The European Commission threw beleaguered Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy a lifeline on Monday in the enfolding crisis triggered by the police suppression of Sunday’s Catalan referendum by saying that they saw the issue as an ‘internal matter’ for the country to deal with.
While condemning the violence, which saw almost 900 people injured after security forces closed polling stations and dispersed crowds of peaceful supporters of independence for the region with baton charges and rubber bullets, the Commission urged Spanish unity and talks between both sides in the dispute.
“We call on all relevant players to now move very swiftly from confrontation to dialogue. Violence can never be an instrument in politics,” the EU executive's chief spokesman Margaritis Schinas told a press briefing.
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Mr Schinas revealed that the Commission’s president Jean-Claude Juncker was to speak with the Spanish prime minister on Monday, and called for an end to the “divisiveness and fragmentation” which the Catalan referendum had brought about. He also refused to attribute blame for the “violence” which took place during voting in Sunday’s poll, which was illegal under Spain’s constitution.
“Under the Spanish constitution, yesterday's vote in Catalonia was not legal,” the Commission statement said. “For the European Commission, as President Juncker has reiterated repeatedly, this is an internal matter for Spain that has to be dealt in line with the constitutional order in Spain.”
Were Catalonia to secede from Spain, they would have to leave the EU and apply to rejoin – but their re-entry would have to be supported by Madrid. Relations between the Catalan authorities in Barcelona and the national government are at their lowest ebb in years.
“We also reiterate the legal opinion held by this Commission as well as by predecessors, namely that if a referendum were to be organised in line with the Spanish constitution it would mean that the territory leaving would find itself outside the European Union,” Mr Schinas said.
“Beyond the purely legal aspects of this matter, the Commission believes that these are times for unity and stability, not divisiveness and fragmentation.
“We trust the leadership of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy to manage this difficult process in full respect of the Spanish constitution and of the fundamental rights of citizens enshrined therein.”
The EU is haunted by the spectre of regional secession, as there are many countries across the 28-nation union which are also attempting to damp down the flames of nationalism in provinces with them.
In other developments, Carles Puigdemont, the leader of Catalonia, called for international mediation to resolve the stand-off that saw a day of uneasy peace on the streets of Barcelona before a general strike that has been called for Tuesday.
“It is not a domestic matter,” Mr Puigdemont told a news conference on Monday. “It’s obvious that we need mediation,” although he cast doubt on whether the EU could fulfil this role, saying that they had been timid and lacking courage in dealing with the affair so far. He pleaded with the Commission “to stop looking the other way” in relation to the referendum.
He doubled down on his declaration of Sunday night that “Catalonia's citizens had earned the right to have an independent state in the form of a republic”, saying that “there is no other option; the Catalan parliament must apply the results [of the referendum] and take political decisions.”
Mr Puigdemont also took aim at the Spanish security forces whose actions against peaceful demonstrators even shocked hardened journalists. “We demand the withdrawal of the state police forces that have been deployed in a country that has always acted peacefully,” he said.
The Catalan leader said he would oversee the setting up a commission to probe the alleged violation of “fundamental rights” which had taken place during the referendum process.
The Spanish government showed few signs of bowing to international outrage at the actions of security forces on Sunday. Justice minister Rafael Catala even threatened to use the constitutional power at his disposal to suspend Catalan’s existing autonomy, should Mr Puigdemont declare independence for the region.
“We will use the entire force of the law. Our obligation is to resolve problems and we’ll do it, even though using certain measures might hurt,” he said in a television interview.
Meanwhile, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, the UN high commissioner for human rights, said on Monday that “with hundreds of people reported injured, I urge the Spanish authorities to ensure thorough, independent and impartial investigations into all acts of violence. Police responses must at all times be proportionate and necessary.”
Attention now turns to Tuesday’s general strike, which was called on Sunday night by a collection of pro-independence groups and trade unions. The concern is that with tensions on the streets of Catalonia remaining high, any provocation on either side could lead to further violence.