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EU leaders decline to mediate over Catalonia

October 20, 2017

European Union leaders have declined to help mediate in the crisis over Catalonia, saying it was for Madrid and Barcelona to resolve. A Spanish cabinet meeting to decide on measures, and rallies in Barcelona come next.

A man with a backpack in the colors of a Catalan separatist flag
Image: Reuters/G. Fuentes

European Council President Donald Tusk told reporters during an EU summit in Brussels on Thursday that the Catalan crisis was not on their agenda.

"All of us have our own emotions, opinions, assessments but formally speaking there is no space for an EU intervention," Tusk said. "Member states are clear there is no room or space for any kind of mediation," he added. 

Catalan President Carles Puigdemont, ignored a Thursday morning deadline to drop his secession campaign, and wrote a letter to Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy threatening a formal declaration of independence: "If the State Government persists in blocking dialogue and the repression continues, the Parliament of Catalonia will proceed, if deemed appropriate, to vote on the formal declaration of independence."  

Belgien EU-Gipfel
Image: Reuters/V. Mayo

Rajoy and Article 155

Rajoy plans to invoke Article 155 of the 1978 constitution, which allows for taking control of a region if it breaks the law. A special cabinet meeting is scheduled for Saturday to draw up a list of measures for the Spanish Senate to approve.

Measures being considered are reportedly removing Puigdemont's presidential powers, rescinding regional control over education and schools, calling fresh elections and dissolving the regional parliament and taking control of public media which are seen as mouthpieces for Catalonia's pro-independence ruling coalition.
So far Puigdemont has only called for negotiations with the Spanish government in Madrid and international mediators. 

As Brexit talks get bogged down, few EU leaders want to add to the bloc's complications. As one senior EU diplomat told the news agency Reuters: "There is not much to gain from backing Barcelona and a lot to lose from angering Madrid."

From Scotland to Flanders to Kosovo, there is concern in Brussels that Catalonia could set an unwelcome precedent.

Constitutional solutions

"We back the position of the Spanish government," German Chancellor Angela Merkel said in Brussels and said later she hoped there would be solutions based "on the grounds of the Spanish constitution."

"It's an internal Spanish matter," Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte told reporters.

This was echoed by French President Emmanuel Macron, who held a private meeting with Rajoy on the sidelines of the summit. "He (Macron) has complete confidence in Rajoy to resolve the situation," a French diplomat told Reuters. Macron told reporters the summit would be "marked by a message of unity" with Madrid.

Supporting a united Spain

Independence a messy business

Catalonia's 7.5 million residents are divided on whether to break away from the rest of Spain. Many voters who oppose independence stayed away from the referendum, which was declared illegal by Spain's Constitutional Court.

Joan Tarda, spokesman from the leftist ERC party which is part of Puigdemont's coalition, told lawmakers in Madrid that the Catalan government would not call elections.

Catalonia's La Vanguardia which is Spain's second biggest newspaper, has urged Puigdemont to back down and call elections. "There's no dignity in collective suicide, even less so when it's decided by one person and everyone suffers," it said in an editorial.

A Russian affair

Russian President Vladimir Putin also said the Catalan crisis was Spain's internal affair.

He criticized what he called Western "double standards" over separatist movements - backing Kosovo's but not others.

Even in Western Balkan countries aspiring to join the EU, there is a reluctance to fuel calls for regional autonomy at home. Spain is one of five EU countries that has yet to recognize Kosovo's independence.

Showdown in Spain

jbh/jm (Reuters, AFP, AP)