Unless the Catalan and Spanish governments immediately open a dialogue about the constitutional future of Catalonia, the violent scenes in the region may only be a precursor of things to come. But for this dialogue to take place, the EU must be involved.

With the instant, worldwide circulation of images of brutal police repression of defenceless, peaceful voters, the Catalan government won the battle for public sympathy. However, it is in fact isolated in its struggle.

Madrid has maintained its hard line, refusing to recognise the vote or its result. This strategy has been bolstered by King Felipe’s intervention. Rather than appealing for national unity, he offered a one-sided condemnation of the conflict. The government is also supported by most other Spanish parties, as well as the editorial line of the main Spanish dailies such as El Pais and El Mundo. Catalonia’s potential allies in other historic regions such as the Basque country have remained remarkably silent.

Beyond Spain, European leaders have either taken a neutral stance, relegating the conflict to an internal matter for Spain to resolve, or have offered support to the Spanish government’s defence of the rule of law.

Risky strategies

The Catalan government’s current trajectory is fraught with risk. It hasn’t, for one thing, acknowledged the real divisions that exist within Catalonia about the desirability of independence.

And its extreme position is only being met by more immovability from Madrid. The courts have already promised to suspend the parliamentary session in which the Catalan government could declare independence. The central government could go further. It could use its constitutional powers to impose direct rule. If police intervention were met with protest, it could lead to further clashes, replete with truncheons, rubber bullets, and bloodshed.

But this strategy is equally risky. It does nothing to address the growing sources of grievances in Catalonia. It only adds to the cycle of conflict. Nor is it clear that it could actually work. The 10,000 members of the Guardia Civil deployed across Catalonia could not prevent over 2m voters from casting their ballots. It is doubtful that the Spanish central government could credibly prevent Catalonia from declaring independence without taking brutally repressive measures. But this would have serious economic and political ramifications for the EU.

Already, two large Spanish banks – Sabadell and CaixaBank – are switching their main offices so as not to be based in Catalonia. With capital flying out of its largest economic region, the Spanish stock exchange took a tumble. This has the potential to seriously affect the value of the euro. The messy economics of a divorce could trigger a return to the volatility that the eurozone experienced in 2011-12.

The EU has remained shamefully powerless in the face of the illiberal measures deployed by right-wing governments in Poland and Hungary, towards their media and judiciary. Its reputation would be further tarnished if one of its more established members could curtail the rights of its national minorities.

For these reasons, the EU has the duty to facilitate a dialogue between the Catalan and Spanish governments and to bring them back from the brink.

The EU’s reluctance to engage stems from the fact that these are uncharted waters. The violent territorial conflicts that have beset other countries such as Northern Ireland, Cyprus and Bosnia-Herzegovina were mediated, to varying degrees of success, by national governments, the United Nations and third parties like the United States. The EU has few procedures for bringing parties in a territorial conflict to the negotiation table. Creativity will be needed.

What the EU could do

The first action is for the European Parliament to pass a resolution, endorsed by the Council of Ministers, condemning the situation. This should assign responsibility to both parties and recall the cardinal values of the rule of law, democracy and minority rights in the European constitutional order. This resolution should receive a full endorsement from Donald Tusk, president of the European Council, and Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission, as well as the heads of governments, such as Germany’s Angela Merkel and France’s Emmanuel Macron.

“But if you allow – and it is not up to us of course – but if Catalonia is to become independent, other people will do the same. I don’t like that. I don’t like to have a euro in 15 years that will be 100 different states. It is difficult enough with 17 states. With many more states it will be impossible,” Juncker said.

Then the EU must offer to act as an impartial mediator in the dialogue. Given the heightened tensions and mutual recriminations, this dialogue cannot be left unmediated. The Catalan government will not accept that the Spanish government take on the role of both an interlocutor and an arbiter.

The EU needs to offer a way out of the conflict. The basic condition for dialogue is a formal renunciation of the unilateral declaration of independence by the Catalan government, in exchange for the right to hold a new legally-sanctioned referendum on independence. In case of a NO vote, the Catalan government should then open negotiation for a revision of the Catalan Statute of Autonomy, that offers symbolic recognition of Catalonia’s nationhood and a better fiscal pact.

This deal needs to be accompanied by the promise that the EU will not recognise Catalan independence if is illegal and that the Spanish government will be suspended from the Council of Ministers if it violates civil rights in Catalonia.

Europe is not short of diplomatic talent that could be called upon to help foster dialogue: Ireland’s former president Mary Robinson, Carld Bildt, who negotiated negotiated Sweden’s EU accession, and Paddy Ashdown, who served as the high representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina in the 1990s, are well-seasoned politicians who could play a constructive role in diffusing the crisis.

Failing to act

Inaction would have devastating repercussions for Catalonia, Spain and the EU.

To force a reluctant central government to the negotiation table, Catalan people could deploy their most successful strategy so far: mass protests, general strikes, and widespread civil disobedience that would bring the regional and national economy to a standstill and generate further political turmoil.

Or, realising that negotiation is not a forthcoming strategy, it could choose to declare independence unilaterally, with all the consequences that this could reap.

Both scenarios would result from the failure to act.