Why this story matters:
Hotels in Brussels and outside of the capital are fully booked. Is there any special occasion? Not really, save from the fact that a surprising number of Catalans have decided to join a demonstration in Brussels today, organized by two pro-independence groups. Around 20.000 Catalans are expected to attend. Brussels deals with an annual number of 800 to 900 manifestations, so there's no reason why this protest should raise eyebrows.
And yet this time Belgium holds its breath.
Why? Because the sudden appearance of the ousted Catalan leader has divided the Belgians over the last few weeks. The Flemish nationalists sympathize with Puigdemont and his cause, but the rest of the government takes the side of Madrid.
To avoid an institutional crisis, Prime Minister Charles Michel has forbidden stoking up our own demons and so far his party has obeyed. Nevertheless, the personal endorsements of Flemish nationalists have not ceased.
How many of them will march through Brussels today, shoulder to shoulder with the Catalans and Puigdemont? That's the question. There's no doubt about the common relief associated with the Spanish authorities revoking the European arrest warrant against the fugitive. The decision whether to send Puigdemont and four other Catalan politicians back or not depends only on the judiciary. However, according to the Belgian government, the arrest warrant caused a lot of tension. Some Flemish nationalists clearly feel uncomfortable with the whole situation.
The relationship between Flemish and Catalan separatists isn't as stable as expected. For years, there was hardly a relationship between the two separatist parties, because the Catalans didn't want to be associated with the right-wing Flemish independence movement. Recently, there has been more contact between the groups but doubt prevails. The Catalans don't want their protest dominated by Flemish Lion flags.
Meanwhile, Carles Puigdemont just declared that he will stay in Brussels for a while, to “prepare his election campaign”. Some ask where 'preparing' stops and campaigning begins. It's striking how some (Flemish) voices seem to accentuate that the Catalans can also campaign on the French side of the border between France and Spain.
How Belgium not only imported a Catalan crisis but also a separatist election campaign
- Since his appearance in Brussel, the deposed Catalan president forces the Flemish nationalists into a split: they declared their 100% support, but their actions seems to say the opposite.
- Magistrates in Brussels were due to rule on whether Mr Puigdemont and his colleagues should be sent back to Spain on December 14, but the Spanish Supreme Court no longer feels this is necessary.
- The Spanish decision to revoke the European arrest warrant against 5 Catalan politicians -- who are accused of dereliction of duty, disobedience, sedation, rebellion and corruption -- was an undeniable relief to Belgium.
- Today, around 20.000 Catalans are expected to arrive in Brussels for a protest march.
- In the meantime, Puigdemont announced he will stay in Belgium, perhaps until the elections on December 21. After that, he has the intention of returning to Spain despite his probable arrest.
- With the press conferences, the protest, the buzz on social media and the tension between government parties, it seems that Belgium not only imported the Catalan crisis but also the separatist campaign.