The speculation wasn’t unwarranted. Madrid charged Puigdemont and other members of his government Monday with rebellion, sedition, and misuse of public funds—the first charge alone carries up to a 30-year sentence. The charges, paired with an apparent invitation by Belgian Immigration Minister Theo Francken for the Catalan leader to seek asylum in Brussels and Puigdemont’s recent hiring of a Belgian human-rights lawyer, appeared to suggest he might be intending to pursue independence in exile (this speculation was fueled even further by Puigdemont’s web address, which changed from president.cat to president.exili.edu).
When asked about the rumors during the press conference, however, Puigdemont said he had different reasons for choosing the city. “I am here in Brussels as the capital of Europe,” he said during his trilingual address (delivered in Spanish, Catalan, and French) noting that the crisis in Catalonia “is a European issue, and I want Europe to react.”
It’s not that EU leaders have been disregarding the Catalan issue. In fact, the bloc uniformly dubbed the contested Catalan independence referendum illegal, and defended Spain’s right to uphold the rule of law (though many rejected the Spanish police force’s violent response to the vote). Still, Puigdemont’s appeal to Europe both before and after Catalonia’s formal independence declaration suggests he hopes the EU could have a change of heart. But Susi Dennison, a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, told me it’s wishful thinking. “This attempt by Puigdemont to kind of force the issue by taking flight to Brussels and making the appeal is kind of a last-ditch attempt to try and get the EU to see this differently,” she said, adding: “It really seems to me that there’s very little the EU can do now that it’s got to the point where the Spanish government has taken back control of Catalonia.”
On its face, Puigdemont’s appeal to the EU as a potential home for Catalonia’s national aspirations seems odd. The bloc has long been envisaged as a beacon of peace and stability across the continent—not a means for championing atavistic and nationalistic aspirations within it. And though Puigedemont framed the Catalan issue Tuesday as one “at the very basis of the values on which Europe is founded,” Richard Youngs, a Madrid-based senior fellow at Carnegie Europe, told me it’s an argument most European leaders are unswayed by, in part because of the precedent it sets.
“If territories around Europe take it upon themselves to declare independence unilaterally, the whole state system in Europe is at risk,” he said, noting that even by making the ask, Catalonia puts the bloc in an awkward position. “The EU as a political project is supposed to be based on the idea that we look beyond the nation-state and the irony, it seems to be, is that the EU ends up defending the nation-state. Now, in the eyes of secessionists around Europe, it seems to be firmly on the side of the nation-state rather than supporting the aspirations of these small, locally-rooted movements.”