Massive rally in Barcelona against Catalan independence

March comes two days after Spanish government took control of disputed region

Tens of thousands of pro-unity demonstrators waving Spanish, Catalan, and European Union flags took to the streets of Barcelona on Sunday (October 29) as the country faced its worst political crisis in the four decades since its return to democracy.

 

Hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets of Barcelona on Sunday to voice their support for Spain’s territorial unity, after the first measures were taken by Madrid in its plan to introduce direct rule in Catalonia.

Unionist politicians led the demonstration, organised by civic group Catalan Civil Society (SCC) under the slogan “We’re all Catalonia”.

Estimates as to numbers of participants varied between 1.3 million, according to organisers, and a local police estimate of 300,000. It was the second massive show of strength by Catalan unionists in recent weeks.

Pro-unity supporters take part in a demonstration in central Barcelona. Photograph: Yves Herman/Reuters
Pro-unity supporters take part in a demonstration in central Barcelona. Photograph: Yves Herman/Reuters

“A flag is more than just some colours, it represents an identity and we have two: that of Catalonia and that of Spain, ” said Josep Borrell, a former Socialist government minister and president of the European parliament, who addressed those present.

Senior politicians in the governing Popular Party (PP), Ciudadanos and the Catalan Socialist Party (PSC) also took part.

Mr Borrell and others criticised Carles Puigdemont, the Catalan president whom the Spanish government has removed from office as part of its introduction of direct rule in the region.

Pro-unity supporters take part in a demonstration in central Barcelona. Photograph: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images
Pro-unity supporters take part in a demonstration in central Barcelona. Photograph: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

Paco Frutos, a former leader of the Spanish Communist Party (PCE), accused the independence movement of “pitting people against each other, because you destroy freedom, democracy and the voice of those who don’t think like you.”

On Friday, the senate approved the Spanish government’s use of article 155 of the constitution, allowing it to take control of much of Catalonia’s devolved administration. The approval came on the same day that the Catalan parliament had issued a declaration of independence.

Protesters wave Spanish and Catalan Senyera flags during a pro-unity demonstration in Barcelona. Photograph: Pierre-Phillippe MarcouAFP/Getty Images
Protesters wave Spanish and Catalan Senyera flags during a pro-unity demonstration in Barcelona. Photograph: Pierre-Phillippe MarcouAFP/Getty Images

December election

As well as announcing the removal from office of Mr Puigdemont, Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy has used the mechanism to announce the dissolution of the Catalan parliament and a regional election on December 21st.

“Catalans will speak with freedom and guarantees on December 21st,” Mr Rajoy tweeted on Sunday. It is still not clear if pro-independence parties will run in that election.

As part of its direct rule plan, the Spanish government has also relieved of their duties the senior officer in the Catalan police force, Josep Lluís Trapero, and the force’s managing director, Pere Soler.

Mr Trapero is under investigation for sedition due to his actions in the build-up to the independence referendum held earlier this month, which sparked the current crisis.

On Sunday, the Spanish interior minister, Juan Ignacio Zoido, appealed to all police in Catalonia to obey orders from Madrid “and to fulfil your mandate as set out in the constitution and the [REGIONAL]statute.”

Pro-unity supporters take part in a demonstration in central Barcelona. Photograph: Jon Nazca/Reuters
Pro-unity supporters take part in a demonstration in central Barcelona. Photograph: Jon Nazca/Reuters

However, there is still some uncertainty over how exactly direct rule will work in practice. On Saturday, Mr Puigdemont issued a filmed statement in which he called for “democratic opposition” to Madrid’s rule and said he would “keep working to build a free country.”

Support for Puigdemont

In an article published in El Punt Avui newspaper, Mr Puigdemont’s deputy, Oriol Junqueras, who has also been removed from his post, struck a defiant tone.

An image grab taken from a handout video released by the Spanish police shows an aerial view of protesters holding a giant Catalan flag during a pro-unity demonstration in Barcelona. Photograph: Spanish police/AFP/Getty Images
An image grab taken from a handout video released by the Spanish police shows an aerial view of protesters holding a giant Catalan flag during a pro-unity demonstration in Barcelona. Photograph: Spanish police/AFP/Getty Images

“The president of our country is and will continue to be Carles Puigdemont and the speaker of parliament is and will continue to be Carme Forcadell, at least until the day when the people decide the opposite in free elections,” he wrote.

Mr Puigdemont was seen walking the streets of his home city, Girona, on Saturday. It is not known whether he will attempt to return to his offices in the Catalan government headquarters in Barcelona on Monday.

The attorney general is expected to present charges against Mr Puigdemont linked to the independence drive, which could see him face a lengthy jail term. On Sunday, a Belgian government official, Theo Francken, appeared to moot the possibility of offering the Catalan leader asylum, in a television interview.

Pro-unity supporters take part in a demonstration in central Barcelona. Photograph: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images
Pro-unity supporters take part in a demonstration in central Barcelona. Photograph: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

However, Belgian prime minister Charles Michel said no such proposal was being considered by his government. Mr Michel’s criticism of Spanish police violence on the day of the referendum sparked a diplomatic dispute between his country and Madrid.

So far, the administration of Mr Puigdemont has failed to gain any top-level international acknowledgement for Catalonia as an independent state.