The president of the European commission has spoken of his regret at Spain’s failure to follow his advice and do more to head off the crisis in Catalonia, but claimed that any EU intervention on the issue now would only cause “a lot more chaos”.
Speaking to students in Luxembourg on Friday, Jean-Claude Juncker said he had told the Spanish prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, that his government needed to act to stop the Catalan situation spinning out of control, but that the advice had gone unheeded.
“For some time now I asked the Spanish prime minister to take initiatives so that Catalonia wouldn’t run amok,” he said. “A lot of things were not done.”
Juncker said that while he wished to see Europe remain united, his hands were tied when it came to Catalan independence.
“People have to undertake their responsibility,” he said. “I would like to explain why the commission doesn’t get involved in that. A lot of people say: ‘Juncker should get involved in that.’
“We do not do it because if we do … it will create a lot more chaos in the EU. We cannot do anything. We cannot get involved in that.”
Juncker said that while he often acted as a negotiator and facilitator between member states, the commission could not mediate if calls to do so came only from one side – in this case, the Catalan government.
Rajoy has rejected calls for mediation, pointing out that the recent Catalan independence referendum was held in defiance of the Spanish constitution and the country’s constitutional court.
“There is no possible mediation between democratic law and disobedience or illegality,” he said on Wednesday.
Despite his refusal to intervene, however, Juncker warned the international community that the political crisis in Spain could not be ignored.
“OK, nobody is shooting anyone in Catalonia – not yet at least. But we shouldn’t understate that matter, though,” he added.
The commission president also spoke more generally about the fragmentation of national identities within Europe, saying he feared that if Catalonia became independent, other regions would follow.
“I am very concerned because the life in communities seems to be so difficult,” he said. “Everybody tries to find their own in their own way and they think that their identity cannot live in parallel to other people’s identity.
“But if you allow – and it is not up to us of course – but if Catalonia is to become independent, other people will do the same. I don’t like that. I don’t like to have a euro in 15 years that will be 100 different states. It is difficult enough with 17 states. With many more states it will be impossible.”
Juncker’s comments came as the Catalan president, Carles Puigdemont, found himself under increasing pressure over his decision on Tuesday to sign a unilateral declaration of independence but propose that its effects be suspended for a few weeks to allow for dialogue.
Rajoy has told Puigdemont that he has until Monday to confirm whether or not independence has been declared, and until next Thursday to abandon his push for independence or face the suspension of the region’s autonomy and the imposition of direct rule from Madrid.
On Friday, Spain’s deputy prime minister, Soraya Sáenz de Santamaría, said the regional government’s behaviour was damaging the region’s economy and asked Puigdemont to put an end to instability by re-establishing “institutional normality” as soon as possible.
Sáenz de Santamaría told the Catalan president that the central government was prepared to discuss the issue in parliament if he stopped ignoring Spanish law. She also reminded him that Rajoy and the Spanish socialist party had already agreed to establish a commission to investigate possible changes to the way the country’s autonomous regions are governed.
“That would allow him [Puigdemont] to set out his thoughts, his proposals and his plans,” she said. “Nothing in our constitutional framework is immutable – anything can be discussed. But it has to be done by respecting the rules of the democratic game and the rights of our citizens.”
Meanwhile, Puigdemont’s junior coalition partners, the far-left separatist party CUP, urged him to ignore pressure from the Spanish government, abandon the suspension and move to a definitive proclamation of independence.
The call was backed by the Catalan National Assembly, the main pro-independence civil society group in the region. In a statement, it said that Rajoy’s refusal to talk meant it no longer made sense “to keep the suspension of the independence declaration”.