The European Union is fundamentally a Union of States, and although it aims at creating an “ever closer union of Peoples”, Member States are the Masters of the Treaties. Additionally, the EU is bound to respect the constitutional framework of each Member State, since these are part of the constitutional tradition of the EU. However, this should not prevent EU institutions from taking the initiative, pushing back the accusations of meddling into State internal affairs, and proposing a mediation between the central government and Catalonia.
A possible solution should start from a reform of Spanish constitution, enacting the transformation of Spain into a full federal state. This would include the introduction of those elements that were already in the Statute of Autonomy that Zapatero negotiated years ago, and more importantly, adding a right of secession and the related procedures. Then a legal referendum, with qualified turn out and majority should be celebrated, and no matter what all parts will have to accept its result, whatever it is.
Should the independence succeed with legal means, under a federal Spanish framework, then Catalans would be able to retain their membership in the EU and remain citizens of the EU. In this hypothetical scenario, the case of Catalonia should not be considered as Brexit Britain, but like West Virginia or the Canton of Jura: i.e. a case of internal secession within a federal state. It is true that the EU is still far from that constitutional configuration, but it is the only option to preserve peace and liberal-democratic values in this scenario.
We cannot condone the illegal and confrontational path pursued by Puigdemont, but clearly the issue requires a political solution and represents a political problem. The external enemies of Europe have plenty of reasons to smile today. The clashes at polling stations are news stories virtually writing themselves for the Kremlin narrative apparatus – this is one reason why the Kremlin supports all secessionist movements in the West, from California to Catalonia, as it believes it can benefit from Western weakness and divisiveness.
This is a time of great challenges for Europe, a time of unity. Achieving that requires sitting at the same table, and de-escalating.