I recently returned from Barcelona, the city I lived and worked in for two years. I have friends on both sides of the independence debate and I travelled out there for the election in October. Having a Catalan great aunt who lived through Franco’s dictatorship, I’ve always maintained an interest in the region’s politics. This time I was there to find out about the current crisis.

On publication my words will be out of date. Events are moving quickly. The Constitutional Court of Spain ruled the October referendum illegal on 6 September. Following this decision, the Spanish government – in the hands of the traditionalist Conservative party People’s Party (Partido Popular, with historical political ties to Francoism) – sent its security forces into Catalonia. The calculated violence against voters on 1 October (1-O) was widely publicised, but the weeks before the vote saw Guardia Civil officers arrest ministers from the Catalan parliament and shut down websites informing citizens about the ballot.

The current Catalan government is unified on independence, although less so than before 1-O, and divided on social policy. Prior to current events there was ferocious debate between left and right over the political status quo and the future. Following its election in 2015, the Catalan government made clear its intention to build a movement of civil disobedience to achieve a referendum, which if it were held constitutionally (across the whole of Spain) would be almost impossible to win. Having attended many demonstrations, I can attest to the movement being determined but resolutely peaceful.

Scenes beamed around the world on polling day were deeply shocking. Officers from the Policia Nacional and Guardia Civil – the national police force and paramilitary police respectively, the latter barely reconstructed since the days of Franco – closed polling stations with efficient brutality, actions reminiscent of the dark days of dictatorship. The Catalan Police (Mossos D’esquadra) refused orders to join them, in some cases defending voters alongside Catalan firefighters.

It’s questionable whether the ballot returned a solid mandate for independence. According to the Catalan government, police incursions removed up to 770,000 votes, leaving the total cast at 2,286,217 against 5,313,564 registered and eligible voters, just over 43%. Of the votes cast, a total of 2,044,038 – 92% when excluding invalid or blank votes – said they wanted Catalonia ‘to become an independent state in the form of a republic’.

On Monday 2 October, the EU Commission stated that the referendum and subsequent state violence were constitutional matters to be dealt with internally. Jean-Claude Junker has since made it clear that an independent Catalonia would exit the European Union and Eurozone. The relationship between Spain, Catalonia and Europe throws up a further difficult juxtaposition. Catalonia is, across all sectors, an industrial hub benefiting from working-class migration from other regions. In the wake of the 2007 crash, and swingeing austerity demands from the European Central Bank in return for bailouts, Catalonia fared better than other autonomous communities.

As I write, leaders of two key pro-independence organisations – Jordi Sánchez of the Catalan National Assembly and Jordi Cuixart of Òmnium Cultural – have been remanded in custody while they are investigated for sedition for alleged roles in protests against the Guardia Civil incursion on 20 September, a charge carrying a custodial sentence of 15 years. Major Josep Lluis Trapero of the Mossos faces the same charges.

We also await the decision of the Spanish government regarding the enactment of article 155, due on 19 October, which would see direct rule of Catalonia established from Madrid, removing the devolution afforded to Catalonia under the Statute of Autonomy. This threat will only be withdrawn if Catalan President Carles Puigdemont retracts any claim for independence or negotiation based on the results of the 1-O vote.

The situation is changing by the day. Watch closely. The coming days are of grave importance to the whole of Europe.

James Roberts