EU intervention in Catalonia would cause chaos, Juncker says | World news

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.

Carles Puigdemont signs the Catalan declaration of independence before suspending it for dialogue with Spain

Carles Puigdemont signs the Catalan declaration of independence before suspending it for dialogue with Spain. Photograph: Oeste/Zuma Wire/Rex Shutterstock

“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”.

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Making the numbers add up in the Catalonia poll | Letters | World news

You uncritically adopt the claim that a “silent majority” of Catalans oppose independence (Puigdemont speech gives no clarity on Catalan independence, 11 October). The figures do not support this. In most opinion polls held prior to recent events, both proponents and opponents of independence formed a minority, with the difference being made up by those who did not know.

I am Catalan: ‘It’s about building a new society for all’ – video

During the last regional elections, only 39% voted for explicitly unionist parties, 47% voted for pro-independence parties, while 13% voted for parties who were equivocal on independence. It is correct that the official turnout in the referendum of 1 October was below 50%, but that fails to take into account the closure of polling stations and confiscation of votes by the police. In fact, the number of votes in favour that were counted would have been enough to secure a majority at the record-high turnout level of the last regional election. On 8 October, hundreds of thousands of people protested in Barcelona against independence. A show of strength, yes, but no majority, and somewhat undercut by the fact that some of the attendants had come from outside Catalonia.

The reality is that we can’t know what Catalans want until a legally binding referendum is held. As the Scottish independence and Brexit referendums have shown, opinion polls can be wrong and people will change sides – in both directions – due to the dynamics of a real election campaign. The strategy of the Spanish government seems to be above all to obstruct such a real test of opinions, and my worry is that your newspaper is falling for this.
Oliver Urs Lenz
Ghent, Belgium

Let’s stop reducing complex problems like the constitutional status of Catalonia, or our own relationship with the EU, to a blunt choice of just two supposedly mutually exclusive opposites. We could start by reading the works of Ramón Llull, the Majorcan who, 700 years ago, suggested a better voting procedure would be multi-optional and preferential. Let us further remember that the EU has made some terrible mistakes, as for example when the Badinter commission insisted on a plebiscite in Bosnia, or when in Kiev it promoted majority rule up until the very day Viktor Yanukovych fled into exile. In fact, of course, “all the wars in the former Yugoslavia started with a referendum” (Oslobodjenje, 7 February 1999), and the same is now true of the conflict in Ukraine.
Peter Emerson
Director, the de Borda Institute

Giles Tremlett reveals that in the Catalonia v Spain impasse: “At stake are five centuries of coexistence with the rest of Spain.” Indeed: not dissimilar to the centuries of coexistence between Ireland and England that inspired the Easter Rising of 1916.
Dominic Keown

Simon Doubleday rightly criticises the Francoist ideal of unity (Opinion, 10 October). This holds that no region of Spain should have the right to separate under any circumstances. But he goes on to propose a two-thirds “super-majority” for Catalan independence in any future constitutional referendum, which effectively rules out independence. Imagine requiring this absurd margin for Scottish independence.

A simple majority of votes cast was an appropriate criterion for the Scottish referendum. As it was, despite my pro-remain view, for Brexit too, because Brits do not have the same redistributive obligations to poorer European countries as to poorer parts of Britain. Catalonia is morally different because it is the richest part of Spain after Madrid and the Basque country. So the bar might be raised to, say, 55% to deter other rich European regions such as northern Italy from separating.
Joseph Palley
Richmond upon Thames, Surrey

The essence of the Catalans’ claim is the so-called “right to self-determination”, which is “the right of peoples to determine their own political status and to be free of alien domination, including formation of their own independent state”. Ironically, on 24 March 1999, a Spanish aircraft from the Nato alliance was among the first Nato planes to bomb Belgrade for denying the right to self-determination to the Albanian Kosovans. The action was also supported by the Catalans. But it came to haunt them both: the Spanish government for enthusiastically supporting the Kosovans’ claim, and the Catalans for naively believing that they would be rewarded for their staunch support.

The only constant and unfortunate feature that emerges from those episodes is that the application of the “right” is dependent, not even on politics but on ideology; that the “right” can only be exercised by units that live in the countries that are deemed “undemocratic” or enemies of the west. This is also an inevitable conclusion from the UK foreign secretary’s statement that the Catalan referendum was “illegal” because Spain is a close ally and a good friend. This echoed Margaritis Schinas of the European commission, who, asked to explain the difference between the Kosovo and Catalonia episodes, said: “Comparisons between Spain and Serbia could not be drawn because Spain is a member state.”

Dear Catalans: you will have to give up on your claim because you live in a democracy! In fact, if I am allowed to predict, it seems that the Catalans will settle with a financial deal in this episode in the same way as the Basque people managed in 2011.
Dr Miroslav Baros
Sheffield Hallam University

The Guardian appears to have moved to using a barely qualified description of the illegal Catalan referendum as one “in which 90% of participants voted in favour of splitting”, without the reminder that over half of possible voters boycotted the vote (Catalan government suspends declaration of independence, 11 October). If a short form is needed then “in which 55% of Catalans showed that they did not want a referendum, never mind independence” would be more accurate, providing a much better reflection of the state of opinion in Catalonia. It is time the Guardian reconsidered its automatic support for any group that disturbs the peace on supposed national or ethnic grounds.
John Hall

“I am still going to declare independence from Spain, but I am giving them some time, a window.” With these words, Catalan president Carles Puigdemont betrayed the hopes of his brave people’s dream of independence from Spain – because the people of Catalonia did not brave the clubs and gas of the Spanish police in order to vote for a “window”.

Puigdemont’s cowardice has not appeased the Spanish prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, who has refused to acknowledge the prospect of an independent Catalonia and has shown the brutal methods he is prepared to use to preserve the Spanish state. Puigdemont simply does not have the luxury of “some time”. He must declare full independence while he can. He should recall the warning of Louis Antoine de Saint-Just: “Those who make revolutions halfway only dig their own graves.”
Sasha Simic

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A dangerous time for Catalonia, Spain and the rest of Europe | Letters | World news

Tuesday promises to be a historic day for the future of Catalonia. On that day, the president of the regional community, Carles Puigdemont, will have to bow to the most radical sector of the parliament and unilaterally declare the independence of Catalonia, or suspend this serious decision and open a process of negotiation with the central government of Madrid.

Declaring independence will definitively close the door on negotiations and allow the Spanish president, Mariano Rajoy, to apply article 155 of the constitution, under which Madrid assumes control of the regional government (Generalitat) and puts its leaders outside the law, starting with Puigdemont.

Article 155, if applied, will open a situation of great tension in Barcelona. Some even speak of the first step towards a civil war, as happened in 1936 with General Franco’s uprising.

Throughout Spain, large demonstrations have been held in favour of the unity of the country and against independence. Catalonia was never an independent country. In the 1930s a popular uprising took place in favour of a republic, but the army put it down with force. The president of Catalonia at that time, Lluís Companys, was imprisoned, and then, at the end of the civil war, was shot dead by Franco in October 1940.

If Catalonia lives in a pre-civil-war climate this is due to the mistakes of the two parties in conflict. The outbreak came in June 2010 when the central government obtained from the constitutional court the rejection of a new statute of autonomy voted for by the Catalans in September 2005. If Madrid had had the wisdom of not repressing that statute of 2005, it is very possible that we would not be in this pre-war situation now.

But Catalan nationalists also have their share of responsibility from their imposition of independence through an illegal referendum, without minimum guarantees of credibility. On 1 October, more than 2 million voters (43% of the electorate) voted for independence, but that consultation was not held in regular conditions. And 57% of voters abstained from going to the polls.

Madrid made a serious mistake when it denied a new statute of autonomy granting more powers to the Generalitat.

Only negotiation can resolve the conflict. But for that it would be necessary for Puigdemont not to declare independence on Tuesday. The risk is enormous.
Manuel Ostos
Benicarló, Spain

Greens in the European parliament share a group with the European Free Alliance (EFA), which includes a number of Catalan politicians. We share common values, particularly a commitment to the principle of self-determination. We are also committed to the peaceful resolution of conflict and have therefore been appalled by the action of the Spanish Guardia Civil. We are equally aghast by the absence of any sort of intervention by the EU (Analysis: EU must act before it is too late, 6 October).

The Greens-EFA group pressed for and secured a debate on the issue in the European parliament. In this debate we will make clear that the people of Catalonia must be able to peacefully assert their wishes for their future without being subjected to repression and attacks.

If our foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, is still capable of making any comment without inflaming an international crisis, he should also condemn unequivocally the police and state brutality meted out against peaceful protesters.

The EU has a proud history of spreading democracy across Europe. It is absolutely vital that European leaders – and the EU institutions – continue to champion and defend the principles of democratic engagement and self-determination.

As Greens we urge heads of state and the European commission to call on both sides to step back from the brink and play a mediating role in negotiating a solution that works for the people of Catalonia and the people of Spain.
Molly Scott Cato MEP
Green, South West England

Under the escalating circumstances that your recent reports on Catalonia describe, readers may be interested in the following statement by a group of academic philosophers who work there but hold diverse views about the desirability of Catalan independence.

1. We reject the police violence against non-violent citizens used in Catalonia on 1 October 2017. Such violence is unjustified, even given the Spanish constitutional court’s judgment about the referendum’s illegality. We call on all Spanish and Catalan politicians to abstain from violence, unilateral action, provocation and manipulation. Free speech and respectful dialogue, guided by reasoned arguments and facts, must be the means by which to solve political disputes.

2. As a step towards tension reduction, we propose to the Spanish and Catalan governments that a commission be formed consisting of expert representatives of all major parties, including the opposition parties of both parliaments, with the task of building a consensus for the procedural and substantive norms for conflict reduction in this case. The commission should include experts in law, political philosophy, and conflict resolution.

3. While it is unlikely that a single set of norms will achieve universal agreement within the commission, the majority required should not merely exceed 50%. For political decisions with momentous long-term effects, agreements should require clear and significant majorities.
Victoria Camps, Jaume Casals, José Luis Martí, Teresa Marques, JJ Moreso, Genoveva Martí, Thomas Sturm, Joan Vergés Gifra, Andrew Williams
For full statement and list of co-supporters, see

Irish peace negotiators played a useful role in talks that led to the disarmament and political inclusion of Eta, the armed Basque separatist group. Is there scope now for Anglo-Scottish assistance in the current impasse between Barcelona and Madrid – a joint visit by Alex Salmond and David Cameron, perhaps? Arguably the breakdown in Catalonia is more serious for European cohesion than the Brexit process, and if the UK is to be a serious post-Brexit partner then Brits must start showing some statesmanship.
Richard Bourne

Since Nato illegally bombed Serbia in 1999 to wrest control of Kosovo from the Balkan nation, we have witnessed a significant increase in the number of secessionist efforts around the world as borders have unravelled in Ukraine and elsewhere (Catalan president vows to press on with independence, 5 October). Western leaders should be ashamed at having encouraged the hopes of terrorists worldwide that borders can be changed and national sovereignty and international laws are meaningless if they can get Nato to support their cause. Get ready for a lot more trouble ahead.  
Dr Michael Pravica
Henderson, Nevada, USA

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Catalan president accuses Spanish king of being government mouthpiece | World news

Catalonia’s president has accused King Felipe of Spain of acting as a mouthpiece for the Spanish government as the country wrestles with the region’s secession crisis and has vowed to press on with plans to declare independence over the next week.

Speaking three days after his government’s unilaterally held independence referendum was marred by police violence, Carles Puigdemont said Catalans were united as never before but added he was disappointed by the king’s recent intervention.

“The king endorses the discourse and policies of the government of [prime minister Mariano] Rajoy, which have been catastrophic for Catalonia and deliberately ignore the millions of Catalans who do not think like them,” he said.

Addressing himself directly to the king, he added: “Not like this. Your decision yesterday disappointed many people in Catalonia.”

Puigdemont repeated his calls for dialogue and mediation with Madrid but said his government was still planning to take the results of the referendum to the Catalan parliament over the next few days to prepare for a declaration of independence.

“I have to represent all of Catalonia’s citizens,” he said. “On Sunday we had a referendum under the most difficult circumstances and set an example of who we are. Peace and accord is part of who we are. We have to apply the results of the referendum. We have to present the results of the referendum to parliament.”

More than 900 people were injured after Spanish police attempted to halt the vote by raiding polling stations, beating would-be voters and firing rubber bullets at crowds.

Despite the Spanish authorities’ attempts to stop the referendum, which both the government and the country’s constitutional court had declared illegal, 2.26 million of Catalonia’s 5.3 million registered voters took part. According to the Catalan government 90% of participants voted for the region to become independent.

The Spanish government was quick to respond. The deputy prime minister, Soraya Sáenz de Santamaría, said that Puigdemont had squandered an opportunity to steer the region back toward co-existence, adding: “If Mr Puigdemont wants to talk or negotiate or send mediators, he knows perfectly well what he needs to do: get back on the legal path that he should never have abandoned.”

Earlier on Wednesday the EU’s executive had called for the Spanish and Catalan governments to begin talks over the biggest political challenge Spain has faced since its return to democracy four decades ago – but said Madrid had the right to use “proportionate force” to uphold the law.

Addressing the European parliament in Strasbourg on Wednesday, Frans Timmermans, the vice-president of the European commission, said the images emerging from Catalonia were saddening but it was clear that the regional government had “chosen to ignore the law” when organising the referendum.

“Let me be clear: violence does not solve anything in politics. It is never the answer, never a solution. It can never be used as a weapon or instrument,” he said. “Europe knows this better than anywhere else … It is a duty of any government to uphold the rule of law and this does sometimes require proportionate use of force.”

Timmermans said it was “time to talk” and backed the Spanish prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, to bring the dispute to a peaceful resolution. He said the European commission president, Jean-Claude Juncker, was in touch with Rajoy but stressed that the vote on Sunday was “not legal” and it was “an internal matter”.

Puigdemont and other senior Catalan politicians, including the mayor of Barcelona, Ada Colau, have called repeatedly for the EU to weigh in on the issue. “The European commission must encourage international mediation,” Puigdemont said on Monday. “It cannot look the other way any longer.”

Writing in the Guardian last week, Colau made a similar plea. “The European Union came about as a project to safeguard and guarantee our rights and freedoms,” she said. “Defending the fundamental rights of Catalan citizens against a wave of repression from the Spanish state is also the same as defending the rights of Spanish and European citizens.”

On Tuesday night King Felipe had said the Catalan authorities were attempting to break “the unity of Spain” and said their push for independence could put at risk the country’s social and economic stability.

In a rare and strongly worded television address he described the regional government’s actions as “an unacceptable attempt” to take over Catalan institutions, adding that it had placed itself outside democracy and the law.

Puigdemont has said Catalonia will not abandon its quest for independence and warned the Spanish government that any move to stop the independence process by using article 155 of the constitution to take control of the region could be the “ultimate mistake”.

On Wednesday Colau called for dialogue instead of threats. “Neither a unilateral declaration of independence nor 155,” she tweeted. “We need dialogue and bridges more than ever. Mediation and a jointly agreed referendum.”

On Tuesday thousands of people took to the streets of Barcelona to protest against the actions of some Guardia Civil and national police officers during the referendum.

Amnesty International said it had documented a “dangerous and disproportionate” use of police riot equipment on Sunday. “In several cases the actions of national police and civil guard officers involved excessive and unnecessary use of force and the dangerous use of riot control equipment, injuring hundreds of peaceful protesters,” said John Dalhuisen, the group’s Europe and central Asia director.

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As Catalonia crisis escalates, EU is nowhere to be seen | World news

Who will save the Spanish from themselves? As mutual rage grows, Catalonia seems to be heading off a cliff. Carles Puigdemont, the separatists’ leader, is vowing to declare an independent state within days. King Felipe had one shot at reuniting the country – and blew it with a one-sided, darkly scare-mongering speech.

Mariano Rajoy, Spain’s prime minister, is not backing down either. He is threatening direct rule from Madrid and a mass purge if a Catalonian unilateral declaration of independence goes ahead. That is a recipe for violence far exceeding last Sunday’s street clashes with police.

The obvious candidate to cool tempers and mediate a negotiated way out is the European Union, the de facto guarantor of Spanish democracy since Spain became a member in 1986. Puigdemont, hanging from a hook of his own making, has appealed for Brussels to intervene. “It cannot look the other way any longer,” he said this week.

Rajoy and his ruling conservatives would not like it but may accept an EU role when they contemplate the alternatives. Seen from outside, the imperative is to induce all sides to pull back, to defuse the crisis before it becomes irreparable. Solutions can be discussed later.

But the EU is nowhere to be seen. At this moment of acute peril for the European project, Jean-Claude Juncker, the notoriously garrulous commission president, has fallen silent. A spokesman’s brief statement on Monday sided with Rajoy and said, feebly, there was nothing Juncker could do.

Emmanuel Macron, France’s president, who a week earlier sketched out a “profound” vision of an integrated Europe responsive to all its citizens, is looking the other way. If this were Crimea, say, or friendless, penniless Greece, Angela Merkel would be in full mediation mode by now. But when it comes to Catalonia, Germany’s chancellor, whose CDU is allied with Spain’s ruling party, is otherwise engaged.

The argument advanced by Brussels and its apologists that Catalonia is an internal Spanish matter and the EU has no standing in the dispute is legally contentious. But in a sense, that does not matter. The EU’s attempt to wash its hands of the crisis is politically unsustainable. If Rajoy sends the Spanish army to crush independence and seize control of Catalonia’s leaders and institutions, the ensuing uproar will force European leaders to get involved.

While it cannot directly intervene without being asked, the EU clearly has legal obligations towards 7.5 million EU citizens in Catalonia (as it has repeatedly claimed to have towards EU citizens in a post-Brexit Britain). Its explicit statement of confidence in Rajoy was possibly ill-advised in this context, since the prime minister cannot sensibly be viewed an impartial or objective figure.

To pretend the EU has no skin in this dangerous game is plainly delusional. Amadeu Altafaj, Catalonia’s envoy to Brussels, says the commission’s credibility is already damaged. The reluctance of the centre-right-dominated European parliament to debate the issue (it finally discussed it on Wednesday) has made a nonsense of talk about a more democratically responsive EU.

The longer the EU refuses to help, the more political ammunition it will give its detractors, not least the hard-right, populist and xenophobic forces that came to the fore in recent elections in France and Germany. Spain’s attempt to stop Catalan secessionists by brute force also sends a problematic message to like-minded groups elsewhere in Europe that, until now, have stuck to peaceful campaigning.

Rajoy’s weekend police action is being investigated for human rights violations by the Catalan authorities, and possibly the UN too. Spanish national laws may have been broken. And Rajoy may also be in breach of Spain’s obligations under EU and international law.

Respect for the rights of national minorities is one of the EU’s core values, as expressed in article 2 of the EU’s founding treaty and article 21 of the EU charter of fundamental rights. Although the commission has no specific powers, member states do have general powers to ensure that the fundamental rights of groups such as the Catalans are protected in accordance with European and international law.

More broadly, the right of people to self-determination is a cardinal principle of modern international law, incorporated into the UN charter. It is not a new idea.

In 1918, Woodrow Wilson, the US president whose “14 points” speech set out principles for world peace, declared: “National aspirations must be respected; people may now be dominated and governed only by their own consent. ‘Self-determination’ is not a mere phrase; it is an imperative principle of action.”

Wilson led efforts to forge a European settlement after the first world war. It is a sobering thought that 100 years on, Europe may still be incapable of sorting out its problems by itself.

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Catalan nationalists losing faith in the EU | Letters | World news

We are citizens from Barcelona, still in shock after the extreme violence by Spanish police towards a peaceful group of people wanting to vote (Report, 3 October). The citizens of Catalonia have always respected, and even admired, the democracy and fairness of the European Union. However, in recent times, the reaction of the EU to important issues that impact on our lives has been miserable. We are convinced that the words of the European commission, declining to intervene in what it has described as an internal Spanish matter, are a mistake. The Spanish government has used violence towards its citizens and this is clearly regulated in article 7 of the EU. Sooner rather than later Catalonia will gain statehood. By then we, the Catalan society, will need to decide whether belonging to the EU as it is now is worthwhile. We sadly have to admit it may not be any more.
Tony Bayes-Genis Fellow of the European Society of Cardiology
Josep Lupón

My estimation of the EU has sunk further after its failure to condemn the police violence during Sunday’s referendum. Yes, it was technically illegal – but morally justified after the intransigence of the Madrid government and its refusal to engage in discussion. Catalonia has achieved a degree of independence in its decades-long struggle, but Madrid has now adopted a “thus far and no further” stance, leaving the Catalans frustrated and disappointed. They were, in effect, forced into a referendum. I like to think that should such a scenario ever arise in Scotland, a sensible process of discussion and democratic action would ensue. Not in Spain, however, where Mariano Rajoy reverted to what the Catalans will remember as dictatorial, anti-democratic and brutal retaliation – and no one from the EU had the guts to condemn it. As a committed European and remainer, I am increasingly losing my faith in the European commission.
Graham Lane
Laroque des Alberes, France

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VW’s Scania truck firm fined €880m by EU for price fixing | Business

The Swedish truckmaker Scania, which is owned by Volkswagen, has been fined €880m (£770m) by EU antitrust regulators for price fixing.

The European commission said Scania had broken antitrust rules by colluding for 14 years with five other European truck manufacturers on pricing.

The manufacturers have been fined €3.8bn in total – a record penalty imposed by the commission for a vehicle cartel.

The other five members of the cartel – Daimler, DAF, MAN, Iveco and Volvo/Renault – settled with the commission a year ago but Scania refused to cooperate, the commission said.

Scania maintains its innocence and says it fully cooperated with the commission and was likely to appeal.

A Scania spokeswoman said: “We just received the information and it will take some time to go through the material. If no new information has emerged in the investigation we are planning to prepare an appeal against the decision.”

She added: “Scania has not on any level or in any context entered into an agreement with other manufacturers with regards to pricing. Scania has also not delayed the introduction of new engines that meet EU legislation on exhaust emissions.”

MAN, also owned by VW, alerted the commission to the cartel and escaped a €1.2bn fine. The other four received reduced fines for settling. The biggest penalty, of €1bn, was imposed on Germany’s Daimler. Dutch company DAF was fined €753m, Volvo/Renault €670m and Italy’s Iveco €495m.

Margrethe Vestager, the European commissioner for competition, said: “Today’s decision marks the end of our investigation into a very long-lasting cartel – 14 years.

“This cartel affected very substantial numbers of road hauliers in Europe, since Scania and the other truck manufacturers in the cartel produce more than nine out of every 10 medium and heavy trucks sold in Europe. Instead of colluding on pricing, the truck manufacturers should have been competing against each other – also on environmental improvements.”

Vestager said Scania would have received a 10% lower fine if it had reached a settlement with the commission.

She said road haulage was an essential part of the European transport sector, and its competitiveness depended on truck prices.

The collusion began at a meeting at a hotel in Brussels in January 1997, according to the commission, and came to an end in 2011 when it carried out surprise inspections of the firms.

Senior managers colluded at meetings on the fringes of trade fairs and other events, and also discussed price fixing by phone. From 2004, the cartel was run by lower- level managers through the companies’ German subsidiaries and information was exchanged by email.

The truck makers coordinated “gross list” prices and also colluded on passing on to customers the costs of new technologies to meet stricter emission rules.

The commission said its investigation did not reveal any links between this cartel and the use of defeat devices to cheat emissions tests.

Vestager said the commission had investigated nine car cartels and fined manufacturers more than €6bn in total, with more investigations ongoing.

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Angela Merkel: we cannot hold our tongues on risk to rule of law in Poland | World news

Angela Merkel has weighed in on a worsening dispute between the EU and Poland about judicial independence, delivering pointed criticism of Germany’s eastern neighbour that underscores its growing isolation.

The European commission said in July that it would launch legal action against Poland over reforms that gave the justice minister the right to fire judges – a power that undermines the independence of the courts and violates EU rules.

On Tuesday, one day after the Polish government dismissed the EU inquiry as groundless, the German chancellor said she took the commission’s worries very seriously.

“This is a serious issue because the requirements for cooperation within the European Union are the principles of the rule of law,” Merkel told a press conference in Berlin. “However much I want to have very good relations with Poland … we cannot simply hold our tongues and not say anything for the sake of peace and quiet.”

Warsaw was given one month to respond to a July report from Brussels that said the reforms endangered the rule of law. On Monday, the final day of the deadline, Poland’s foreign ministry published its response, brushing away the commission’s criticism.

“The ongoing legislative measures, whose overriding aim is to reform the judicial system, are in line with European standards and respond to many years of growing social expectations in this regard, and so they groundlessly raise the commission’s doubts,” the ministry said in a statement.

The European commission said it would carefully study the 12-page letter from the Polish government before giving a detailed response. But a spokeswoman said there was a case to answer: “The commission believes that there is such a threat to the rule of law in Poland.”

On a visit to Bulgaria last week, the French president, Emmanuel Macron, said Polish citizens “deserved better” than a government at odds with the EU’s democratic values and economic reform plans. Hitting back in unusually personal terms, the Polish prime minister, Beata Szydło, accused Macron of arrogance resulting from a lack of political experience.

EU ministers are expected to discuss the Polish rule of law procedure in September, when the commission will be looking for backing from member states. Frans Timmermans, the European commission vice-president, has said the commission stands ready to launch a formal warning using the article 7 procedure. Article 7 is the EU’s never-before-used “nuclear option” that could lead to suspension of a country’s voting rights.

Poland’s nationalist government enjoys strong support from the like-minded Hungarian prime minister, Viktor Orbán, but other countries in the region have distanced themselves.

Slovakia and the Czech Republic took a neutral position when the Polish rule of law stance was discussed among European ministers last May. Earlier this month, Slovakia’s prime minister, Robert Fico stressed that his country needed to be “close to the [EU] core, close to France, close to Germany” in remarks that set him apart from his hardline neighbours.

Suspending Poland’s voting rights in the EU council of ministers could only happen with support from a weighted majority of member states. First, there would need to be a recommendation from the European commission or the European parliament or one-third of member states.

The president of the European commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, will discuss the issue during a working lunch with Merkel on Wednesday.

Poland said it hoped its “exhaustive clarifications” would end any doubts about the judicial changes.

In late July, the Polish president, Andrzej Duda, signed a bill into law that will allow the justice minister to name the heads of all lower courts. Against a backdrop of street protests, he vetoed two other bills that would have allowed the government to replace supreme court judges and a high-level judicial panel.

The commission published its rule of law recommendation the next day, citing four bills: the two vetoed bills, the lower courts law and a fourth act, which came into force in July and allows assistant judges a bigger role in the Polish courts system. These assistant judges cannot guarantee judicial independence, according to the commission assessment – a view shared by the European court of human rights.

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The Observer view on Poland’s assault on law and the judiciary | Observer editorial | Opinion

The decision by Poland’s upper house of parliament to give the government de facto control of the country’s highest court is a serious mistake with negative implications for Europe. The legislation compromises judicial independence and undermines confidence in the rule of law free from political interference. It deals a heavy blow to Poland’s far from robust post-communist democratic institutions. It is a staggering act of defiance of the EU, which explicitly opposed the measure. And it explodes the too-comfortable illusion, fashionable since Emmanuel Macron won France’s presidential election, that the dark forces of intolerant European nationalism and populism are in retreat.

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The new law is one of several so-called reforms, proposed by the ruling rightwing Law and Justice party (PiS), giving ministers power over the appointment of judges and members of Poland’s supreme court. All 83 of the court’s current judges will be sacked unless retained by order of the justice minister. The government claims this will speed up judgments and break the grip on the legal system of a “privileged caste” of lawyers and judges. Large street protests preceded a debate in the lower house of parliament last Thursday. But the bill was approved by 235 to 192 votes. Now that the senate has also backed it, President Andrzej Duda, a PiS ally, is expected to sign it into law, although he still has time for second thoughts.

The PiS gained power in 2015 after unseating the Civic Platform government and has been a problem for Poland and Europe ever since. Despite winning only 37.6% of the vote, it proceeded to foist its narrow nationalistic, ideological and cultural outlook on the rest of the country as if it had obtained an overwhelming mandate.

Timothy Garton Ash, a seasoned observer of Polish affairs, described the PiS agenda as “systematic anti-liberalism with a seasoning of resentment and paranoia”. There was no question that an elected government had the right to implement its policies. “What it has no right to do is to dismantle or neutralise the institutions that allow an informed public to make [a] free choice, and that place essential checks and balances on the executive,” Garton Ash wrote.

Yet this is exactly what is happening now. A series of divisive and damaging controversies has ensued since the election. After nationwide women’s protests and an awkward debate in the European parliament last year, Jarosław Kaczyński, the PiS leader, backed away from legislation making virtually all abortions illegal – while saying he still agreed with it. There have been rows about threats to media freedom, what journalists call a “purge culture”, and the pro-government bias of state broadcasters. Poland is facing legal action by Brussels over its refusal to honour an EU agreement on relocating Syrian refugees. Now comes the bid to emasculate the judiciary.

Poland is often described as a proudly independent, conservative, predominantly Catholic country, where change comes slowly. But adherence to traditional values and healthy national self-respect can too easily be subverted and exploited by unscrupulous leaders.

Kaczyński’s anti-democratic instincts put him at odds both with the many Poles who want to build a forward-looking, integrated and tolerant country and with the European mainstream. Yet demonstrations are not enough. His authoritarianism poses an existential challenge to the autonomy of democratic institutions, such as parliament, the courts and civil service, that have yet to develop fully since the era of Soviet dominance ended in 1989. His regressive policies also challenge the EU itself in ways that cannot be ignored.

Poland’s opposition needs to get its act together. But so, too, does Europe. Last week’s message from Brussels was clear: scrap these “reforms” or face unprecedented ostracism. Frans Timmermans, the first vice-president of the European commission, acted tough, although appearances can be deceptive. The EU was “very close”, he said, to triggering article 7, a never-before-used sanction that allows a member state’s voting rights in the council of ministers to be suspended. The response from the PiS was defiant: Brussels can go whistle, as Britain’s foreign secretary might say. Poland’s government would not yield.

What should the EU do? Poland’s reputation as the bad boy of Europe, exceeding even that of Viktor Orbán’s Hungary, which is backing the PiS against Brussels, is well established. If the Polish government continues on its present course, the most obvious available option would be to cut financial support. Poland is by far the biggest beneficiary of EU cohesion funds. It is due to receive about €82.5bn (£74bn) in the 2014-20 budgetary period. It has profited enormously from EU membership since joining in 2004.

The idea that, if provoked, Poland might follow Britain out of the door is absurd. If Polish politicians continue to defy European norms, renege on binding commitments such as refugee quotas and ignore the views of fellow members, the consequences should be plain – and painful. Germany has floated proposals to freeze funds for countries that fail to meet EU rule-of-law standards. For the sake of its credibility and future cohesion, Europe must enforce a tough line with Kaczyński and the PiS.

Poland’s leaders should also be clear that, in a world where attacks on judicial independence are only too common, they must not look beyond Europe for support or justification. Such problems are not unexpected in China, Belarus or Iran. In the US, too, Donald Trump has behaved disgracefully in serially assaulting US judges. But despite his recent, cringe-making visit to Warsaw, when he echoed many of the chauvinistic ideas espoused by the PiS, Trump’s example is not to be emulated.

Europe stands for democracy. Where does Poland stand?

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EU calls for immediate ban on logging in Poland’s Białowieża forest | Environment

Europe’s last major parcel of primeval woodland could be set for a reprieve after the EU asked the European court to authorise an immediate ban on logging in Poland’s Białowieża forest.

Around 80,000 cubic metres of forest have been cleared since the Polish government tripled logging operations around the Unesco world heritage site last year.

The European commission said that it had acted because the increased logging of trees over a century-old “poses a major threat to the integrity of this … site.”

EU environment commissioner, Karmenu Vella told the Guardian: “We have asked that Polish authorities cease and desist operations immediately. These actions are clear, practical steps that the European commission has taken to protect one of the last remaining primeval forests in Europe.”

Environmentalists applauded the move, with WWF Poland’s Dariusz Gatkowski calling for the commission “to quickly implement today’s positive decision and take Poland to court, fulfilling its role as guardian of Europe’s natural heritage and the laws that protect it.”

Spruce trees in the Białowieża forest, where large-scale logging authorised by the Polish government began in May of last year

Spruce trees in the Białowieża forest, where large-scale logging authorised by the Polish government began in May of last year. Photograph: Wojtek Radwański/AFP/Getty Images

Agata Szafraniuk of the ClientEarth legal firm, said: “Decisive and immediate action is the only way to avoid irreversible damage to this ancient forest. We hope that the court of justice will impose the ban on logging, as a matter of urgency, before breaking for the summer holiday, which starts on July 21st.”

Last week, Unesco threatened to put Białowieża on its list of world heritage sites in danger unless Poland halted the deforestation, which has felled 30,000 cubic metres of coppice in just the first four months of 2017.

But quick compliance from the Polish government is thought unlikely, after the country’s environment ministry tweeted that it was “delighted” at the prospect of a court case yesterday. A second tweet said: “We have hard data on the #Buszowska (Białowieża) forest and we will be pleased to present it before the tribunal.”

Last month, Poland’s environment minister, Jan Szyszko, called for the site to be stripped of its Unesco status, despite fears of a collapse in its biodiversity, which includes wolves, lynx and Europe’s largest bison population.

The Polish government argues that increased tree fells are needed to contain a bark beetle outbreak in Białowieża, although the science behind its case has been denounced by many of the world’s environmental scientists.

Campaigners trying to block the Białowieża logging say that armed foresters in camouflage units are now routinely stopping and searching young people in the area after a spate of lock-ins around tree-clearing machines.

Ariel Brunner, the senior policy chief for BirdLife Europe said: “The tragedy of Białowieża is more than just the devastation of nature, it is the spine-chilling destruction of memory and an affront to democracy and legality. In taking a clear and strong stance on the ecological destruction of Białowieża, the European commission has today shown its ‘heart of oak’.”

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