Spain Withdraws Diplomatic Status of Flanders Representative Over Support of Catalan Separatists

October 17, 2018 Updated: October 17, 2018

BRUSSELS—Separatists in Belgium have become embroiled in an extraordinary diplomatic row with Spain over vocal support of a top separatist Flemish politician for Catalan separatists.

Political leaders in Flanders, a Flemish-speaking region of Belgium, accused Madrid of a “very hostile act” after Spanish officials decided to expel the Flemish representative in Madrid in retaliation for public criticism.

Spain withdrew the diplomatic status of André Hebbelinck, who was Flanders’ official delegate to Madrid, over inflammatory comments made by the chairman of the region’s parliament.

Jan Peumans, of the separatists New Flemish Alliance (N-VA), enraged Madrid by saying in a letter to a detained Catalan activist that the lock-up of Catalan leaders meant Spain was no longer a democracy fit for membership of the European Union.

Madrid detained nine senior Catalan politicians on charges of rebellion over their decision to hold an independence referendum on Oct. 1, 2017, which wasn’t sanctioned by the central government.

Authorities are still seeking six others including the former President of Catalonia, Carles Puigdemont, who first fled to Belgium where he was welcomed in by Flemish nationalist politicians.

An aerial view of people holding a pro-independence Catalan flag.
An aerial view of people holding a pro-independence Catalan flag on Sept. 11, 2018, in Barcelona, Spain. (Roser Vilallonga/AFP/Getty Images)

Peumans wrote his letter to the former president of the Catalan parliament, Carme Forcadell, who is among those who have been locked up for more than a year awaiting trial.

In the letter, Peumans wrote: “The violence during the referendum and months-long imprisonment of politicians prove that Spain’s central government is not capable of fulfilling the conditions required by a modern, democratic European Union.”

Spanish Foreign Minister Josep Borrell then summoned Flemish representative Hebbelinck to Madrid, where he was told he would be stripped of his diplomatic status in response to the remarks.

Borrell also called in the ambassador of Belgium to express his anger and defend Spain as “a full democracy, of which no international institution or EU member state is in any doubt.” The Flemish nationalist party N-VA is a partner in Belgium’s ruling coalition government.

The move effectively severed ties between Spain and the region of Flanders, and was decried as a “very hostile act” by Flemish Minister-President Geert Bourgeois.

Bourgeois told Flemish public radio station VRT: “This has never happened in the history of the European Union, ever since the creation of the European Coal and Steel Community in 1952 and probably since 1945.”

Belgium is split into three administrative regions, with each having its own parliament and holding significant powers. National-level decisions are taken by the federal government in Brussels.

There is a strong nationalist movement of Flemish-speaking people in Flanders, which has a population of 6.5 million people, that hopes for a peaceful split from the French speaking south of the country.

Diplomatic relations between Belgium and Spain, which are both European Union members, had already been strained after Puigdemont fled to the country to escape being detained alongside other Catalan politicians.

Madrid issued a European arrest warrant seeking his extradition, but subsequently dropped the request before a Belgian court had the chance to rule on its legality.

Spain’s new socialist government, which has replaced the center-right administration in power at the time of the independence referendum, has come under increasing pressure to release the detained activists.

On Oct. 16, hundreds of Catalan independence supporters gathered for twin protests in the region’s capital city Barcelona and outside the two detainment centers near where the separatists are still being held.

They called for the release of two activists who were locked up over claims they urged demonstrators to prevent police officers from stopping the referendum vote.

“There is no justification for keeping Jordi Sànchez and Jordi Cuixart in pre-trial detention, and we reiterate our call for their immediate release,” said Fotis Filippou, deputy director of Amnesty International Europe.