Puigdemont's Belgian Halloween

Puigdemont's Belgian Halloween

Brussels is finding it harder to ignore Carles Puigdemont.

The bespectacled ex-Catalan president, who was toppled by Madrid after his administration declared the region independent last week, is now on Belgian soil. He is expected to speak today, amid questions over whether he has come to claim political asylum.

Mr Puigdemont arrived in Belgium yesterday, Paul Bekaert, his lawyer in the country, has confirmed. The same day, the Spanish prosecutor's office in Madrid called for the ousted leader to be charged with rebellion, sedition, and the misuse of public funds.

“I‘m his lawyer in case he needs me", Mr Bekaert told Reuters late on Monday night. "At the moment there are no specific dossiers I am preparing for him."

On Monday, Mr Puigdemont and five other toppled Catalan government officials drove from Barcelona to Marseille before boarding a flight to Brussels, reports El Mundo. At the weekend, a Belgian minister pointed out that Catalonian politicians who have led the region's breakaway could apply for asylum under Belgian law. The legal bar appears high. Any citizen of an EU country claiming asylum in Belgium must "clearly demonstrate that in his personal situation he has a well-founded fear of persecution or faces a real risk of suffering serious harm", according to the body that deals with such applications.

Mr Puigdemont's move is the latest extraordinary twist in the Catalan saga. It will concentrate minds in Brussels on the scale of the constitutional crisis, which the EU has consistently said is an internal matter for Spain. It may also help give Catalan separatists the international attention they crave - although Mr Puigdemont's silence so far about his intentions in Belgium has left many people baffled.

Mr Puigdemont reportedly had dinner with Catalan MEP Ramon Tremosa last night and will hold a press conference around noon today. An adviser to Mr Tremosa tweeted the separatists were gearing up to "internationalise" the issue of "the 155" - the article of the Spanish constitution activated by Madrid to allow it to rule Catalonia directly.

Mr Puigdemont's lawyer has experience fighting controversial political cases against the Spanish state. Seven years ago, Mr Bekaert unsuccessfully represented two Basque separatist members of ETA who applied for asylum in Belgium. There were fewer than 50 applications by EU citizens last year for asylum in Belgium. Success is rare.
The other potential political fallout is for Belgium's uneasy governing coalition.

Four days ago, Mr Puigdemont told Belgian PM Charles Michel that "dialogue has been, and will always be, our choice to solve the political situation". Now the ex-Catalan leader's Halloween flit to Belgium threatens a rift between Mr Michel's liberal party and his governing partners in the Flemish nationalist NVA, who have been vocal backers of the Catalan cause. Elio di Rupo, Belgium's former Socialist prime minister, yesterday called on Mr Michel to restore Belgium's "international credibility" by settling the Puigdemont question immediately.

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