As Catalonia’s independence referendum crisis deepens, EU officials are staying doggedly tight-lipped even as diplomats privately voice serious concern at a situation some regard as a challenge to fundamental European values.

The Catalan government’s plans to hold a vote on October 1 in defiance of court orders ruling it illegal have triggered major protests in Barcelona and a major crackdown from Madrid.

Catalan President Carles Puigdemont has condemned the “totalitarian and undemocratic attitude of the Spanish state”, after police detained over a dozen Catalan government officials and seized nearly 10 million ballot papers.

But the European Commission, the EU’s executive arm, has steadfastly refused to comment in detail on what it regards as an internal matter for Spain.

Commission spokesman Margaritis Schinas fended off nearly a dozen questions on the Catalan crisis at a news conference on Thursday with variations on the same response: “The commission respects Spain’s constitutional order and legal framework.”

From Paris to Bratislava, EU members echoed the same phrasing as they publicly closed ranks behind Madrid in a standoff that Spanish former European Parliament president Josep Borrell told Politico this week had the potential to be “the biggest European constitutional crisis since the fall of the Berlin Wall”.

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