Ex-Leader of Catalonia, Carles Puigdemont, Isn’t Seeking Asylum in Belgium – New York Times
BRUSSELS — The deposed leader of Catalonia said on Tuesday that he had traveled to Brussels to guarantee a fair trial for himself and other separatists who declared independence from Spain last week, but that they were not seeking asylum.
Instead, the former leader, Carles Puigdemont, said he had left Catalonia as Madrid took over administration of his region to put Spain’s territorial conflict “in the institutional heart of Europe.”
“We are here because Brussels is the capital of Europe, it is not a question of Belgian politics,” Mr. Puigdemont said in his first public remarks since the Spanish authorities called on Monday for him and 19 other separatists to be prosecuted for rebellion.
“This is a European issue,” Mr. Puigdemont told a news conference, “and I want Europe to react.”
Mr. Puigdemont’s wishes are unlikely to be granted. Brussels is the headquarters of the European Union, but the bloc is a group of sovereign states in a time of increased nationalism on the continent.
Some European Union leaders have urged dialogue, but all have fully supported Spanish sovereignty and the Spanish government of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy and shown no sympathy for Catalan secession.
On Friday, Jean-Claude Juncker, the most pro-European of European leaders, said bluntly that the European Union “doesn’t need any more cracks, more splits.”
Mr. Juncker, the president of the European Commission and himself from tiny Luxembourg, said that the bloc should not intervene in “an internal debate for Spain, but I wouldn’t want the European Union to consist of 95 member states in the future.”
After Catalan separatists declared independence last Friday, Mr. Rajoy dismissed Mr. Puigdemont and his cabinet and dissolved the Catalan Parliament, calling for regional elections on Dec. 21.
In Brussels, Mr. Puigdemont welcomed the chance for separatists to win the December elections. He said he would “accept the results” and called on Madrid to make “a clear commitment” to do the same.
Mr. Puigdemont emphasized that he was not escaping Spanish justice, but he said he wanted guarantees of a fair trial and would work for now from Brussels, in “freedom and security.”
After reading the charges proposed by the Spanish attorney general, Mr. Puigdemont said he felt Catalan politicians would not be treated fairly by the Spanish judiciary.
The possible charges, he argued, amounted to “a persecution” of people and their ideas rather than specific crimes. “More than a desire for justice, it is a desire for vengeance,” he said.
While he ruled out asking for political asylum from Belgium, he could do so in the future, especially if Spain seeks his arrest and extradition.
After Mr. Puigdemont’s news conference, his Belgian lawyer, Paul Bekaert, said that “as long as the possibility exists that Spain asks to extradite Puigdemont, it can’t be excluded that he applies for political asylum.”
Mr. Bekaert, 68, who specializes in asylum cases and has worked for Basque separatists who sought asylum here, said he didn’t know how long Mr. Puigdemont would stay.
“He came here to work in total peace and security,” Mr. Bekaert said. “In the meantime, we are on standby.”
Earlier, Mr. Bekaert told Flemish Radio: “As a citizen of the European Union, he can in fact apply for political asylum here. Whether he obtains it is another question.”
Mr. Puigdemont’s presence in Brussels was intended to add a European dimension to Spain’s most serious political crisis in decades. He is in effect proposing to lead his ousted Catalan government from a city that is home to the main institutions of the European Union, which has been unsympathetic to the push for secession, and is in a country that has its own separatist tensions.
So wary is Belgium of Mr. Puigdemont and his movement that it prevented him from holding his news conference in a government-owned building.
More important, however, the European Union is also wary of Mr. Puigdemont, whose appeal to a Europe of “democracy, liberty, free expression and nonviolence,” as he put it, indicated a romantic view of the bloc.
The Catalan separatists appear swept up in an earlier concept of a European Union of shared sovereignties, where regional identities can merge with a vague European identity and somehow supersede national ones.
That view has become outdated in a bloc under severe nationalist strains stemming from the debt crisis, the migration wave, the fear of terrorism and the populism that all of those anxieties have engendered.
Not least, a larger bloc of 28 very different nations has grown more sensitive than in many decades to the sanctity of their borders.
The European Union, facing the loss of Britain, has no desire to enlarge further or to create more fissures. Already anxious about Scotland’s previous calls for independence, states like France, Italy and even Belgium have no interest in encouraging regional secessionist movements in places like Corsica, Lombardy, South Tyrol and Flanders.
And Spain, with a strongly recovering economy, is considered a model of democratic transformation after the Franco era under the umbrella and tutelage of the European Union. A Spanish failure would be perceived as a European one, just as Brussels feels that the bloc is regaining some of its confidence.
Mr. Puigdemont and several members of his ousted cabinet made their way to Brussels on Monday just as the Spanish attorney general, José Manuel Maza, announced in Madrid that Mr. Puigdemont and other separatist leaders should appear “urgently” in court there.
Those in Brussels may avoid the Spanish courts, but they will not find much support from any European Union official. And even as Mr. Puigdemont and others sat tight in Brussels, the Spanish Supreme Court summoned a handful of other Catalan lawmakers to appear in Madrid on Thursday, including Carme Forcadell, the president of the Catalan Parliament who read out the declaration of independence last week.
Mr. Maza chose not to order the immediate arrest of the separatists, but he wants judges to allow him to pursue charges of rebellion, sedition and the misuse of public funds against those who organized and carried out an illegal independence referendum on Oct. 1.
On Tuesday, Mr. Puigdemont said the length of his Brussels stay was dependent “on the circumstances.”
“If we could be guaranteed that the trial would be fair,” he said, “without doubt I would return immediately.”
Had he and his entire cabinet stayed in Barcelona this week, he said, “with an attitude of resistance, there would have been a very violent reaction by the state,” he argued.
Mr. Puigdemont said he had not been negotiating with Belgian politicians. “I don’t ask anything from Belgian politicians, except as part of European politics,” he said.
Instead, he repeated his call for the European Union to step into the conflict, a plea that has been rejected by European leaders. “To the international community and especially Europe, I ask them to react,” he said.
While he waits, the national government in Madrid took direct administrative control of Catalonia, using emergency constitutional powers invoked by Mr. Rajoy.
Mr. Puigdemont called on Catalan citizens to oppose the dismantling of Catalonia’s institutions, while officials in Madrid welcomed the news that Mr. Puigdemont had chosen to leave Spain rather than remain in Barcelona and resist the national government’s decision to oust him.
Follow Raphael Minder on Twitter: @RaphaelMinder.
Steven Erlanger reported from Brussels, and Raphael Minder from Barcelona, Spain. Patrick Kingsley contributed reporting from Barcelona, and Milan Schreuer from Brussels.
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