The recent referendum on independence in Catalonia has had an impact across Europe and the world. What the Spanish government tried to suppress as an "internal Spanish problem" has attracted global attention. Given how quickly the situation has been evolving, new developments may have occurred even by the time you read this column.
I was invited by the Catalan Diplomacy Council to join a team of over forty members of parliament from across Europe to act as an international observer. Our task was to observe how the ballot was conducted and to write a public report of our findings.
We split into teams of four and were allocated specific areas of Catalonia to cover. My group started at ballot station in Barcelona, where people were queuing outside to vote. The polls were due to open at 9am, but there was a problem. The staff in the polling station couldn't get access to the internet which meant they couldn't get the electoral register. Without that, they couldn't be sure that people wouldn't vote twice, for instance. Hours went by but the people outside understood the problem and waited patiently until 10.30 when they succeeded in getting a signal via a mobile phone. This problem happened in many areas and it was no accident. Spain had blocked over 200 websites relating to the referendum, and was attempting to block access to the electoral register.
We were late moving on to the next polling station where again we found hundreds of people queuing in the rain to vote. This time there was another problem: plain clothes Spanish police were amongst the crowds. People feared they were there to snatch the ballot boxes and were crowding around both entrances to the school to ensure they couldn't get past.
It was the same story everywhere we went. Huge numbers came out to vote and to protect ballot stations from the Spanish police. I was lucky not to witness the shocking violence against voters at some polling stations but I could follow events on Twitter. As the day went on the atmosphere became more tense. No-one knew where the police would arrive next.
The people of Catalonia have the right to decide their own future. To see security forces being used to stop people voting in today's Europe is astounding. This is an issue of democracy as much as independence and it is an issue for the whole of Europe. The acts of brutality against peaceful voters were totally unacceptable and should never again be seen. What many people may not have seen is that the speaker of the Catalan Parliament was prosecuted by the Spanish Government for allowing a debate on independence to take place, as well as civil servants arrested. I have been calling on the European Union to intervene and to recognise and protect peoples' fundamental rights. We must ensure dialogue and a peaceful way forward.