Caught up in Catalan crisis, Belgian PM urges 'dialogue'

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Belgium’s prime minister, battling to contain domestic fallout from the arrival of fugitive Catalan leaders, urged Madrid on Wednesday to talk to the separatists, but said he would not interfere in any extradition to Spain.

Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel reacts as he addresses the Interior Committee of the Belgian Parliament regarding the crisis in Catalonia, in Brussels, Belgium November 8, 2017. Reuters/Eric Vidal

Deposed Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont and four ex-ministers from his regional government arrived in Belgium last week, saying they had fled arrest in order to campaign in Brussels, capital of the European Union, against Spanish sanctions on them for running an independence referendum.

Riven by its own regional division between Dutch- and French-speakers, Belgium has found itself a reluctant host to the Catalans.

“The most important message, which is my strong conviction, is dialogue, dialogue, political dialogue,” Prime Minister Charles Michel told lawmakers who grilled him on his coalition’s stance.

Michel, a French-speaking liberal, has irritated Madrid by being one of the few EU leaders to criticize police violence during last month’s referendum. But he has also sought to curb statements supporting the Catalan case from Flemish nationalist party N-VA, a major partner in his own coalition.

“There is a political crisis in Spain, but not in Belgium,” insisted Michel, as opposition lawmakers questioned him about divisions within the government on the Catalan issue.

His migration minister, from the N-VA, suggested before Puigdemont fled Barcelona that the Catalan leader could be entitled to political asylum in Belgium.

Michel at the time called on the minister not to pour “oil on the fire”. He then said Puigdemont could stay in Belgium for now just like “any other European citizen”, but stressed that he had not been invited by the Belgian authorities.

On Wednesday, echoing that cool tone, he said the Belgian government would not interfere in the judicial process under which Belgian judges must now rule on a request from Spain to extradite the five politicians.

Nor, Michel said, would it play a role in any asylum claim.

Puigdemont has raised objections to going back to Spain - where he faces charges of rebellion that could carry a jail term of up to 30 years - but has not sought refugee status, something that Belgian legal experts say he and the others would be unlikely to obtain.

Editing by Alastair Macdonald and Gareth Jones