Top EU officials rally behind Spanish PM over Catalan poll

Senior European Union officials and lawmakers rallied Wednesday behind embattled Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, condemning the authorities in Catalonia for holding an illegal referendum on independence that has plunged Spain into political crisis.

European Commission Vice-President Frans Timmermans led a chorus of criticism of Sunday's violence-marred vote in the northern Spanish region. He made no mention of the almost 900 people hurt in the police action to stop the poll.

Wary of interfering in Spain's domestic affairs, the EU representatives called for talks between the government in Madrid and Catalan authorities, but shied away from suggesting that the bloc could play a peacemaking role, despite appeals from Catalonia for European mediation.

"There is a general consensus that the regional government of Catalonia has chosen to ignore the law," Timmermans told the lawmakers at the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France.

"Respect for the rule of law is not optional, it is fundamental," he said. "You cannot ignore the law."

Not all of the lawmakers backed the senior officials' position, however. A Catalan flag was removed from the plenary at the demand of a Spanish lawmaker, while some parliamentarians displayed signs supporting the referendum or calling for Rajoy to resign.

Urging the pro-European region's representatives and Rajoy's government to come to the negotiating table, Timmermans said: "All lines of communication must stay open. It's time to talk, to find a way out of the impasse."

The head of the biggest political group in the parliament, Manfred Weber — a Rajoy ally — said he was "very sorry for all those who were hurt,"Catalan citizens and police alike, but warned that demonstrations cannot replace democratic processes.

He saw no European mediation role, saying "the EU has neither the will nor the right to intervene in a true liberal democracy such as Spain."

Weber also had another warning for pro-European Catalonia: "Please keep in mind; who leaves Spain, leaves the European Union."

Greens group leader Ska Keller was one of the few to condemn the police crackdown against what was, in the main, passive resistance.

"This was massive police violence against people and that was beyond any proportionality. Violence so disproportionate cannot be justified. No buts and no excuses, whatever you think about the referendum," she said.

She said that Rajoy's strategy of using justice and police means to thwart the poll rather than dialogue has failed. Keller also accused the EU Commission of sitting on the fence and failing in its duty as the enforcer of EU laws.


Raf Casert in Brussels contributed.