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EU spurns Catalan independence declaration, backs Madrid

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BRUSSELS: The European Union on Friday spurned Catalonia’s declaration of independence, voicing staunch support for Madrid in a crisis threatening the stability of a key member of the bloc as Brussels grapples with Brexit.

President Donald Tusk said Madrid “remains our only interlocutor” after Catalan lawmakers voted to secede from Spain and appealed for a peaceful resolution to the rapidly escalating standoff.

Brussels and EU member states have been steadfast in their backing of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy since the Catalan crisis erupted, fearing it could pose a fresh threat to European unity as the bloc haggles with Britain over the terms of Brexit.

“For the EU nothing changes. Spain remains our only interlocutor. I hope the Spanish government favours force of argument, not argument of force,” Tusk tweeted.

Britain, France and Germany all swiftly closed ranks behind Rajoy and European Parliament chief Antonio Tajani tweeted that “nobody in the EU will recognise” the Catalan declaration.

Senior EU officials have been candid in their opposition to Catalan independence, warning of a domino effect in a continent with numerous separatist movements from Britain to Belgium to Romania.

European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker warned Friday that the 28-member bloc “doesn’t need any more cracks, more splits” during a trip to French Guiana in South America.

“We shouldn’t insert ourselves into what is an internal debate for Spain, but I wouldn’t want the European Union to consist of 95 member states in the future,” he added.

With the bloc only just beginning to contemplate an end to years of crisis — from the Greek debt nightmare to the tragedy of the Mediterranean migrant influx — and still shuddering from the earthquake of Brexit, a new blow to unity is the last thing the EU needs.

‘A question of Europe’

An EU source stressed Friday that the bloc’s treaties “only recognise Spain and its government as our member and only interlocutor on all issues related to Spain and its territory and constitution”.

“Further escalation must be avoided as this is bad for the Catalans, for Spain and for all of Europe,” the source said.

“The European Union is a community of Member States based on the rule of law.”

The bloc has also refused all calls to offer itself as mediator in the crisis, resisting Catalan efforts to internationalise the issue and backing Madrid’s position that the October 1 referendum was unconstitutional and therefore meaningless.

Spain is an important player in the EU — its fifth largest economy, part of the eurozone and the Schengen passport-free travel zone and home to more than nine percent of the bloc’s population.

As a result, Brussels could not be seen to go against Madrid, though the crisis has trapped the bloc between its principle of non-interference in member states’ internal affairs and its much-vaunted role as a champion of democracy and freedom of expression.

Earlier on Friday a senior EU official said Friday resolving the crisis in Catalonia was crucial to the whole of Europe, while again reiterating support for Rajoy.

“We have to respect the constitution and that’s extremely important for Europe — so it’s not a question of Spain, it’s a question of Europe,” Carlos Moedas, the European Commissioner for research, science and innovation, told reporters.

“We, as a European Union, have to be on the defence of the constitutional order of Spain.”

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