The minister-president of Flanders, Geert Bourgeois, has ordered the Flemish government delegate to return from Spain, reports the newspaper De Standaard.
A month ago, the Spanish foreign affairs ministry withdrew diplomatic status from André Hebbelinck, the Flemish delegate to Spain, in response to comments from the speaker of the Flemish Parliament, Jan Peumans. Peumans had strongly criticised the imprisonment of the pro-independence leaders and questioned the quality of Spanish democracy.
Now, Bourgeois, has decided to call Hebbelinck back to Belgium. He wants to encourage Spain to restart normal relations after a reaction which "has never before occurred in the European Union" he describes as "unwarranted". The newspaper says their is no question of an apology from Flanders, quoting Bourgeois as saying "there is freedom of speech and separation of powers".
The Flemish minister-president also urged Spain to restore diplomatic relations. "The ball is now in their camp," he said.
Spanish diplomatic sources, however, have insisted that having taken the decision to revoke Hebbelinck's diplomatic status, "it's not to be changed after a couple of days". The only option they've suggested which could lead to it being reverted is if Flanders makes some "gestures". For example, some kind of political statement that "there are things which aren't appropriate", namely, comments like Peumans'.
The sources said the foreign ministry has been "prudent" and that they could have opted for a more drastic measure like declaring Hebbelinck persona non grata. "There were various warnings, and despite there being repeated statements from Peumans, we opted for the path of withdrawing his diplomatic status," they said. Spain summonsed the Belgian ambassador to Spain as many as four times before taking the decision, they added.
Despite the recent diplomatic tensions, both Spain's ambassador to Belgium, Beatriz Larrotcha, and Bourgeois are prepared to meet. There are different explanations as to why no meeting has yet happened, having been proposed weeks ago by the Flemish minister-president. The embassy says its doors remain open and that it's responded positively to the requests from Bourgeois' cabinet. The cabinet, however, disagrees.
"We've repeatedly invited the Spanish ambassador, sadly we've not yet received a positive response to the invitations", Flemish officials told ACN. One of the stumbling blocks is over the manner of the meeting, as the embassy refuses to be "summonsed", looking for a meeting in either their building or a more neutral location.