In Stratfor's 2017 Fourth-Quarter Forecast, we wrote that Spain would increase political, institutional and legal pressure on Catalan separatists. After the measures that Madrid announced on Oct. 27, Catalan leaders are now deciding their next steps, even as they face potential charges of sedition.
Belgium has found itself involuntarily involved in the Catalan crisis, after former Catalan President Carles Puigdemont and several members of his government fled to the country. Having been dismissed by Madrid three days earlier, the group arrived in Belgium on Oct. 30, only hours before Spain's chief prosecutor asked for charges of sedition and embezzlement. In a press conference in Brussels on Oct. 31, Puigdemont accused the Spanish state of being "extremely aggressive" against Catalonia and said that judges in Spain were partisan and not able to act independently. He also asked the Catalan population to protect Catalan institutions from Madrid's attempts to take direct control of them. Furthermore, Puigdemont clarified that he is not in Belgium to request asylum but that he did not think it was safe to return to Spain.
The former Catalan president is putting the Belgian government in the awkward situation of having to take a side in the Catalonia dispute. And for Belgium, that's not an easy task. The country is divided between the wealthier and Dutch-speaking Flanders in the north, and the poorer and French-speaking Wallonia in the south, with the Constitution requiring both Flemish and Walloon parties to be represented in government. Consequently, the country is defined by linguistic, economic and political divides, which have fueled a fragmented Flemish nationalism movement and have made the Catalan independence issue a contentious one. Flemish nationalists tend to sympathize with the Catalan cause, but they are far from representing one cohesive opinion. Most nationalists believe that Catalonia should have the right to decide its own future, but some do not support a political movement that has created so much uncertainty in Catalonia.
Belgium has been struggling with how to convey its stance on Catalonia ever since the region's illegal independence referendum on Oct. 1. After the vote, Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel criticized the police violence against Catalan voters. But the Belgian government later backed away from a statement by Theo Francken, Belgium's secretary of state for asylum and migration and a prominent member of the New Flemish Alliance (Flanders' main nationalist party), in which he offered asylum to Catalan leaders. On Oct. 31, the Belgian government issued a statement saying that Puigdemont had not been invited by Brussels. The Belgian government's priority is to maintain a careful balance between supporting Spain, a fellow EU member, and condemning regional aspirations of autonomy — as the latter could fuel domestic tension.
Now, Puigdemont's arrival in Belgium has complicated things further. In the late 1990s, the European Union introduced a principle that makes it difficult for EU nationals to obtain political protection in other bloc countries. Spain was a major supporter of the principle, which at the time was meant to prevent Basque separatists from obtaining asylum in receptive countries like Belgium. But despite the rule, the decision to grant asylum is still ultimately in the hands of each EU member state. Should Puigdemont ask for protection, Belgium could grant it if it chooses to. But that would mean tacitly agreeing with Puigdemont's accusations that Spain is an unsafe country where the rule of law is weak, and the decision would likely trigger a diplomatic crisis between Madrid and Brussels.
Puigdemont has said that his rationale for traveling to the capital of the European Union is to make Catalonia a European issue, but the governments and institutions of the bloc almost unanimously back Madrid and are unlikely to change their stances. In the meantime, Catalonia's main secessionist parties have announced that they will participate in the early regional election that Madrid scheduled for Dec. 21. Only four days after the Spanish government took direct control of several Catalan institutions, things are relatively calm in the region, and Madrid's decision to pursue a short intervention and hold an election before the end of the year took secessionists by surprise. With their aspirations of a Catalan republic temporarily on hold, the independence forces are now getting ready for the upcoming electoral battle.