. But it would be up to Puigdemont to prove he would not get a fair trial.
The Belgian government looks unwilling to back him up.
Michel annoyed Spain by speaking out against police violence as people voted in the Oct. 1 independence referendum. But he also slapped down his Flemish nationalist immigration minister for suggesting at the weekend that Belgium might grant asylum.
That did not stop the French-speaking Socialist opposition from accusing Michel of damaging Belgium’s credibility abroad.
The issue may not fade quickly. Any EU citizen can stay for up to three months without permission. And despite support for Madrid from the Belgian government, judges refused in 1996 and again, under new EU rules, in 2004 to extradite Luis Moreno and Raquel Garcia, whom it accused of aiding Basque militants.
The N-VA has soft-pedalled demands for splitting the richer, Dutch-speaking half of Belgium off but with elections looming it must be wary of the small, anti-immigration Vlaams Belang, whose leader attended Puigdemont’s Brussels news conference.
VB leader Tom Van Grieken called on N-VA ministers to break with Michel’s refusal to recognise Catalan independence.
Mark Demesmaeker, an N-VA member of the European Parliament, told Reuters he met Puigdemont in Barcelona a month ago and said he did have a case for asylum as the EU “looks the other way”.
“The fact he is coming here already says plenty enough about the situation in Spain and Catalonia,” Demesmaeker told Reuters.
“He has no faith in the Spanish judiciary.”
Additional reporting by Robert-Jan Bartunek in Brussels and Clement Rossignol and Lucasta Bath in Tielt, Belgium; Writing by Alastair Macdonald; Editing by Gareth Jones