BRUSSELS – Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel distanced himself on Sunday from his migration secretary’s offer of political asylum to former Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont, who was removed from his post by the Spanish government in response to Catalonia’s unilateral declaration of independence.
Michel said the offer of asylum for Puigdemont, which had been suggested earlier by Flemish separatist politician Theo Francken, was absolutely not on the agenda.
“I’m asking Theo Francken no to add fuel to the fire,” the Belgian PM said in a statement.
Speaking to Belgian press on Sunday morning, the Secretary of State for Asylum and Migration suggested that Puigdemont could seek exile in Belgium if he feared that his recent bid for independence from Spain would land him in prison.
Puigdemont, a pro-Catalan independence figurehead, was unseated by the central Spanish government after it applied a constitutional mechanism to reel back Catalonia’s autonomy following the Catalan regional parliament vote in favor of independence from Spain.
“At this moment, we have not received any asylum request (from Puigdemont), but everything is moving very quickly. We will see what happens in the coming days and hours,” Francken told the VRT news outlet, adding that he foresaw a number of asylum requests from Catalonia considering that the situation was degrading quickly.
His comments prompted immediate condemnation from Spain’s governing Popular Party spokesperson in the European Parliament, Esteban Gonzalez Pons, who accused Francken of undermining the European Union’s principals of solidarity.
“Francken allowed himself to make serious accusations against the Spanish judicial system, the work of Spanish judges and Spain’s rule of law,” Gonzalez Pons said in a statement.
With the backing of the Senate, Spain’s conservative government invoked Article 155 of the Constitution to impose direct-rule over Catalonia.
As part of the article’s application, Puigdemont and his entire cabinet were removed from their posts, the Catalan parliament was dissolved, the regional police chief was dismissed and fresh local elections were called to take place before the end of the year.
Puigdemont became a figurehead of the independence movement on the run-up to the secessionist referendum on Oct. 1, which was branded illegal by Spain’s judiciary.
The Belgian premier recently sparked criticism in Spain when he suggested that international mediation was required to quell the tensions between Madrid and Barcelona.