Brussels defends use of ‘proportionate force’ in Catalonia
Thursday - 05/10/2017 09:45
In European Parliament debate, Commission First Vice President Frans Timmermans sides squarely with Madrid.
STRASBOURG — The Spanish government’s “proportionate use of force” in Catalonia was necessary to uphold the rule of law, the European Commission declared on Wednesday.
As the European Parliament opened a debate on the Catalonia crisis, Commission First Vice President Frans Timmermans sided unequivocally with the Madrid government.
Timmermans minced no words in condemning the effort to hold an independence referendum as a violation of the Spanish constitution and, therefore, as a threat to the rule of law in all EU countries.
His comments were met by the continuing fury and disbelief of Catalans who insist the referendum was intended as a democratic expression of free speech and self-determination.
The debate in Strasbourg was allowed to proceed only after Parliament leaders agreed to narrowly define the subject as “the rule of law and fundamental rights in Spain in light of the events in Catalonia” — a demand made by the European People’s Party, the largest political group, which includes Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy’s Popular Party.
Timmermans, in the opening address, said, “We have shaped our democratic societies based on three principles: democracy, respect for the rule of law and human rights … The three need each other, they cannot exclude each other.” He continued, “If you remove one pillar, then the others will fall too.”
“The regional government of Catalonia has chosen to ignore the law in organizing the referendum of last Sunday,” he said.
Perhaps most strikingly, Timmermans defended the use of force by the Spanish police on Sunday. The police action resulted in jarring images of voters, including women and elderly citizens, being dragged away from polling stations — a stunning scene of unrest in a large Western democracy.
“Let me be clear: Violence does not solve anything in politics. It is never an answer, never a solution. And it can never be used as a weapon or instrument,” he said.
“None of us want to see violence in our societies,” Timmermans went on. “However it is a duty for any government to uphold the law, and this sometimes does require the proportionate use of force.”
“The double standards of the Commission is something that leaps to the eye” — Ryszard Legutko, Polish MEP
Continuing his speech, he suggested that the Catalan authorities were demanding greater respect for their rights than they were willing to afford others in Spain.
“Freedom of expression is a fundamental right of all European citizens and thus for all Spanish citizens,” Timmermans said. “But one opinion is not more valuable than another opinion only because it is expressed more loudly.”
The debate was arranged in such a way that only group leaders — none of whom are Spanish — could speak. But during a separate session earlier on Wednesday, MEP Jordi Solé from the pro-independence Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya turned to Timmermans to say: “If European institutions keep saying that it’s all about the law, and nothing else than the law, and that it’s an internal matter, you will deserve the world record for turning Catalan pro-Europeans citizens into Euroskeptics.”
Ryszard Legutko, a Polish MEP who is co-leader of the European Conservatives and Reformists group, used the Catalan debate to slam Timmermans and the Commission for hypocrisy.
The European Commission repeatedly resorts to moralistic language, we just heard it,” said Legutko, whose country has been in a running battle over the rule of law with the Commission.
“When we view the action of the Commission in the handling of this particular situation in Catalonia, it looks more like a union of selective values. The double standards of the Commission is something that leaps to the eye. All are equal but some are more equal than others.”
“Let’s be honest,” he added. “If it was another member state, not Spain, the consequences and the rhetoric from the Commission would have been far harsher.”
At a briefing for journalists in Strasbourg, a senior Spanish diplomat pleaded for support for Madrid, describing the situation as a “coup” and warning that Catalan regional leader Carles Puigdemont may be “contemplating war.” The diplomat repeated Madrid’s flat rejection of an international mediator, calling it “out of the question.”
The diplomat said Madrid was open to dialogue with the regional Catalan authorities provided there was respect for Spanish law.
The leader of the center-right EPP, Manfred Weber, called the Catalonian government “irresponsible,” and said it was “splitting the country.” He called for dialogue, saying the conflict “can only be solved by the Spanish people themselves.”
Weber echoed the Commission’s warnings that Catalonia, even if it found a legal way to separate from Spain, would find itself outside the EU with no guarantee of returning. “Leaving the internal market, leaving the Schengen area and leaving Eurozone: is this really the Catalans’ best interest?” he asked.
Gianni Pittella, the Italian leader of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (SPD), dismissed the referendum as “useless” and urged Catalan authorities not to declare independence, warning that “it could trigger new confrontation and new disasters.”
Belgian MEP and former prime minister Guy Verhofstadt, leader of Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe, urged both sides to meet at a negotiating table. “The future of Catalonia as in my own Flemish region lies not in brutal separation,” Verhofstadt said.
“This crisis is not unfamiliar to us. We can’t accept politics based on violence in the EU” — Patrick Le Hyarric, French MEP
So far, however, Madrid has indicated no willingness to negotiate with the Catalans and has effectively demanded a complete surrender.
Support for Madrid was hardly unanimous in the Parliament, though leaders sought to limit the debate in part to restrict the number of pro-Catalan speakers.
Patrick Le Hyarric, a French MEP from the far-left GUE group, criticized EU countries who “turn a blind eye” on Catalonia while “the nation is ripping itself apart.”
“The EU must condemn the violation of the fundamental rights,” Le Hyarric said. “This crisis is not unfamiliar to us. We can’t accept politics based on violence in the EU.”