Police officers in black RoboCop uniforms and Darth Vader helmets blocked ordinary citizens from voting. They beat people with batons, fired rubber bullets and wounded pensioners. All of it was captured by smartphones and news cameras and spread around the world. It is the kind of violence the European Union would ordinarily condemn in high moral terms and even consider punishing. But that was not so easy this time. The nation in question was one of its own: Spain. The Catalan situation has put the European Union and its members in an awkward position. The bloc defends the fundamental democratic rights of free speech and free assembly and of individuals to vote. But while the European Union may be a union of democratic states, it is also, first and foremost, a union of sovereign states. It is wary of encouraging separatist forces that threaten to tear at many of the countries within it, as well as at the very fabric of the bloc.
The contradictions and relative quiet issuing from Brussels did not go unnoticed, especially by the Catalans, who are in favor of the European Union and say they would like to rejoin the bloc as an independent nation.
“The European Union cannot now continue to look the other side,” the leader of Catalonia, Carles Puigdemont, said around midnight Sunday, after declaring that Catalans had voted 90 percent in favor of a break with Spain.
On Monday, Mr. Puigdemont said that the European Commission, the executive arm of the European Union, “must encourage international mediation” of his region’s dispute with Spain. That is not entirely likely. For Brussels, Catalonia is a matter for Spain, not for the European Union or its uncomfortable members.