The former president of the Catalonia autonomous region, Carles Puigdemont, fled to Brussels in the wake of the referendum and declaration of independence, both seen as illegal by the Spanish government.
He dragged his people to the referendum despite warnings from Spanish authorities, and the bad timing of the declaration of independence was obvious. Then he decided to go to Brussels, the capital of the European Union, in the hope to Europeanize the Catalan question. Yet the majority of his supporters have remained in Spain. A leader who pretends to represent a noble cause would not flee his country that fast, and he would rather go to jail to pursue the fight. Puigdemont did not remain in Spain, maybe because he thought he would lose popularity while in prison or believes his personal freedom is more important than any political cause.
To say the truth, Belgium has a long tradition of receiving all foreign people and political groups who cause problems for their governments. Maybe the Catalan leader imagined Belgium was the perfect place to establish a government in exile and continue bothering Madrid from abroad. It is odd that Belgium allows all these groups and people to come to the country, from Catalan secessionists to PKK terrorists. Belgium is one of the most fragile countries in Europe with all the problems between Flanders and Wallonia. Should a secessionist vogue hit Europe, Belgium would be one of the first countries to be divided in two. Maybe the Belgian government does not believe it may happen or maybe it does not care if the country disappears. Anyway, the Belgian government decided not to resist the request from Madrid. Belgium did not work hard to catch Puigdemont either, as we know he had all the freedom he wanted during his stay in Brussels – he could talk to the international press and meet anybody he wanted.Puigdemont was not a wanted man for the Belgian government, but the Belgian police had to be interested in him because the Spanish government issued an EU arrest warrant for him, and he surrendered to police. An investigative judge will now decide whether to execute the EU arrest warrant or not. A delicate problem is that he has not committed any crime while in Belgium. Puigdemont had already said he would not return to Spain unless he is guaranteed a fair trial. He is wanted by Spain on charges of sedition and rebellion, so one can only guess he risks a severe verdict. Even if the Belgian judge decides to execute the arrest warrant, it is not sure whether Puigdemont will be extradited after all. So the judicial process is only beginning.
Belgium may decide to extradite Puigdemont for the sake of European solidarity with the Spanish government, but will Belgium start extraditing everybody wanted by his or her government from now on? If Belgians decide not to extradite him for some reason, this may provoke a long-lasting crisis between Belgium and Spain, exactly like the case of terrorist Revolutionary People's Liberation Party-Front (DHKP-C) member Fehriye Erdal, who assassinated a Turkish businessman and who could stay freely in Belgium for years.
The Catalan leader has probably imagined that the Belgians will support his independence bid or guarantee his freedom no matter what the Spanish government says. He was probably unaware that new independent countries may emerge only when great powers decide to allow it. Belgium is definitely not a great power that can weigh on the international balance of power. Puigdemont has unfortunately fled to the wrong country.
The referendum in Catalonia has probably given some ideas to all independence movements around the world. Maybe those will be more careful in the future about their alliances and international circumstances.
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