THERE have been apocalyptic red skies over the UK from forest fires which began in Spain, an apt metaphor for the crisis engulfing Iberian politics as the hours tick by until the expiry, tomorrow, of the Madrid ultimatum that the Catalonian government renounce independence.

The rest of Europe cannot avoid fallout if the fourth largest economy in the EU disintegrates in violence, as did Yugoslavia in 1991. It may seem alarmist to raise the spectre of civil war but the crisis in Catalonia has been spiralling out of control since the brutal attempts by Spanish police to suppress the unauthorised independence referendum two weeks ago.

The detention, without bail, of two Catalan independence leaders on charges of sedition takes us into new and disturbing territory. Jordi Sanchez of the Catalan National Assembly, and Jordi Cuixart of Omnium, a cultural nationalist grouping, were arrested for helping stage the October referendum. I’ll run that through again: they were imprisoned for helping people to vote. The Catalan regional president, Carles Puigdemont, has described them as “political prisoners”, with some justification. Sedition is the kind of catch-all offence used against radicals like Tom Paine in the 18th century. It has been largely redundant in democratic countries for the last century and sedition was formally abolished in Scotland in 2011. Yet here we are in 2017 seeing people being locked up for the seditious practice of organising a referendum.

Not only that; the head of the Catalan police force, Josep Lluis Trapero, has had his passport taken away, presumably in case he tries to flee tomorrow after Madrid takes control of the Catalan police force. Under article 155 of the Spanish constitution, Madrid has the power to impose direct rule on Catalonia including, in theory, its regional police force, the Mossos d’Esquadra. The Mossos did not participate in the violence on October 1 and stood by as the Guarda Civil beat up Catalan voters.

So far the Catalan government and the independence movement have acted with shrewd restraint. There was no violent retaliation against police brutality or the seizing of government offices and there were no barricades in the streets.

Mr Puigdemont has scrupulously avoided inflammatory language and insisted that he seeks dialogue rather than confrontation. The Catalans are acutely aware that they need support from democratic opinion formers outside Spain and cannot afford to appear as lawless separatists. Mind you, that is exactly how the Catalan leaders are being portrayed in the Spanish press based in Madrid. Newspapers like El Pais have been thoroughly supportive of the Spanish Premier, Mariano Rajoy’s, crackdown on the “selfish separatists” with their obsession with “identity politics”. It has even been claimed that pro-Russian websites and “fake news” have inflamed regional passions in Catalonia. There are fears that, if Catalonia leaves, other nationalist movements such as the Basques might also sue for independence. Catalonia accounts for nearly one-fifth of Spain’s GDP and its loss could plunge the country into another sovereign debt crisis, only five years after it was rescued by the IMF and the EU.

This threat to the stability and finances of a eurozone country has led the European Union, thus far, to side with the Madrid government. It regards Spain, the member state, as the only legitimate entity, and refuses to speak to the Catalan nationalists or even condemn police brutality. But the EU is making a mistake, as is Prime Minister Rajoy. What happens in Catalonia is not just an internal matter for Spain, and it is time this was recognised by the international community. There is an important legal context to bring to bear on the crisis. International law does not formally endorse unilateral secession but, since the 1950s there has been a presumption, as it says in the United Nations Charter, that “all peoples have a right of self-determination”.

That applied mainly to anti-colonial movements but the Canadian Supreme Court’s 1998 ruling on the question of Quebec’s secession from Canada confirmed that self-determination can also apply to regional movements in democratic states. While unilateral secession is illegal, “a clear majority vote in Quebec on a clear question in favour of secession would confer democratic legitimacy on the secession initiative”. The Clarity Act in 2000 put this into legislative effect and has been the starting point for all considerations of the law on regional separatism, including the Edinburgh Agreement in 2012.

Admittedly, the situation in Scotland was not the same as in Spain. Scotland is part of a union of nations it joined voluntarily in 1707. The 1978 Spanish constitution explicitly rejects any right of secession. However, it is clear from Quebec, and from the 2010 ruling of the International Court of Justice on the question of Kosovo’s secession, that international law does not halt at existing national boundaries.

Suppression of democratic participation and denial of self-determination should be of concern to all democratic nations that subscribe to international law and human rights conventions. The EU should have condemned the actions of the police in the October referendum. It should be urging a negotiated solution or a referendum as per the Clarity Act.

There is much to negotiate, including the 2005 statute of autonomy that recognised Catalonia as a “nation” and that was reversed by a Madrid court in 2010. But if there can be no agreed federal solution, then the Catalan question can only be answered by a legitimate referendum. The Catalan Government has said that the 90 per cent Yes vote in the disputed October referendum provides a mandate for independence. But Mr Puigdemont, and everyone else, realises that this is weak. The turnout was only 43 per cent and the referendum cannot be seen as a clear expression of the people’s will.

This is why he has not declared UDI. Mr Puigdemont only notified Madrid of Catalonia’s “intention” to declare independence – an intention is not a declaration. Mr Puigdemont’s insistence on dialogue shows that the Catalan leaders have a better understanding of international law than the central government in Madrid. Spain must now stop breaking heads and making ultimatums and accept Catalonia’s right to a legitimate referendum. The law says: jaw jaw, and the sooner the better.