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EU: not much support for Catalan yearning for independence

media Pro-independence protester in Barcelona, Catalonia, Spain. REUTERS/Yves Herman

The European Commission waited until Monday afternoon before coming out with a statement on the Catalan independence referendum. When they did, it was non-committal and received with disappointment in Barcelona. But Brussels may have a lot to lose from a breakaway region, fearing a domino effect that may end in a bureaucratic quagmire... or worse.

Only two top EU politicians spoke out in favour of the referendum: Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel and the Slovenian Speaker of Parliament Milan Brglez. Apart from that, Catalans could count on the support of mostly left-wing parliamentarians.

But Brussels remained non-committal. “Under the Spanish constitution, [the] vote in Catalonia was not legal,” says Margaritis Schinas, the EU Commission’s spokesperson.

"This is an internal matter for Spain that has to be dealt with in line with the constitutional order of Spain.”

We expected to be somehow protected by the European Commission

EU reacts to Catalan referendum 02/10/2017 Listen

He warned that even if the referendum had been "legal", it would have “found itself outside the European Union.”

Hinting at the Guardia Civil’s harsh actions against voters and peaceful protesters, that wounded over 800 people, he expressed hope that “the relevant players [...] move very swiftly from confrontation to dialogue,” adding that “violence can never be an instrument in politics.”

In Barcelona, capital of Catalan independence, activists were shocked. "We expected to be somehow protected by the European Commission,” says Joan Villalonga, a member of the Catalan National Assembly, a grassroots action group that promotes independence.

“We are European citizens. And now we feel abandoned by the EU, because it seems that all the democratic and all the European laws about political violence are being violated, and it seems that the European Commission is not protecting us on that.”

In Slovenia, Speaker of Parliament Milan Brglez, stated that Catalonia has the “right to self-determination.”

“It has to do with our past experiences,” says Simon Delakorda, of the NGO Institute for Electronic Participation in Ljubljana, “when we the states of Yugoslavia started declaring independence” in 1991. This lead to a bloody civil war leaving thousands dead or homeless.

“A referendum should be based on peaceful activities,” he says, echoing Schinas. “Meaning that all parties should avoid violence. This is not the right path. If you look back to what happened in Yugoslavia, and the war, the result of Yugoslav republics declaring independence, and try to find a solution through democratic means.”

And in Belgium, Prime Minister Charles Michel rejected the police violence outright, tweeting that “violence can never be the answer.”

But other European leaders remained silent.

“It’s a major European problem,” says Stefaan Walraven, a political scientist with Antwerp University.

“It is because of the set-up of the European Union, where countries are members. If a region splits off of a country, it places itself outside of the EU, and then it must apply to become a member of the EU.

“Some governments may be willing to accept Catalonia as a member, or Scotland, for that matter, or Flanders.

“But other governments [may] want to follow a very strict policy and say, well no, these split-off regions, they have to apply, and they have to go through negotiations, just like other countries that want to become a member of the EU so it is potentially extremely conflictual.”

The Spanish government is rejecting suggestions for mediation, indicating that Catalonia may first dissolve its parliament and have new elections before talks could even start.

Things may get more complicated if and when Catalonia decides to really declare independence.

This may happen as soon as 48 hours after all the votes are officially counted.

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