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Catalonia finds no friends among EU leaders

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - European Union leaders sought to minimize Spain’s crisis with Catalonia on Thursday and avoid encouraging separatists across the bloc, describing Barcelona’s secession bid as a domestic issue and declining a mediation role.

A demonstrator holds an Estelada (Catalan separatist flag) during a gathering in front of the Spanish Central Government headquarters to protest against the imprisonment of leaders of two of the largest Catalan separatist organisations, Catalan National Assembly's Jordi Sanchez and Omnium's Jordi Cuixart, who were jailed by Spain's High Court, in Barcelona, Spain, October 19, 2017. REUTERS/Ivan Alvarado

Leaders did not hold a discussion of Catalonia’s bid to break away from Spain and judged they had nothing to gain by angering Madrid, diplomats said.

“It is not on our agenda,” European Council President Donald Tusk told reporters during the EU summit. “All of us have our own emotions, opinions, assessments but formally speaking there is no space for an EU intervention.”

The approach contrasted with EU strategies on almost every other major issue over the past decade, including Greece’s financial crash and mass migration flows from Syria. On countless occasions, EU leaders have used late-night summits to press for a common decision or joint policy statement.

“It’s an internal Spanish matter,” Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte told reporters, a position echoed by French President Emmanuel Macron, who held a private meeting with Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy on the sidelines of the summit.

“He (Macron) has complete confidence in Rajoy to resolve the situation,” a French diplomat told Reuters.

Spain’s government is set to suspend Catalonia’s autonomy and impose direct rule after the region’s leader threatened to go ahead with a formal declaration of independence if Madrid refused to hold talks.

Rajoy kept a low profile at the summit while his fellow leaders held news conferences on Thursday. German Chancellor Angela Merkel said she hoped there were solutions “on the grounds of the Spanish constitution.”

Despite some disquiet over the way Rajoy handled a Catalan independence referendum on Oct. 1, which Madrid said was illegal and sent in police to disrupt voting, countries fear making any remarks that could embolden separatists at home.

From Scotland to Flanders and Lombardy, the 2007-09 financial crisis, unemployment and migration have allowed separatists, anti-EU and populist parties to feed off discontent with political elites and reopen regional divisions.

As Britain negotiates its exit from the EU, few leaders want to wade into another highly complex negotiation bringing new economic uncertainty and legal disruption.

Smaller EU countries such as Slovenia that emerged as sovereign states after the end of the Cold War are equally uncomfortable about inspiring secessionists across the bloc. They rely on Spain, a large euro zone economy, for investment.

Even in Western Balkan countries aspiring to join the European Union, there is a reluctance to fuel calls for regional autonomy at home. Spain is one of five EU countries that has yet to recognize Kosovo’s independence.

“There is not much to gain from backing Barcelona and a lot to lose from angering Madrid,” said a senior EU diplomat at the EU summit.

Additional reporting by Jean-Baptiste Vey and Robert-Jan Bartunek; Editing by Janet Lawrence