Catalonia’s ousted leader has vowed to prolong the fight for independence from Spain and urged the European Union (EU) to speak out over the jailing of Catalan officials in a rebellion case.
Carles Puigdemont’s comments came at a campaign-style rally in Belgium’s capital attended by about 200 mayors from Catalonia who greeted the deposed president with chants of “president” and “freedom”.
The mayors raised their walking sticks, a symbol of mayoral power in Spain, in the air at the end of his speech and the crowd sang the Catalan anthem.
“We will never renounce this ideal of a country, of this notion of democracy,” Mr Puigdemont told the mayors, gathered in a central Brussels art museum.
Flanked by four associates who fled Spain with him, Mr Puigdemont challenged the Spanish authorities and international community to accept the results of a snap Catalan election on December 21 if separatists win.
Mr Puigdemont and his colleagues could face 30 years in jail in Spain on charges of rebellion, sedition and embezzlement if Belgian justice authorities agree to extradite them.
Nine former Catalan government members have already been sent to jail in Spain. One of them was released on bail during the investigation.
Mr Puigdemont also challenged the EU to make its voice heard.
“Is this the Europe you want, is this the Europe you want to build, with a democratically-elected government in jail?” he said before a group of mayors held up big letters spelling “Help Catalonia”.
The leaders of all the EU’s main institutions are party allies of Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy.
They have refused to criticise his government and only reacted very cautiously to police violence during the October 1 independence referendum in Catalonia.
Hours earlier, Mr Puigdemont told Catalan public radio that there is an “absolute disconnect between the interests of the people and the European elites”, and that Catalonia’s problem is an “issue of human rights that requires maximum attention”.
Mr Puigdemont is fighting extradition to Spain, where other members of the ousted Cabinet have been sent to jail while awaiting the results of a probe for allegedly implementing a strategy to secede from Spain. His next hearing before a Belgian court is on November 17.
Catalan independence is now the second cause of concern for Spaniards, behind unemployment and ahead of corruption, according to the latest government-run poll.
Before the illegal independence referendum that deepened the political crisis, the issue was only ninth in the ranking of concerns by the CIS survey.
Spanish central authorities are now in direct control of the north-eastern region, where the early election next month is shaping into a tight race between separatist and pro-union forces.
The civil society group that spearheaded the Catalan bid for secession from Spain called for the region’s separatist political parties to run in a “unified pro-independence ticket”.
In a statement, Assemblea Nacional Catalana said such a joint coalition should include jailed separatist activists and the members of the deposed Catalan Cabinet as candidates.
The parties have until midnight to register an interest in forming coalitions.