Belgium, the European country that has been the most vocal against Mariano Rajoy’s handling of the crisis between Catalonia and Spain, would contemplate the possibility of granting Catalan president Carles Puigdemont political asylum, a provision enshrined in Belgium’s legislation, even for EU nationals.
“That would be for a judge to decide. Political asylum could be applied for. If granted, he would likely not be extradited to Spain. Our law would prevent that”, said Theo Francken, the Belgian Immigration minister, during an interview with VTM, a Flemish TV network. Francken is a member of N-VA, the Flemish independence party, and one of the partners that make up Belgium’s government coalition led by Charles Michel, the French-speaking liberal PM.
Francken believes it might be possible to grant Carles Puigdemont political asylum if he applied for it, given that —according to the Belgian minister— the Catalan president may not get “a fair trial” in Spain. “It wouldn’t be unreal, come to think of it”, he stated. On the subject of a hypothetical asylum application by Carles Puigdemont, the Belgian minister remarked that “there is talk of a prison sentence. We’d have to see to what extent he’d get a fair trial”.
Theo Francken openly admitted that, should Belgium receive Puigdemont’s application, a fresh diplomatic conflict would arise between Spain and Belgium. He acknowledged that “indeed, this would put us in a tight spot with Spain, from a diplomatic point of view. But, by law, it is possible to apply for asylum and his application would be considered in a proper, objective, independent manner, like Spaniards would expect”.
Belgium is one of the few EU member states whose law allows nationals of other EU countries to seek political asylum, not just citizens of third countries. Among others, applicants may be individuals who are persecuted for their political views o religious beliefs or people who run the risk of being tortured or subjected to a degrading or inhuman treatment.
Belgium has already turned down an extradition application from Spain once
In the event of Carles Puigdemont travelling to Belgium to request political asylum, Spain might issue a European arrest warrant, which came into effect in 2004 for the first time. This warrant allows a member state to request the immediate extradition of someone that must stand trial. European arrest warrants have very rarely been turned down, but Belgium has.
In 2013 a Belgian judge denied the extradition of Natividad Jáuregui, aka Pepona, an alleged ETA member who had taken up residence in the Flemish city of Ghent. The Belgian justice agreed that the defendant’s arguments were valid when they claimed that, if she were to be extradited to Spain, she might be tortured and the judge ruled that Jáuregui might see her “basic rights” violated in Spain. The alleged ETA member is still in Belgium, since Spain has exhausted every recourse to obtain her extradition.
A diplomatic crisis
The words of the Immigration minister might aggravate the diplomatic crisis between Spain and Belgium over the statement by the Belgian PM suggesting a European mediation if political dialogue between Barcelona and Madrid failed. Charles Michel was also very vocal against the Spanish police crackdown on October 1.
The Spanish government was not amused by Michel’s words and actually issued a formal complaint to the Belgian embassy in Madrid. Afterwards, Michel and Rajoy patched things up at the last meeting of the European Council, at least on TV: both leaders shook hands in front of the cameras for everyone to see.
The Belgian minister of Immigration and Asylum, whose views on immigration lean towards the far-right, stated that Puigdemont has not contacted Belgium. “No application has been received, but events are unfolding rapidly. We will see what happens in the coming hours and days”, he said.