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article imagePuigdemont and the Flemish nationalists: a love story

By Matthieu DEMEESTERE (AFP)     Jan 30, 2018 in World

Exiled in Belgium for the last three months, deposed Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont has become the darling of nationalists seeking independence for the region of Flanders.

The Catalan politician and the N-VA (New Flemish Alliance) party have formed a symbiotic relationship since he fled to Belgium on October 30 which furthers their respective political aims.

For Puigdemont -- who is due to be the guest of honour at the N-VA's New Year event on Tuesday -- there is increased visibility and a message to Spain that he has support in Europe.

For the N-VA, Puigdemont is burnishing the Flemish party's nationalist credentials despite its role in Belgium's federal coalition government led by the French-speaking Prime Minister Charles Michel.

"There is a community of interests -- a kind of exchange," Pascal Delwit, a professor of political science at Brussels Free University, told AFP.

"The N-VA is allowing Puigdemont's stay in Brussels to happen under the best possible conditions, in terms of support, welcome and political visibility."

- Dinner with Puigdemont -

Puigdemont may have to return home soon to secure his latest bid to become Catalan president, despite risking arrest over his role in holding an illegal independence referendum.

But his short stay in Belgium has served to stoke the political fires of a country that is deeply divided between the Dutch-speaking Flanders, and the French-speaking region of Wallonia.

The split between richer Flemings in the north and poorer Walloons in the south has fuelled repeated political crises in Belgium -- one of which in 2010-2011 left the kingdom without a government for a world record 541 days.

And while an exile's life can be lonely, Puigdemont has not lacked for company.

"I always have a lot of sympathy for people forbidden from expressing themselves," said N-VA member Lorin Parys, who organised Tuesday's event featuring Puigdemont in the town of Leuven.

"I do not understand why we end up putting people in jail for their opinions."

The Flemish politician has led efforts to give food and lodging to Puigdemont and four aides who followed him to Belgium, with sources saying the exiled Catalan chief is like a "a member of the family."

Parys said he had personally had the five of them over to dinner at his house "three or four times", after being introduced to one of them by a mutual friend from Barcelona.

A photo from one of these moments of Catalan-Flemish "togetherness" -- posted by Parys on his Twitter account -- appeared on the front page of leading Spanish newspaper El Pais in November.

In December, Flemish nationalists outnumbered Catalans at a party in Brussels to mark regional elections that Puigdemont won.

- 'Nationalist brothers' -

But it is not just solidarity with the Catalans. The N-VA also has its eye on Belgian local elections in October in which it faces competition from the far-right Vlaams Belang party.

The far-right group pushed in the Flemish regional parliament in November for a motion recognising an independent Catalonia -- a move rejected by the more moderate N-VA.

"The party is reminding the most nationalist among the Flemish public that it is not betraying the cause by being part of the federal government. The proof is it is helping its Catalan nationalist brothers," Delwit said.

Many members of the N-VA have also spoken out against Spain -- despite the party supposedly holding to the diplomatic line of the Belgian government when it comes to the issue.

Mark Demesmaeker, an N-VA member of the European Parliament, accused "the Spanish political mafia" of seeking to "intimidate" Puigdemont.

But he also said Belgian reforms giving the regions more power could serve as an example to Madrid, which he accused of denying proper autonomy to Catalonia.

"What frustration for them! For years their autonomous status has remained an empty shell," Demesmaeker said.

More about Spain, Catalonia, Politics, Belgium, Extradition
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