Friday 20 September 2019

Catalonia vs Spain? 'We just need to talk'

Thousands march and urge Spain to defuse mounting political crisis, writes Hannah Strange

Dialogue: Peaceful protesters chanting ‘Let’s talk’ at a demonstration at Cibeles Square in Madrid. Similar marches across the country called on Catalan and Spanish cooperation. Photo: Getty Images
Dialogue: Peaceful protesters chanting ‘Let’s talk’ at a demonstration at Cibeles Square in Madrid. Similar marches across the country called on Catalan and Spanish cooperation. Photo: Getty Images

Hannah Strange

Thousands of white-clad protesters descended on Barcelona and cities across Spain yesterday to call for urgent talks on the Catalonia crisis, as splits began to emerge within the independence movement over how to secure their goal of a republic.

A week after the banned independence referendum - dismissed as an illegal "farce" by Madrid - yielded a 90pc 'Yes' vote, rallies in 50 cities urged political leaders to sit down at the negotiating table.

In Madrid, protesters raised a white flag in front of the city hall, waving signs urging "less hate and more conversation" and "less batons, more telephone calls".

In marked contrast to the sea of Spanish flags at a rally less than a mile away, where demonstrators insisted there would be "no dialogue with putschists", many at the "Let's talk" demonstration blamed the schism on both sides.

"I've come because I feel very Spanish and makes me very sad what's happened," said Rosa Borras (47), an unemployed secretary who had joined a noisy gathering in central Madrid.

Wearing a 'Catalonia, we love you' sticker and surrounded by thousands waving Spanish flags, she added: "I wanted to be here for unity, because I also feel very Catalan. My family lives in Catalonia."

"Neither of the parties are managing this well," said Vicen and Fernando, a married couple in their 50s.

Guillermo Fernandez, an organiser of the initiative, said political leaders were displaying a lack of will to talk. "We don't want them to infuse us with hate, we want peace and not hate, so if they don't sit down we will keep coming back until they do," he said.

But with a unilateral declaration of independence (UDI) expected this week, hopes of dialogue are fading. Mariano Rajoy, the Spanish prime minister, on Friday insisted the declaration be dropped as a precondition for talks, a suggestion roundly dismissed by the Catalan government.

Hardliners are ramping up the pressure, with opponents of independence urging Madrid to suspend Catalonia's autonomy, and radical supporters demanding a hard exit from Spain.

The hard-left CUP, a junior partner in the pro-independence alliance, insisted last week on UDI by parliament tomorrow in a session that Spain's constitutional court ordered suspended. Carles Puigdemont, the Catalan president, has asked to appear on Tuesday instead to evaluate referendum results - but the CUP has again called for a snap declaration. The party has only 10 parliamentarians but is crucial to the regional coalition.

Eulalia Reguant, a CUP representative, proposed seizing territorial control of the region, including its ports and airports. "This parliament has made a lot of declarations that afterwards come to nothing," she said. Mr Puigdemont has always rejected a traumatic rupture with Spain, seeing UDI as a starting point for dialogue.

As banks and businesses began to announce plans to move headquarters out of Catalonia, Santi Vila, the business secretary, called for a "ceasefire" with Madrid, warning against "taking irreparable decisions in the coming days".

Speaking yesterday, Catalan spokesman Joan Maria Pique denied any "controversy" over the expected declaration. He said it would be in accordance with the referendum law, which stipulates a declaration 48 hours after Mr Puigdemont presents the results in the parliament.

Mr Pique dismissed the notion that the government retained hopes of a last-minute deal with Madrid, adding: "We always said the referendum was binding and it is going to be."

Activists on the streets hope they will not have to wait too long. In Barcelona, referendum defence committees, set up in local neighbourhoods to protect last week's vote, say they plan to march on the Catalan parliament on Tuesday to defend it against any attempts by central authorities to disrupt UDI.


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