Catalan leader is said to have fled the country

Over the weekend we discussed what seemed more like the plot for a foreign intrigue novel than actual news out of Europe. Could Carles Puigdemont, the unemployed, former leader of Catalonia, actually make a run for it, leaving Spain to avoid possible jail time? That all depended on how dire the situation at home seemed and whether he might be facing charges which could land him in prison. And where would he go? The only offer on the table seemed to be coming from Belgium.

Those questions were answered in rapid succession starting on Sunday. First, it was announced that Spanish prosecutors were indeed planning on charging Puigdemont with rebellion and sedition, among other serious offenses. That could see him locked up for decades. Then he seemed to be laying low for a bit as the media waited to learn what his next move would be.

Last night that part of the puzzle was solved. It was announced that Puigdemont would be making a statement about his intentions this morning… from Brussels. (Reuters)

Carles Puigdemont, the sacked Catalan leader, will give a news conference at 12:30 p.m. (730 EDT) on Tuesday in Brussels, the Belgian lawyer acting for him told Reuters.

Paul Bekaert, speaking at his law office at Tielt in western Flanders, said Puigdemont, who has yet to be seen in Belgium, was considering seeking asylum but it was not certain: “We have not yet decided yet. We have a lot of time to decide,” he said.

“We will see in the coming weeks what we are doing.”

So Puigdemont has fled the country and is now in Belgium. That may let some of the air out of the ongoing street protests in Catalonia since he’s become the unofficial leader of the nascent rebellion. Seeing him on the lam in another country doesn’t exactly inspire confidence. He likely could have pumped up his supporters a bit more if he’d stayed to fight the legal battle, even if that meant preaching his doctrine from a prison cell.

So what happens to Puigdemont now? He’s clearly bought himself some time and room to maneuver but the long game remains unclear. Belgium had already suggested that asylum might be a possibility if he was facing politically motivated prosecution in his home country, but that was only an invitation. There hasn’t been a formal offer yet. And for that matter, Puigdemont hasn’t even asked for it. At this point he’s basically just a tourist in Brussels with diplomatic paperwork.

All that could change quickly if Spain issues a warrant for his arrest and demands his return. Given their history with other political prisoners, it seems highly likely that Belgium could turn this into a years-long battle in the courts, debating international law, human rights and everything else they can throw at the wall. Meanwhile, as Politico notes, this “cumbersome guest” may destablize relations between Spain and Belgium while also causing headaches for Spain’s current ruling party.

Puigdemont’s presence in Brussels not only imperils Belgium’s relations with Spain, but also rocks the four-way coalition agreement between the Flemish nationalist N-VA party, which openly sympathizes with Catalonia, and its partners.

French-speaking Le Soir led with: “Puigdemont, the Belgian story.” Given the former leader will reportedly apply for asylum in Belgium, the paper wryly said: “The Swedes would have been better off with this cumbersome ‘guest.’” Dutch-speaking De Morgen asked: “Is Puigdemont driving a wedge between [Prime Minister Charles] Michel and the N-VA?” Financial newspaper L’Echo led with: “The Michel government embarrassed by Puigdemont.”

A destabilized Spain is in nobody’s best interests (except possibly Russia’s), but this Puigdemont problem doesn’t look like it will be going away any time soon. The legal follies alone will likely keep this story chugging along well into 2018. The United States has wisely decided to treat this as “a local issue” thus far and kept out of the food fight. That’s one more headache we hardly need at this point.

David Strom 7:01 PM on September 24, 2022