Another challenge to the EU
Suddenly the EU has found itself presented with a new challenge, very different from that posed by the UK’s vote to leave the EU, but one also posed by a referendum, this time an illegal one in the country Spain in which it took place. Any breaking up of countries is destabilising and cannot be welcome to the EU. If a region does break away and declare itself independent, the EU cannot be expected to recognise that independence unless the country from which it has broken away also does. Because, at a point in time, just over 50% of those voting vote for independence is not a good reason to change decades or centuries of history, since on a likely turnout it would not represent anywhere near 50% of the electorate. In the case of the Catalan referendum the 90% result in favour from 42% of the electorate has to be set against the fact that those who disagreed with the referendum did not vote at all and regional election results have given less than 50% of the vote to parties calling for independence. The referendum on independence has divided Catalonia roughly in half, while there is an alternative—pressure for greater autonomy within Spain–which could unite much of both sides of the divide.
Stand firm on Spanish unity but encourage negotiation
Other EU countries, the EU Commission and EU members of parliament should be firm on not recognising the referendum or any declaration of independence.
However, while holding firm to the unity of Spain, the EU can informally advise the Spanish authorities on their approach. There is no point in physically trying to prevent voting taking place – doing so only incites those in favour of independence to become more committed to their cause and makes it look as though Spain is acting as a colonial power, which is not the case since the 1978 constitution was voluntarily agreed by Catalonia as by the rest of Spain and the region has equal rights with other regions. Unfortunately there are different interpretations of the constitution. Not only the Catalans but also the Socialist Party (PSOE) clearly considered that the constitution allowed greater autonomy than initially provided to be given to Catalonia since they negotiated an agreement for greater autonomy and had it passed by both national and regional parliaments in 2006 when the Socialists had a majority. However the Spanish Popular Party (PP) did not agree and challenged the agreement in the Constitutional Court. After years of deliberation (if the answer was clear from the wording surely the deliberation would have been much shorter) in 2010 the Court ruled against the main provisions for increased autonomy. The best political answer to the problem would be for there to be a negotiation on changes to the 1978 constitution which would allow a greater degree of autonomy to Catalonia than to other Spanish regions (except for the Basque region which already has special provisions).
This should be the informal advice that other EU countries and the EU institutions should give to Spain and Catalonia. The unity of Spain should be firmly upheld but any attempt at physical repression will weaken not strengthen Spain.