The European project rests on the idea that its member states enjoy sovereignty while eliminating trade barriers and erasing borders within the union. The Brussels bureaucracy and the Strasbourg parliament constantly work towards blending identities and integrating the continent, whose divisions had been so bloody and whose boundaries were once considered so sacrosanct that to defend them millions had died.

Weakening national identities have emboldened regional voices to look for greater space, and that drama is now most visible in Spain. The pain in Spain is mainly in its extremities—the Basque region had always seen itself as separate, and now prosperous Catalonia threatens to redraw the Spanish map. The disputed referendum, in which Catalonians voted for independence, has prompted Spain to dissolve the regional parliament and press sedition charges against the ousted Catalonian President Carles Puigdemont, who is in Brussels and has made his return conditional upon getting a fair trial.

This sounds like a situation where European Union (EU) diplomats would intervene, except that they have said they won’t, since Spain is part of the EU. Can the EU do at home what it advocates abroad?

Spain is a multilingual, and arguably multi-ethnic, country. To argue that all Spaniards speak Spanish is as arrogant and illiterate as saying that all Indians speak Hindi. What’s often described as “Spanish" is actually the version spoken over the widest territory—Castilian—and it is different from the Galician, Basque, or Catalonian languages. Describing those languages as dialects is also a political act; as the old joke goes, a dialect is a language without an army.

Catalonia has enjoyed substantial autonomy (it has its own flag and parliament), but it wants more powers, which Madrid is unwilling to grant. Turning back from brinkmanship is possible, but it would require deftness, adroitness and diplomacy, which seem difficult in the charged political atmosphere. Both sides have miscalculated. Catalonians demanding separation assume that the EU will let them become a full-fledged nation without many adverse consequences. But some investors have already moved headquarters to the Spanish capital Madrid. And European officials have told Catalonians that there is no automatic entry into the union for breakaway nations.

Perhaps Catalonians overplayed their hand when they held the referendum, in which 2.2 million voters, less than half the eligible 5.3 million, turned out. The low turnout took the shine off the 90% vote in favour of independence. Several opposition parties didn’t support the referendum. Did the low turnout mean that those who didn’t vote opposed the referendum? Or were they unable to vote and would have voted for independence? It is impossible to tell, except that many in Catalonia question the need for the referendum.

Spain’s over-the-top response to the referendum didn’t help matters. The enduring image of the referendum is of security forces dragging peaceful Catalonians wanting to vote, bringing back memories of divisions that date back to the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s, in which tens of thousands of civilians died. Francisco Franco’s dictatorial rule ended only with his death in 1975, and Spain joined the EU only in 1986.

Since Puigdemont declared independence, Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy has dissolved the Catalonian parliament and called for fresh elections in Catalonia in December. If held in a free and fair manner, those elections offer hope for a peaceful conclusion. Two European countries will watch the elections with more than casual interest: The UK, where Scotland may opt for another referendum should the Brexit talks descend into chaos, and Belgium, where Wallonia and Flanders sit uncomfortably alongside as if in an unhappy marriage.

To be sure, national self-determination is an essential element of international law, but even governments that support nationalistic aspirations elsewhere crush dissent at home sternly. Think of Indonesian use of force in East Timor, China’s suppression of Tibet, and closer home, the insurgencies India has faced in the North-East and in Jammu and Kashmir. Regardless of the law or the specifics of each case, there are legitimate questions: To what extent do the separatists represent the people in whose name they seek freedom? If referendum is the answer, is a simple majority enough to win? How would minorities be protected in the new nation?

In 1970, East Pakistanis voted overwhelmingly for the Awami League. Instead of inviting the Awami leader Sheikh Mujibur Rahman to form the government recognizing his majority, Yahya Khan prolonged negotiations with the Awamis and sent troops, unleashing terror in which hundreds of thousands were killed, making Bangladesh’s independence inevitable.

The Catalonian situation is vastly different. But Rajoy has raised the stakes by pressing sedition charges. Walking back from such a precipice requires sagacity. In the period of prolonged uncertainty that lies ahead, avoiding and dealing with unpleasant surprises will require wisdom.

The EU was formed to prevent violence on a blood-soaked continent. On its periphery, it has failed twice: the Balkans in the 1990s, and Ukraine more recently. Its role as a peacemaker abroad hinges on stability at home. That reputation is at risk. The Spanish dilemma may prove to be far more complicated than Brexit, which now looks like a comedy in comparison.

Salil Tripathi is a writer based in London.

Comments are welcome at salil@livemint.com. Read Salil’s previous Mint columns at www.livemint.com/saliltripathi

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