STRASBOURG, France, Oct 4 – The EU said Wednesday it was “time to talk” to resolve the escalating political crisis in Catalonia, as senior European politicians warned Catalan leaders against declaring independence from Spain unilaterally.
Backing Madrid’s right to use “proportionate” force to maintain law and order, the European Commission said the weekend’s Catalan independence referendum was illegal.
Catalonia’s leader has vowed to declare independence within days, claiming a mandate from Sunday’s vote which was outlawed by Madrid and the Spanish courts and marred by violence.
During an emergency debate on Spain’s worst political crisis in decades, the leaders of the three main political blocs in the European Parliament all warned against such a move, saying it would inflame an already volatile situation still further.
European Commission Vice President Frans Timmermans told MEPs the Catalan regional government had “chosen to ignore the law” in organising Sunday’s vote, but called for dialogue.
“It’s time to talk, finding a way out of the impasse, working within the constitutional order of Spain,” Timmermans said.
Images of the police crackdown on the vote drew a vocal reaction from some MEPs, with Belgium’s Philippe Lamberts, the head of the Green grouping in parliament, warning the crisis “threatened the spirit of European integration, even more than Brexit”.
The commission, the bloc’s executive arm, has steadfastly stuck to its position that the crisis is an internal matter for Spain, and while he called images from Sunday “saddening”, Timmermans defended Madrid’s right to use force to keep the peace.
“None of us want to see violence in our societies. However it is, of course, a duty for any government to uphold the rule of law and this sometimes does require the proportionate use of force,” he said.
Catalonia’s leader Carles Puigdemont told the BBC his administration would act at the end of this week or the beginning of next to declare independence, defying a stern call for national unity from King Felipe VI.
Gianni Pittella, the head of the socialists’ bloc in the European Parliament, warned against such a move, reiterating the commission’s call for dialogue.
“A unilateral declaration of independence would amount to a further provocation, which would throw oil on the fire after Sunday’s meaningless referendum,” he told MEPs.
Manfred Weber, head of the European People’s Party (EPP) group and a key ally of Chancellor Angela Merkel said what the continent needed was “not more nationalism but more cooperation”.
He also stressed that if Catalonia left Spain, it would also leave the EU a position stated repeatedly by the commission and President Jean-Claude Juncker in recent weeks.
Esteban Gonzalez Pons, an MEP from Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy’s Popular Party, rejected calls for mediation, saying Spain did not need “looking after”.
“If today you let Spain break up with Catalonia, a domino effect will follow across the continent. Instead of a Europe of 27, we will have a non-Europe of mini-states,” he said.
The European Commission, the EU’s executive arm, broke weeks of silence on Monday to call for dialogue but stressed that it still regarded the vote as an “internal matter” for Spain, drawing criticism from Catalan separatists.