Only Belgium breaks ranks in EU unity with Madrid

Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy dissolved the Catalan government. [Council]

As the Spanish government vowed to take back powers from the Catalan regional government, EU leaders closed ranks behind Madrid on the first day of the EU summit yesterday (19 October), with only Belgium’s Prime Minister Charles Michel urging moderation and dialogue.

Officially Catalonia is not on the EU summit agenda, but in fact, it was “the elephant in the room”, as many sources reveal. German Chancellor Merkel and the Prime Minister of Luxembourg Xavier Bettel said on the record it was one of the issues to be discussed, and Bulgarian Prime Minister Borissov said Rajoy had actually informed leaders of the situation.

Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron threw their weight behind Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy in the dramatically escalating standoff over Catalonia’s independence drive.

Spain moves to suspend Catalonia's autonomy

Spain will move to suspend Catalonia’s autonomy, the government said on Thursday (18 October), after Catalan President Carles Puigdemont refused to drop the region’s drive to break away from Madrid following the 1 October independence vote.

Speaking to the press before the dinner, Council President Donald Tusk scotched any notion the bloc could step in or mediate.

“We have all of us our own emotions, opinions and assessments but formally speaking there is no space for EU intervention here,” Tusk told a news conference at the summit.

Brussels has insisted the dispute over Catalonia’s independence referendum is an internal matter for key EU member Spain, resisting Catalan efforts to internationalise the issue and backing Madrid’s position that the vote was illegal.

“We back the position of the Spanish government,” Merkel said as she arrived for the summit. She added: “We hope there are solutions found on the basis of the Spanish constitution.”

France has been outspoken in its support of the Madrid government during the crisis, Spain’s worst in decades, triggered by Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont holding a banned referendum on splitting from Spain.

Macron recently charged that the separatists were motivated in part by “economic selfishness”.

The French president told reporters in Brussels he expected the 28 EU leaders to voice solid support for Madrid.

“This European Council will be marked by a message of unity – unity with our member states facing crises, unity with Spain and very strong unity in discussions about Brexit,” he said.

But Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel, whose ruling coalition at home includes Flemish separatists, urged moderation and dialogue.

“I appeal for a de-escalation, I don’t think we will find a solution that is in everyone’s interest through political escalation,” Michel said.

Michel caused consternation in Madrid the day after the Catalan referendum in which Spanish police cracked down hard to try to prevent voting, sending a tweet condemning the use of violence.

A leaked letter by the Spanish government to the Belgian embassy speaks of “stupefaction” over statements by Michel reported by the Belgian daily Le Soir on the situation in Catalonia, in which he condemned the police violence on 1 October, the day of the referendum.

“We fail to understand how a partner country can make such statements, which seriously endanger our bilateral relations. […] We find it completely unacceptable that the Belgian government puts itself at the same level as a regional government which breaks in a flagrant way the legal order of a member state,” the statement reads.

Ironically, Michel and Rajoy were seated next to each other at the summit table, and cameras revealed a body language speaking volumes about the temperature of their relationship.

Rajoy made no statements after the end of the first day of the summit.