Carles Puigdemont said on Tuesday that the fight for Catalan independence would continue following his decision to flee to Belgium, but refused to return to Spain unless he was guaranteed a fair trial.
The sacked leader of Catalonia faces a possible 30-year jail sentence on charges of rebellion and sedition after declaring Spain’s richest region an independent republic and precipitating Madrid’s worst constitutional crisis since the death of Franco.
On Tuesday, Spain’s top criminal court said it had summoned Mr Puigdemont and 13 other former members of his government for questioning.
The 14 have been summoned to appear in court on Thursday and Friday and were given three days to pay a combined deposit against potential penalties of €6.2 million euros (£5.4 million), the court said in a statement.
If Mr Puigdemont or any of the accused refused to travel from Belgium for their court appearance, the judge could request a European arrest warrant to have them detained.
In a packed and chaotic press conference in Brussels, he said he would accept snap 21 December elections called by Spain, which stripped the region of its autonomous powers after it held an illegal referendum on 1 October.
“I ask the Catalan people to prepare for a long road. Democracy will be the foundation of our victory,” Mr Puigdemont said at the press conference, which was picketed by anti-independence protesters and conducted in French, Spanish, Catalan and English.
Flanked by six former ministers and with a police guard, the former president said he would not claim political asylum in Belgium and claimed he could fulfil his duties with part of his ousted government outside of Spain.
After insisting he had fled to protect his fellow Catalans from Spanish government violence, Mr Puigdemont said he had come to Brussels because it was the capital of the European Union.
“Here we have better guarantees for our rights here and we can meet our obligations from here,” he said at the press conference held in the very heart of the EU quarter.
His hopes to drum up support for EU mediation in the crisis appear doomed to failure. The European Commission has stood solidly behind Mariano Rajoy’s government and a judgement by Spain’s constitutional court that the referendum was illegal.
Charles Michel, the prime minister of Belgium, said that Mr Puigdemont would be treated like any other European Union citizen “no more, no less”. His migration minister, a Flemish nationalist, had previously suggested asylum could be possible.
Asked when, or if, he would return to Barcelona, Mr Puigdemont said: “We are seeking guarantees from the Madrid government, on this will depend whether we return to Catalonia.
“If they can guarantee to all of us, and to me, a just, independent process, with the separation of powers that we have in the majority of European nations – if they guarantee that, we would return immediately.”
Outside about 50 protesters sang ‘Viva Espana’ and chanted “I am Spanish, I am Catalan”. They booed and jeered Mr Puigdemont as he was hustled to a waiting car.
One of their number, Antonio Campuzano, 56, who is from Barcelona but lives in Brussels, told The Telegraph Mr Puigdemont was “a coward” who had “jumped ship”.
Pro-unity Catalans rally to reject declaration of independence from Spain
Mr Puigdemont and six members of his regional government had driven to Marseilles before taking a flight to Brussels on Monday from France in an escape that exposed divisions in the former Catalan government.
Santi Vila, who resigned from Mr Puigdemont’s cabinet on the eve of last Friday’s declaration of independence, said that “independence must be sought within the law”.
He added that he would try to convince the PDeCAT party to select him as candidate or ally himself with other like-minded Catalan nationalists “to ensure that moderation held sway”.
Xavier Garcia Albiol, the leader of Mr Rajoy’s Popular Party in Catalonia said he felt “ashamed that the former president of the Catalan government should go to the heart of Europe to lie about Catalonia and Spain”.
Back in Spain, Catalonia’s ousted vice president, Oriol Junqueras, called a mini-cabinet meeting with four other members of the region’s deposed government. They met in Catalonia’s parliament building after Mr Puigdemont’s press conference, but made no statement of their own as to any agreements reached.
Meanwhile, the speaker of Catalonia’s parliament, Carme Forcadell, and five members of her steering committee were summoned for interrogation by an investigating judge at Spain’s supreme court on Thursday and Friday.
Just like the 14 members of Mr Puigdemont’s erstwhile regional government, all six have been accused by Spain’s public prosecution office of the crimes of rebellion, sedition and misuse of funds for their part in allowing unconstitutional laws to be voted on in Catalonia’s parliament, culminating in the declaration of independence.
Also on Tuesday, agents from Spain’s military Guardia Civil police seized recordings of communications from Catalonia’s Mosso d’Esquadra security force as part of a judicial investigation into an apparent unwillingness to prevent the illegal referendum of October 1 from taking place.
The now-dismissed chief of the Mossos, Josep Lluís Trapero, is also facing a possible charge of sedition for allegedly refusing to follow court orders aimed at preventing the ballot which saw hundreds of voters beaten and manhandled by Spain’s national police and Guardia Civil.