DONALD Tusk, the former president of the European Council, has said he advised former Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy “not to use force” against people who were trying to vote in the 2017 Catalan independence referendum – confirming The National report last year that European leaders were unhappy at the actions of police trying to stop the poll.

Tusk, who is now president of the European People’s Party (EPP), made his remarks in an interview with the Spanish daily El Pais, in which he said agreement was always better than conflict.

“From an emotional point of view, I can understand all ethnic and minority groups. I can understand the Scots, the Catalans,” he said.

“But for Europe it is very important to protect political structures. I am not an expert in Spanish constitutional law but in a general way, and also from my experience in Poland, I think that the constitution is what we need to protect, also at European level. And the agreement is always better than the conflict.

“My first advice to Mariano Rajoy when the conflict began to be so intense [during the 2017 poll] was not to use force against people. I know that sometimes the state has no power. But if you can, the force of the arguments is much better than the argument of the force.”

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In June last year, the Catalan human rights ombudsman Rafael Ribo told The National that German Chancellor Angela Merkel had phoned Rajoy to complain about the “disproportionate” action of Spanish National Police beating with riot batons people who were trying to cast their vote.

He said: “On October 1 – when the police were acting brutally – we have proof that Merkel called Rajoy saying Europe couldn’t accept this.

“I don’t have the tape of the conversation, but suddenly at around 1pm to 2pm everything stopped.

“The Spanish police started at nine o’clock in such brutal fashion in different parts of the territory. At 1pm to 1.30pm it was absolutely stopped and there was no reason because if you wanted to prevent the celebration of the referendum and you start at nine in the morning you would carry on until the polling stations closed, not stop in the afternoon. It’s said that Merkel intervened saying ‘Europe cannot accept what you’re doing in Catalonia’.

“It’s the only deed where we have a connection between European and Spanish politicians.”

Meanwhile, jailed Catalan leaders Jordi Cuixart yesterday wrote to members of Omnium Cultural, the grassroots body he leads, on Spain’s Constitution Day: “The constitution that does not defend the rights of its fellow citizens becomes a gag.”

He went on to urge Catalan parties: “Do not ever give up the right to self-determination ... 780 days after the ... state imprisoned us under article 2 of the constitution ... the only thing to celebrate is that we continue to fight for freedom, culture and the defence of human rights.”