Belgian minister's Catalonia asylum offer sparks political row

GERMAN PRESS AGENCY - DPA
BRUSSELS
Published 29.10.2017 20:49
Updated 30.10.2017 10:19
Catalan President Carles Puigdemont sings the Catalan anthem inside the parliament after a vote on independence in Barcelona, Spain. (AP Photo)
Catalan President Carles Puigdemont sings the Catalan anthem inside the parliament after a vote on independence in Barcelona, Spain. (AP Photo)

A junior minister's suggestion that Belgium might offer asylum to ousted Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont provoked an angry response from Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel on Sunday, who accused the politician of adding "fuel to the fire."

Michel said that asylum for Puidgemont was "absolutely not on the agenda," and reiterated his previous call for dialogue between Barcelona and Spain in the ongoing row over independence, according to the Belga news agency.

The Catalan leader, who was removed from office after declaring independence for the autonomous region in north-east Spain, has been warned that he risks arrest for rebellion, a crime that carries a jail term of up to 30 years.

Theo Francken - who is a junior minister responsible for asylum and migration in Michel's cabinet - said that "Catalans who feel politically threatened," including Puigdemont, could apply for asylum in Belgium.

Francken told the Flemish public broadcaster VRT that "Belgium can be a possible way out for Puigdemont," but said that no such asylum request has been received.

Francken's N-VA party, a Flemish-speaking nationalist party that has stated in the past separatist ambitions for the northern region of Flanders, has sympathized with the Catalan independence movement.

Francken questioned whether Puigdemont would be able to have a "fair trial" in Spain.

"I am asking Theo Francken not to add fuel to the fire," Michel said in response to the minister's comments.

Michel's views were echoed by his Flemish deputy, Alexander de Croo, who said that Francken's views were not the official view of the Belgian government.

"It is important to calm people's minds rather than excite," de Croo said.

Belgium is one of the few countries within the European Union where nationals from other EU member states can apply for asylum, but any such move would likely put a heavy strain on relations between Spain and Belgium.

Catalonia held an independence referendum on October 1 that delivered a resounding Yes result, but the vote was deemed unconstitutional by Spain's Supreme Court and its legitimacy has been called into question.

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