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article imageEU swings behind Madrid in escalating Catalan crisis

By Damon WAKE (AFP)     Oct 19, 2017 in World

The EU closed ranks behind Spain in the Catalan crisis Thursday, saying there was "no space" for outside intervention by the bloc as France and Germany voiced strong support for Madrid.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron threw their weight behind Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy in the dramatically escalating standoff over Catalonia's independence drive at a summit of EU leaders in Brussels.

As the Spanish government vowed to take back powers from the Catalan regional government and its leader warned he could declare independence, EU 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, the EU's most powerful leader, said as she arrived for the summit.

"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.

- 'A Spanish problem' -

Tusk said he was in "permanent contact" with Rajoy but EU sources said the Spanish premier did not raise the Catalan issue during afternoon talks in Brussels.

"I don't expect wide discussion or debate about the situation (at the summit). It's not on our agenda," Tusk said.

Another EU official said no statement from leaders was expected on the subject.

Rajoy waved to waiting journalists but remained silent as he arrived at the summit building, where he was greeted with a bear hug by European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker.

Luxembourg's Prime Minister Xavier Bettel reiterated the oft-rehearsed European line that the crisis in Catalonia was an internal matter for Madrid.

"The Catalan problem is above all a Spanish problem, it must be resolved in Spain." he said.

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.

Puigdemont says his regional administration has a mandate to declare independence from what he says was a 90-percent "Yes" vote in a referendum on October 1.

Spain -- and its EU partners -- have refused to recognise the vote, saying it was conducted in defiance of court rulings deeming it illegal and unconstitutional.

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