SPAIN-FLANDERS ROW: Spat erupts with Belgians over Cataluña

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RELATIONS STRAINED: Peuman’s (inset) comments on the Catalan vote sparked the row CREDIT: Shutterstock (main), Flemish Parliament (inset)

A SENIOR Flemish government official has criticised the Spanish Foreign Minister’s decision to revoke diplomatic status for a regional parliament representative in Madrid amidst a row over Cataluña.

The decision follows Flemish Parliament President Jan Peumans comments on Spain’s handling of last year’s Catalan independence vote.

Peumans said: “Anyone who uses violence at the ballot box burns democracy.”

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He was referring to Madrid’s decision to deploy police in Cataluña to stop the referendum, which the Constitution Court ruled was illegal, from going ahead.

Geert Bourgeois, Minister-President of the Belgian region, said Josep Borrell’s decision to strip Andre Hebbelinck of his status at Spain’s parliament was a “very unfriendly” act. The Flanders leader added he would summon Spain’s ambassador to Belgium to explain the situation.

Borrell summoned Belgian Ambassador Marc Calcoen last week before revoking Hebbelinck’s diplomatic privileges over Peumans’ remarks.

Hebbelinck said the Spanish government had been “barking up the wrong tree” in its decision to remove his status.

“You cannot revoke consular or diplomatic licenses for a diplomat. You can only do that if the government that he represents has made a mistake,” he said.

The Foreign Ministry said Hebbelinck would now be considered a regular employee of the Belgian embassy and no one else who succeeded him would be granted his former status.

“Peumans’ comments were unacceptable and inappropriate from a country which is a friend and ally, as Belgium is.”

Cataluña’s Generalitat said in a statement it regretted the Foreign Ministry’s decision.

“It is contrary to the principle of respect for the rights of citizens and their elected representatives to express their opinions freely,” the regional authority said.

Peuman had been speaking at the opening of a photography exhibition on the subject of Catalan independence.

He said using violence during votes was “out of the question”, as was imprisoning politicians. Several pro-Catalan independence politicians remain in prison or in exile abroad in connection with the referendum.

Belgium became involved in the Catalan independence issue after former Generalitat President Carles Puigdemont fled to the country when an arrest warrant was issued over his involvement in the push.

Flanders also has a pro-independence movement, with its supporters sympathetic towards Cataluña seceding from Spain.

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