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Ramón Luis Valcárcel is vice-president of the European Parliament.

Spain is facing its greatest challenge since the failed military coup on Feb. 23, 1981. Then, our young democracy was on its own. Today, however, it is an integral part of the European Union, which respects and safeguards the national identities and constitutional structure of its member states. An attack on the constitution of one member state is therefore also an attack on the Union as a whole. The government of Catalonia is perpetrating such an attack against Spain.

We are witnessing the first coup against democracy in the history of the European Union. A regional government is angling, in a unilateral, illegal and democratically deplorable manner, to secede from a member state. And in so doing, it is violating the fundamental rights of millions of citizens. This situation is without precedent in the history of the Union.

The climate brought about by the Catalan government's actions (which include breaching fundamental laws, denying political pluralism and amplifying dissent) is dragging Catalonia towards autocracy. The government wishes to hold a referendum which is actually nothing of the sort: It is a plebiscite to ratify a unilateral secession born out of an illegitimate process. It is illegitimate because its "legal basis" was forced through surreptitiously in the middle of the night, with scant regard for deadlines, against the advice of the Catalan parliament's legal experts and in breach of the rights of the opposition MPs. The basis was also struck down by the Constitutional Court on the grounds that it was in direct violation of the Spanish Constitution (which, like those of most advanced democracies, stipulates that Spain is indivisible).

Although the secessionists reject all that is Spanish, they do not hesitate to invoke the provisions of international law ... but they do so falsely. One example is the 1998 ruling by the Supreme Court of Canada, whose provisions they misuse by forgetting that the "right to self-determination" to which they cling exists only if certain conditions are fulfilled. And it could never apply in a democratic state with full respect for its constitutional structures, human rights and minorities. Namely, a state such as Spain.

And they care not a jot that 400 of Spain's 550 professors of international law have come forward to clarify that the "right to decide" – invoked by the Catalan government as justification for its drift towards autocracy – is not enshrined in any international legal text. As Canada has ruled, on the basis of provisions laid down by the UN, the right of self-determination only applies to territories under the yoke of colonialism or suffering systematic abuses of human rights. Catalonia, which enjoys a quality of life above the European average – a matter of pride for Spain – and is a region with one of the highest degrees of self-government, meets neither of those conditions.

Contrary to the claims made in the so-called "procés," Catalonia is not Scotland, not least because Scottish separatists never acted against Britain's constitutional order. Nor is its situation comparable to that of Montenegro, Quebec or any other territory whose secessionism it admires. In reality, and to the horror of Catalans, only one comparison is valid: The intention of the President of Republika Srpska (one of the two entities of Bosnia and Herzegovina) to violate the constitutional order which brought an end to the war by launching a referendum that would also be unilateral and thus undemocratic.

In addition to violating the Spanish constitution and falling outside the scope of the right to self-determination, the Catalan consultation is also in breach of the standards set out by the Venice Commission, as that institution has made clear: It will not be held following a process in which equal opportunities are guaranteed for all, nor will it be organized by a neutral administration or on the basis of legislation adopted at least one year beforehand. And since no census is to be taken and there will be no minimum threshold for participation, it also runs counter to Canada's Clarity Act, which stipulates that a threshold of more than 50 per cent must be set. Yet the leaders of the secession movement remain perfectly satisfied with a procés which neither is nor seeks to be democratic in its intention to declare independence whatever the cost.

As the European institutions have reiterated – although their message has been twisted by the secessionist media machine, now aided by pro-Russian bots of the stature of Julian Assange – an independent Catalonia would automatically find itself outside the European Union. Antonio Tajani, president of the European Parliament, has also stated unambiguously that respect for the rule of law and the limits it imposes is not an option, but rather an obligation.

However, those responsible for this coup against democracy prefer to ignore reality, preaching a form of populism akin to Brexit and taking a page out of the playbook used by other anti-European movements. With its propaganda focusing on painting the legitimate as undemocratic and passing off the undemocratic as legitimate, Catalonia's procés represents the worst of today's Europe. The evident drift towards authoritarianism should be enough for this to be denounced in the court of international public opinion and explicitly condemned by all member states of the European Union.

Every so often separatist tensions flare up within the EU, but their protagonists have never gone so far as to hold an illegal referendum, as in Catalonia today. No country should therefore underestimate the power of the virus of nationalism to trigger a domino effect. If Catalonia were to leave Spain it could be followed by regions such as the Basque Country, which has suffered greatly at the hands of ETA's nationalist terrorism. And the contagion would quickly spread to other areas such as South Tyrol, Flanders, Corsica or Bavaria.

In these times of post-truth, remembrance is the scourge of liars. The Catalan secessionists deliberately forget, for example, that the Spanish Constitution was approved by more than 90.4 per cent of voters in Catalonia, and that its adoption sealed a democratic transition which was a model for the world and culminated in the Kingdom of Spain joining the European Community.

For Spanish democrats, this accession marked the realization of a dream. Europe represented values withheld from us during the long years of dictatorship. The same values that the Catalan government is now seeking to deprive its citizens of. Launched and propelled by the most complete disregard for the freedom of the individual, political pluralism and universal rights, the procés constitutes a coup against Spanish democracy and, by extension, a coup against the European Union. Faced with this threat, neither Spain nor Europe can stand idly by.