Watch out. Former Catalan President to leave Belgium, risk arrest

As we discussed a little over a week ago, the leaders of Catalonia’s independence minded parties are preparing to caucus and most likely install exiled former regional President Carles Puigdemont to his old position. This presents several difficulties if only in terms of logistics. First of all, the would-be president is currently on the run in Belgium, facing possible extradition, and has a warrant out for his arrest if he steps foot back in Spain. (Or anyplace else where Madrid could lay their hands on him, actually.) On top of that, a number of the Members of Parliament from his party in Catalonia are either already in jail or on the run with Puigdemont, and if they cant’ show up to cast their ballots, it’s unclear if the parties can form the new regional government to begin with.

That precarious situation is what makes this weekend’s news so intriguing. It’s been announced that Puigdemont is leaving Belgium, but he’s not making his triumphant return to Spain. Instead, he’s heading to Denmark. (Boston Globe)

Catalonia’s former president, a fugitive sought by Spain over a foiled secession bid, will travel to Denmark next week for a university debate despite the possible risk of arrest, officials said Friday.

Carles Puigdemont plans to make the trip to Copenhagen as he tries to get his old job back and step up the pressure on Spanish authorities, who have said a fugitive abroad can’t be the Catalan regional president.

The University of Copenhagen announced a debate for Monday in the Danish capital on ‘‘Catalonia and Europe at a Crossroads for Democracy.’’ Janni Brixen, a media official with the university’s Faculty of Social Science, said Puigdemont would attend it ‘‘in person.’’

So Puigdemont is heading to Copenhagen to participate in a debate on Catalonian independence and democracy. And he was personally invited by the university sponsoring the event. Could he be arrested en route? That sounds fairly unlikely. If he leaves Belgium he’s theoretically at risk, but that would require having him land someplace where local authorities would not only have an extradition treaty with Spain, but would be willing to enforce it. In the western part of the European Union, most of the nations are deferring to the EU on this matter (as well as too many others, frankly) and they seem content to let the process play out in court as it currently is. There’s little chance that Denmark plans to arrest him, and if that was a serious probability it’s difficult to imagine him making the trip. After all, if Puigdemont was interested in landing himself in jail for his cause he’d already be behind bars in Spain.

One debate in Copenhagen obviously isn’t going to settle the question of Catalan independence however, and the clock is ticking. At this point, Spanish Prime Minister Rajoy is still holding most of the cards but that could be a temporary situation. If Puigdemont can freely run around Europe making appearances such as this he could start winning over supporters in other EU nations. There’s already pressure on Madrid to get this situation resolved peacefully without resorting to crushing the Catalan independence movement militarily and locking up many of their leaders in prison for decades.

The one thing Rajoy has going for him is his previous claim that the idea of Puigdemont ruling Catalonia without setting foot in the country is essentially absurd. If the former regional president can’t step foot in Catalonia it’s not going to make for much of an inspiring administration, nor will it look particularly independent. One rumor making the rounds in European circles at the moment is that Rajoy may have an escape hatch here. He previously rejected the idea of meeting with Puigdemont outside the country in a neutral location or allowing him back into Spain for a meeting with public assurances that he wouldn’t be arrested. If he wants to backtrack on that position it’s conceivable that he could agree to a longer period of consideration of possible Catalonian independence, with some sort of gradual shift toward more autonomous power for the region. That way, another referendum could take place sometime in the future, potentially when Rajoy is out of office and it would no longer be his problem.

Something like that could allow both sides to save face without anyone needing to be killed or tossed in prison for decades. And it’s still possible that the people of Catalan might be persuaded to forget total independence later if they have greater autonomy going forward. At this point, it may be the best that Madrid can hope for.