Main groups in European Parliament urge immediate dialogue

MEPs reject a unilateral declaration of independence and say referendum was illegal

The European Parliament on Wednesday held a plenary session to discuss the situation in Catalonia. The debate, led by Commission First Vice-President Frans Timmermans, discussed the Constitution, the rule of law and fundamental rights in Spain.

Members of the European Parliament pose with a Catalan secessionist flag during the debate
Members of the European Parliament pose with a Catalan secessionist flag during the debatePATRICK SEEGER (EFE)

What emerged is that the biggest groups in the chamber – the European People’s Party (EPP), the Social Democrats (S&D) and the liberals (ALDE) – consider the Catalan referendum to be illegal, and that the Catalan government’s moves are harmful to the rule of law.

But there was also criticism for Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy from minority groups, and a general call for political dialogue between all the relevant actors.

The chamber urged Catalan premier Carles Puigdemont not to take any irreversible steps – meaning a unilateral declaration of independence – and asked all parties to sit down and talk.

Respect for the rule of law is not optional, it is fundamental Frans Timmermans, European Commission First Vice-President

“Respect for the rule of law is not optional, it is fundamental” said Timmermans, the first speaker at the session, in his opening remarks. “If the law does not give you what you want, you can oppose the law, you can work to change the law, but you cannot ignore the law.”

After defending the right to freedom of expression for everyone, Timmermans noted that “one opinion is not more valid than another opinion just because it is expressed more loudly,” alluding to Catalan separatists. “As the Commission has stated, under the Spanish Constitution, Sunday’s vote in Catalonia was not legal. Looking ahead, it is clear that an agreed way forward is needed in Spain.”

Timmermans noted that the European Commission has asked all relevant actors “to now move quickly from confrontation to dialogue. All lines of communication must stay open.”

In his seven-minute address, the social-democrat stressed that “the development of Spain since the Spanish people liberated themselves from dictatorship is one of the greatest success stories Europe has seen in its history.” Timmermans ended with an impassioned plea for the parties involved to draw inspiration from Spain’s remarkable transformation and “leave behind the path of confrontation and follow the road of cooperation and dialogue to solve the situation.”

Manfred Weber, of the European People’s Party (EPP), said that “violence is never an answer” and added that “what’s at stake here is the integrity of a EU member state.”

“We defend freedom of demonstration, but demonstrations cannot replace the democratic decision-making process. Mass demonstrations in Barcelona will not change the constitution of Spain. Only democratic institutions can do so. Nobody, not even the Catalan government, is allowed to disregard the law. It is unacceptable that a few Catalan politicians encourage civil servants, officials and citizens to break the law,” said Weber.

What’s at stake here is the integrity of a EU member state Manfred Weber, of the European People’s Party

The Social Democrat Gianni Pitella, who also expressed criticism for Spanish PM Mariano Rajoy, stated that “a unilateral declaration of independence would be an additional provocation, after a referendum that violates the Spanish constitution and the rule of law.”

The liberals were also critical of the separatists’ plans. Guy Verhofstadt, of ALDE, declared himself “a big admirer of Spanish democracy, especially since the dramatic date of February 23, 1981,” a reference to a failed coup in Congress that Spaniards stood up against, and which means, said Verhofstadt, that nobody can give Spain lessons in democracy.

Now, he said, Spanish democracy must overcome this new existential crisis with something more than actions by the judiciary and the use of force. He called for political vision and an inclusive dialogue between the parties.

“To my friends in Catalonia: I think it is not in the citizens’ best interest to pursue separatism at all costs. The referendum lacked basic democratic legitimacy,” he said. “You knew in advance that a majority of Catalans would not participate. And it’s not by coincidence that you did not even establish a minimum threshold. So the result of this referendum was already known before it began. What do you call this? Manipulation, deception. To declare independence on the basis of a defective referendum is totally irresponsible – and not so much for Spain or Europe, but for Catalonia. It will cause a fracture in your society that may be impossible to heal.”

Verhofstadt warned that anti-Europeans are already “abusing your cause” as a tool in their own fight against Brussels.

Minority groups in the European chamber placed the stress on Spain’s use of force, rather than the legality of the separatist drive.

If it had been another member state, not Spain, the rhetoric from the Commission would have been far harsher

Ryszard Legutko, European Conservatives and Reformists

Ryszard Legutko, of the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR), accused the EC of “double moral standards” in light of its lukewarm position on the events of Sunday, when riot police clashed with thousands of would-be voters across Catalonia in images that were beamed all over the world.

“If it had been another member state, not Spain, the rhetoric from the Commission would have been far harsher,” said Legutko, who is from Poland, a country that has been targeted for EU sanctions over its judiciary reforms. Marcel De Graaf, of the far-right Europe of Nations and Freedom (ENF), expressed a similar opinion.

Patrick Le Hyaric, of the European United Left-Nordic Green Left (GUE-NGL), asked Brussels for “an express condemnation of violence and repression in Catalonia without any further delay.”

Britain’s Raymond Fynch, a euro-skeptic with Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy, went so far as to erroneously claim there had been military action in Catalonia on Sunday: “The Spanish government has now sent the army into Catalonia, this is not a good sign.”

English version by Susana Urra.

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