Charles Michel could hardly imagine few weeks ago that he would have a hard time in the Belgian Parliament because of Catalonia. But the escalation of the crisis in Spain, and the escape of sacked Catalan president Carles Puigdemont and part of his cabinet to Brussels, turned the early winter into a dark nightmare for the Belgian prime minister.
This is not a Spanish issue anymore, but a “belgo-belge” problem, deputy Olivier Maingain told him today. For the francophone MP, the culprits of Michel’s headaches are sitting in his own government.
The Flemish nationalist (N-VA) coalition members offered asylum to Puigdemont, while they questioned Spain’s democratic merits for sending to prison half of the dismissed Catalan government that unilaterally declared independence.
But they weren’t the only ones meddling in Catalexit.
Michel’s predecessors liberal Guy Verhofstadt and socialist Elio Di Rupo also believed their voice should be heard and their fiery tweets read:
“Rajoy behaved as an authoritarian Francoist”, Di Rupo wrote on the social media.
Michel needed a lot of water to swallow all the criticism he heard in the Parliament. But still, he believed “ceci n’est pas une crise”.
“There is a political crisis in Spain but not in Belgium,” he stated. He admitted problems of verbal diarrhoea around him, but that comes with free speech… and difficult coalition partners.
He repeated that Puigdemont enjoys the same rights and obligations as any other European citizen, including freedom of movement. And he tried to pass the hot potato to the Belgian judge who should decide upon the Catalan politician’s extradition to Spain. Three hoorays for the division of powers.
And although his carefully worded speech barely addressed all the criticism he had received, a clear message emerged to placate potential new tensions with Spain.
“There is no ambiguity, we have an interlocutor who is the government of Madrid,” he said. In light of previous ambiguous comments coming from his side, this remark deserved a slap on the back by Mariano Rajoy.
Michel saw his efforts to shield volatile Belgian politics and his government against the Catalan turmoil bore some fruits.
But it is hard to protect your body when you have no control over your Achilles’ heel.
The N-VA, the largest party in the Belgian coalition, would continue supporting vividly Puigdemont’s cause as long as electoral benefits exist. A yield that would most likely continue to grow as long as the Catalan nationalist politicians remain in jail.
Against this backdrop, it came as no surprise that Puigdemont’s speech yesterday opened with a warm thank-you to the N-VA. Besides the press conference he gave last Tuesday and a couple of interviews, it was his first public address since he arrived to Brussels.
Embraced wholeheartedly by 200 pro-independence Catalan mayors who had spent more than 300 euros for a day-trip to Brussels (in some cases paid by taxpayers’ money) Puigdemont was hailed as the “legitimate” president.
It was a prêt-à-porter walkabout that added the final touch to the three-ring circus seen since he arrived to Brussels. His legal battle to block Spain’s arrest warrant, combined with his staunch effort to “internationalise the Catalan issue”, is now completed with his fresh bid to reconquer the Govern in the 21 December regional election.
Surfing the wave of his comrades and few uncomfortable supporters’ ovation, his independence spree left no target untouched.
He blamed Rajoy for enforcing a “coup d’état” after sacking the Catalan government and demanded the release of the deposed Govern members.
And he appealed again to the EU leaders. But this time around, the pleading tone was replaced by a defiant stance eyeing the EU institutions’ presidents.
Puigdemont challenged not only Spain but Presidents Jean-Claude Juncker and Antonio Tajani to respect the results of the snap elections in December.
If only he would have done that after the 2015 elections, Catalans would have avoided the most troubling period in four decades… and spared Michel an enormous headache.
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