Author: Simon Tisdall, Assistant Editor of the Guardia and a foreign affairs columnist

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Who will save the Spanish from themselves? 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. 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, the EU is silent.

The argument advanced by Brussels is that Catalonia is an internal Spanish matter and the EU has no standing in the dispute. 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

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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