Europe News

Catalan separatists are seeking refuge in Belgium — causing an awkward rift between EU nations

Key Points
  • Catalonia's leaders are reportedly seeking safety in Brussels as they face criminal charges for spearheading the region's independence movement, throwing up a potentially awkward situation between Belgium, the EU and Spain.
  • Deposed Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont and several members of his pro-independence administration traveled to Brussels in Belgium on Monday.
People hold signs reading 'No to the impunity of coup plotters' and '(Catalan regional president Carles) Puigdemont to prison' while waving Spanish flags during a demonstration calling for unity at Plaza de Colon in Madrid on October 28, 2017

Catalonia's leaders have sought safety in Brussels as they face criminal charges for spearheading the region's independence movement, throwing up a potentially awkward situation between Belgium, the EU and Spain.

Deposed Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont and several members of his pro-independence administration traveled to Brussels in Belgium on Monday and hired a lawyer, fueling speculation that they could try to seek asylum there in order to avoid possible prison sentences for trying to secede from Spain.

Puigdemont appeared before the press in Brussels Tuesday, however, and said he was not in the country to claim asylum but wanted to bring the Catalan issue to "the heart of the European Union (EU)."

The EU has previously refused to mediate between Spain and Catalonia and has firmly sided with Madrid.

Belgian lawyer Paul Bekaert confirmed he has taken on Puigdemont as a client, according to Reuters, but said he was only providing Puigdemont with advice at that point. Paul Bekaert was not immediately available for comment when contacted by CNBC.

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Puigdemont's self-imposed exile came after Spain's chief prosecutor on Monday called for charges of rebellion, sedition and embezzlement to be leveled against the Catalan leader, his deputies and other Catalan officials. The charge of rebellion alone carries a maximum prison sentence of 30 years.

Speaking to the press, the Catalan politician said he would only go home when there were "guarantees" of "fair and just treatment." Spain's chief prosecutor called for charges to be brought against Puigdemont and his colleagues but under Spain's legal system a judge decides on whether to proceed.

Jose Ramon García-Hernández, secretary of international relations in Spain's ruling Partido Popular (PP), told CNBC Tuesday that it would be very strange if Belgium granted the Catalan politician asylum.

"The law is the law and to concede asylum for any government inside the EU you have to fulfil criteria and there is a protocol that is linked to Lisbon Treaty and it will be very, very strange for him to get asylum there," he said.

"Spain is a modern democracy, you see the rest of the pro-independence politicians are back in Catalonia and we never prosecute anyone for their political ideas, it's because they are outside the law," he added, insisting that Madrid had no control over how and whether judges would proceed with charges against the Catalan secessionists.

"The government doesn't have a say regarding justice," he said.

At the weekend, Belgium's migration minister suggested Puigdemont could seek asylum in the country and Puigdemont is believed to have travelled to Brussels on Monday when Spain took control of the region's governmental institutions.

The constitutional crisis between Spain and Catalonia came to a head Friday after the pro-independence Catalan government declared independence. Spain promptly responded by imposing direct rule on the wealthy northeastern region, sacking the Catalan government and calling for snap elections on December 21.

Desperate measures

Puigdemont's presence in Brussels could potentially jeopardize diplomatic relations between Spain and Belgium and put the country at odds with its EU counterparts who have all expressed support for the government in Madrid.

Puigdemont was effectively offered asylum in Belgium by the country's migration minister, Theo Francken, who said at the weekend that his asylum application was "not unrealistic" and questioned whether Puigdemont would have a fair trial in Spain.

Francken's comments provoked a furious response from Madrid.

Esteban Gonzalez Pons, a spokesman for the Partido Popular, said the comments by Belgian's migration minister were "unacceptable."

"Without having any reason or powers to do so, and ahead of any event, Francken is allowed to assess a possible trial Puigdemont making serious accusations to the Spanish judicial system, the work of Spanish judges, and the rule of law in Spain," Gonzalez Pons said on Sunday.

"This is an unacceptable attack by a member of the Belgian Government to another state of the EU such as Spain, which I hope will be corrected immediately," he added.

Meanwhile, Belgium's Prime Minister Charles Michel appeared to counter Francken's comments, however, saying Sunday that an asylum request was "absolutely not on the agenda" and asking his colleague "not to fan the flames" with regards to the crisis between Spain and Catalonia.

'Impeccable reaction from the EU institutions'

Brussels is effectively the European Union's capital with many of its government institutions there and the EU has shown unequivocal support for Madrid and Spanish unity, thus making Puigdemont's potential asylum in Belgium problematic.

Spain's ruling conservatives met in Madrid on Monday and one official from Prime Minister Marian Rajoy's Partido Popular (PP) said that Puigdemont's trip to Brussels was proof of the ousted leader's "desperation."

"Him going to Brussels, the headquarters of the European institutions, where one of the great values of the EU is the defense of the rule of law, the defense of legality, of constitutional values, it's a contradiction in itself," Fernando Martinez Maillo told reporters.

Need to restore legal certainty in Catalonia, Spain's EU affairs minister says

"He'd rather have stayed home. Sincerely, it's a folly thing to do. And it's a sign of desperation, hopelessness. Apart from that, well, one can always find solace in whatever one wants, but the unanimous position of all countries in the EU … is the defense and the support of the Spanish constitution and the measures (taken) by the Spanish government," he said.

Jorge Toledo Albinana, the EU affairs minister of Spain, told CNBC Monday that Spain was happy with the EU's reaction so far. "We have got an immaculate, impeccable reaction from the EU institutions. And we are very happy. But we expected that," he said.

Additional reporting by CNBC's Willem Marx