Belgians Criticize Persecution of Catalan Leaders

Belgians from across the political spectrum wonder if Spain has no alternative to locking up its separatists.

Prime Minister Charles Michel of Belgium arrives for a European Union summit in Valletta, Malta, November 11, 2015
Prime Minister Charles Michel of Belgium arrives for a European Union summit in Valletta, Malta, November 11, 2015 (European Council)

Belgian politicians from the left and right have criticized Spain’s persecution of Catalan leaders, five of whom, including the deposed regional president, Carles Puigdemont, have sought refuge in Brussels.

  • Jan Jambon, interior minister and member of the New Flemish Alliance: “Knocking on peaceful people, government members who are jailed… What did they do wrong? They carried out the mandate they received from their voters. I wonder where Europe is in all this. This is happening in a European member states and the silence is deafening.”
  • Elio Di Rupo, former prime minister and leader of the opposition Socialist Party: “Puigdemont has abused his position, but Rajoy has behaved like an authoritarian Francoist. Let’s find the path to a more federal Spain.”
  • Guy Verhofstadt, former prime minister and leader of the liberal bloc in the European Parliament, which includes Spain’s Ciudadanos and Catalonia’s European Democratic Party: “While we have to respect the right and the obligation of Spanish courts to defend and to protect the rule of law, the question must be asked if this imprisonment is disproportionate. Are there no other ways to secure that these separatist leaders receive a fair trial and a judgement?”
  • Bart De Wever, mayor of Antwerp and leader of the New Flemish Alliance: “Things are happening here which we wouldn’t tolerate in any country of the European Union. You don’t lock people up for practicing their democratic rights.”

Over the top

The reaction from Spain has been just as over the top as when Belgian prime minister Charles Michel had the temerity to call for dialogue. The Interior Ministry in Madrid denounced that suggestion as an “unacceptable attack” on Spain.

This time it was Esteban González Pons, the leader Spain’s ruling People’s Party in the European Parliament, who warned that Jambon’s statements may be “dangerous” to Belgian-Spanish relations.

For good measure, he dismissed the New Flemish Alliance, one of Belgium’s four ruling parties, as “xenophobic”, prompting De Wever to quip that the People’s Party should think twice before discussing the “prehistory” of any political party.

Among the People’s Party’s founders were former members of the Franco regime.

Other Belgian officials have urged calm. Wouter Beke, the leader of the ruling Christian Democratic and Flemish party, cautions against “importing” Spain’s problems. Foreign Minister Didier Reynders has called on politicians not to involve themselves in the affair.

Arrest warrants

Spain has issued an international arrest warrant for Puigdemont and four of his ministers. They surrendered to Belgian police on Sunday night and were released when they promised not to leave the country until a judge can evaluate their case.

Eight other Catalan officials who were removed from power, including the regional vice president, Oriol Junqueras, have been detained in Spain pending a trial.

They are accused of rebellion, sedition and misuse of public funds, charges that carry maximum prison sentences of 25, fifteen and eight years, respectively.

The Catalan government defied the Spanish Constitutional Court when it organized an independence referendum on October 1.