Sunday

24th Mar 2019

EU urges Spanish and Catalan leaders to talk

  • EU asks Catalan and Spanish leaders Puigdemont (l) and Rajoy (r) to "please sit together" and resume their previous meetings (here picture in 2016). (Photo: president.cat)

MEPs and the European Commission have urged the Spanish and Catalan authorities to break their political deadlock and avoid further escalation in the crisis over the push for the region's independence - but ruled out any direct mediation.

In an emergency debate organised in the European Parliament in Strasbourg on Wednesday (4 October), three days after an illegal referendum was marked by police violence, politicians from all sides insisted that dialogue was the only solution.

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"It's time to talk," said Commission's first vice president Frans Timmermans.

"It is clear that an agreed way forward is needed in Spain," he said, appealing to "the power of dialogue, of sitting down and talking to each other even if, and especially when, we passionately disagree."

"All lines of communication must stay open," he added, insisting that Madrid and Barcelona must "find a way out of the impasse, working within the constitutional order of Spain."

Timmermans, who opened the debate, laid out the delicate balance that the EU has been trying to reach in recent days: defending a member state faced with a risk of break up while signaling that Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy must show some restraint.

Commission condemned for Sunday silence

"We've all seen saddening images," he said, in an effort to alleviate criticism after the EU executive failed to clearly condemn violence by the Guardia Civil on Sunday.

"Violence doesn't solve anything in politics," he said. "It is never an answer, never a solution and it can never be used a weapon or an instrument."

But he added that "it is a duty to any government to uphold the rule of law and this sometimes requires proportionate use of force."

Timmermans, who is the commissioner in charge of rule of law and fundamental rights, recalled that the EU is based on democracy, respect for the rule of law and human rights.

"The three need each other, you cannot use one against the others, he said.

"There is a general consensus that the government of Catalonia has chosen to ignore the law when organising the referendum held last Sunday," he noted.

"If the law doesn't give you what you want, you can oppose the law, you can work to change the law, but you cannot ignore the law," he said in his most direct condemnation of the Catalan separatists.

Referring to the Catalan separatists movements that demonstrate regularly, the Dutch commissioner added that while "freedom of expression is a fundamental right for European citizens … one opinion is not more valuable than another because it is expressed more loudly."

The argument was hammered home by Manfred Weber, the leader of the centre-right EPP group, Rajoy's political family.

"It's not protest on the street but the process of democracy that will decide the future" of Spain, he said.

Weber insisted that an "irresponsible government in Catalonia in splitting the country" and that "what is at stake is the integrity of a member state".

Independence - but without euro, Schengen, single market?

He called on Catalan separatists not to "take irreversible steps" and warned that an independent Catalonia would leave the EU, the single market, the Schengen area and the eurozone.

"Is it really the Catalans' best interest?" he asked.

Weber, like Timmermans urged for dialogue and implicitly called on his fellow EPP member Rajoy to change his strategy.

"We appeal to everybody: please sit together," he said, adding that "dialogue has to be frank".

Weber's call on Rajoy echoed concerns within his EPP group.

"Everyone knows that we are in system where, if no one makes the first step, nothing will be solved," one MEP told EUobserver.

He said that his Spanish colleagues were "worried about the capacity of some members of the Spanish government to re-establish dialogue".

But signals from Madrid were still of a tough line, one day after Rajoy's position was confirmed by the king.

In a stern address to the country on Tuesday evening, Felipe VI said the separatists' "irresponsible conduct … could put at risk the economic and social stability of Catalonia and all of Spain"

"It is the responsibility of the legitimate state powers to ensure constitutional order," he added.

In Strasbourg on Wednesday, Spanish sources said that the government was prepared to launch different plans, depending on the Catalan separatists next steps.

Article 155 of the Spanish constitution, which allows for a direct rule of the autonomous region by the central government, could be applied progressively.

But dialogue seemed excluded with the Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont as long as he would not come back to the constitutional legality.

Some in the Spanish government are now thinking that only new elections in Catalonia and the arrival of new leaders in the region would allow a dialogue between Madrid and Barcelona, according to the sources.

In the European Parliament, MEPs also called on Puigdemont to refrain from declaring Catalonia's independence.

"A unilateral declaration of independence can only lead to further conflicts, to further disasters. It cannot be otherwise," warned Gianni Pittella, the leader of the centre-left S&D group.

Citing the late French president Francois Mitterrand, he said that in Europe, 'nationalism is war.'

Guy Verhofstadt, the leader of the liberal Alde group also appelaed to history.

"The spirit there [in Catalonia] has to be the understanding that the future of more than 70 European nations, the future of Catalonia, the future of my own Flemish community lies not in brutal separation, but lies in cooperation, cooperation inside federal structures in a federal Europe, he said.

"Look to your own Basque countrymen. Look what they have achieved. How they have developed their country. Defeating terrorism, and reinventing themselves, proud and autonomous."

Ska Keller, the co-chair of the Green group, who has been one of the first to call for the debate, said that "Rajoy has escalated the situation" when on Sunday "the riot police met people with brutality".

She said that "the Spanish government and the Catalan government have to take responsibility and find a common solution" and called for an EU mediation.

Commission as common broker?

"It is [the commission's] duty, as the guardian of the treaties, to get involved and offer help in solving the conflict," she argued. "The commission can be a common broker here.

The call was not addressed by commissioner Timmermans, who repeated the Commission line that the whole issue is a domestic issue.

While Catalan leaders have called for a EU mediation, the Spanish government totally opposes it.

For Madrid, it would unacceptable to have a external player who would put on the same level Spain, and a part of Spain that is acting illegally, according to Spanish sources.

Catalonia to declare independence in a few days

Spain's king, Felipe VI, said Catalonia's leaders were breaking up the country's unity as hundreds of thousands of Catalans rallied against police violence at Sunday's referendum.

EU 'embarrassed' by Catalan 'taboo'

Faced with the growing tension between the Spanish and Catalan governments, the member states and EU institutions would prefer not to get involved.

Catalonia's separatists claim victory after violent day

"The citizens of Catalonia have won the right to an independent state," the region's leader, Carles Puigdemont, said at the end of a day marked by Spanish police violence inside and outside polling stations.

Catalan leader sends mixed message on independence

In a speech on Wednesday evening, Carles Puigdemont gave no concrete indication of his intentions as his plan to declare Catalonia's independence from Spain has met strong opposition in Europe.

Thousands march for Catalonia in Brussels

Around 45,000 people marched in support of Catalonia in Brussels to get the EU involved in mediating the conflict with Madrid. 'Europe must realise that it can still play a role in the Catalan crisis,' said self-exiled Catalan leader Puigdemont.

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