The EU executive urged Spain to talk to Catalan separatists on Monday, condemning violence but also calling for unity, a day after Spanish police beat people trying to vote in an independence referendum in Catalonia.
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Edging into a minefield it has tried hard to avoid, despite a danger for stability in Spain and the eurozone, the European Commission issued a balanced statement that voiced trust in Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy's ability to manage this "internal matter" but also called for dialogue and reminded Madrid of a need to respect citizens' basic rights.
"We call on all relevant players to now move very swiftly from confrontation to dialogue. Violence can never be an instrument in politics," the Commission said in a statement read out by chief spokesman Margaritis Schinas, shortly before Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont asked for EU mediation with Madrid.
Pressed by reporters, Schinas declined to say specifically that the EU was condemning Spanish police tactics, though it was their actions at polling stations on Sunday which mostly shocked fellow Europeans and generated public pressure that saw a number of other governments including Germany call for more dialogue.
Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker was to speak to Rajoy later on Monday after being in contact over the weekend, though the EU spokesman declined to say whether the Union would mediate in what would be an unusual step for Brussels to take within one of the bloc's own member states.
The Commission statement also supported Madrid's line that the vote, which Catalan leaders said recorded a huge result for independence, was "not legal" under Spain's constitution.
Catalan leader seeks EU mediation
Shortly afterwards, the leader of Catalonia called for international mediation to resolve the stand-off with Madrid. "It is not a domestic matter," Carles Puigdemont told a news conference later on Monday, disagreeing with the prime minister's characterization of the disagreement. "It's obvious that we need mediation."
"We don't want a traumatic break," Puigdemont said. "We want a new understanding with the Spanish state."
He urged Rajoy to say whether he was in favor of mediation in talks over the region's future, which he said should be overseen by the EU. He added that he had received no indication that the EU could sponsor this mediating role, and said Brussels had been timid and lacked courage on the matter.
Brussels has in the past given little or no encouragement to separatist movements inside the European Union, whether those of the Catalans, Scots, Flemings or others. "These are times for unity and stability, not divisiveness and fragmentation," it said. Any breakaway state would have to leave the EU and re-apply to join, the statement also noted.
Even that could only happen if the split were amicable. This distinguishes Scotland, which held a referendum agreed with London in 2014, from Catalonia, where Spain's Constitutional Court has said the 1978 constitution forbids secession.
On Monday, Justice Minister Rafael Catala said Spain could use its constitutional power to suspend Catalan's existing autonomy if the regional parliament declared independence. "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.
Unease in Europe
For all the reluctance of other Europeans to be drawn into the dispute in public, there has been growing unease in Brussels about the way the conservative government in Madrid has handled the confrontation with Barcelona, reviving emotions rooted in 20th-century civil war and dictatorship.
As pictures of heavily armored Spanish police clubbing women on the ground stunned Europe on Sunday, the few governments that spoke out included those of Scotland, Slovenia, which emerged from the bloody collapse of Yugoslavia, and Belgium, where repeated rounds of devolution have averted a final split between French- and Dutch-speakers.
On Monday, Berlin joined the calls for dialogue, warning against a "spiral of escalation". Germany's BDI industrial federation warned that splitting the highly industrialized region from Spain would be very damaging for both sides.