Friday 20 September 2019

Thousands call for talks between Spanish and Catalan leaders

Pro-unity supporters pack Plaza de Colon in Madrid (AP)
Pro-unity supporters pack Plaza de Colon in Madrid (AP)
Catalan separatists say they won the October 1 referendum (AP)

Thousands of people have rallied in Madrid and Barcelona in a last-ditch call for Spanish and Catalan leaders to stave off a national crisis amid Catalonia's imminent threat to secede from the rest of Spain.

The demonstrations in the Spanish capital and the Catalan city of Barcelona were held simultaneously under the slogan "Shall We Talk?" in an effort to push legislators in both cities to end months of silence and start negotiating.

The crowd wore white T-shirts and respected the organisers' call to not bring Spanish or Catalan flags.

Catalonia's regional president, Carles Puigdemont, has vowed that he will make good on the results of last Sunday's disputed referendum on secession won by the Yes side.

Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy warned that the vote was illegal and has promised that Catalonia is going nowhere.

Protesters packed Barcelona's Sant Jaume Square where the Catalan government has its presidential palace, shouting "We want to talk!" and holding signs saying "More Negotiation, Less Testosterone!" and "Talk or Resign!"

The gathering around Madrid's Cibeles fountain boasted a huge banner demanding that the leaders start talking. Some people chanted "Less hate, and more understanding!" and "Carles, Mariano, let's see if you can call each other."

There was a separate rally in Colon Square where thousands clamoured for the unity of Spain and against any attempt by the north-eastern region of Catalonia to break away.

The crowd bristled with Spanish flags, and some people danced in a fountain in the square.

Tensions almost boiled over when a small group of people waving Spanish flags, apparently from the pro-union rally, began shouting at people at the pro-dialogue rally. Police quickly moved in to separate the two groups.

The calls for dialogue and unity come after a traumatic week in Spain, which reached its peak last Sunday during Catalonia's referendum. Riot police stormed several polling stations in an unsuccessful attempt to impede the vote. Instead, they left hundreds of voters in need of medical attention.

Even though 2.2 million Catalan voted despite the crackdown- with 90% voting for independence- the vote polled less than half of the region's electorate.

Mr Puigdemont said he would seek a declaration of independence in the regional parliament anyway.

The referendum was followed by a strike on Tuesday across Catalonia to protest over the police violence. Then came a stern message from King Felipe VI that the Catalan government and parliament were breaking the law.

But just when secessionist sentiment was at its high point, Mr Puigdemont and his separatist cohorts were struck a blow when Catalonia's top two banks, Caixabank and Banco Sabadell, as well as energy company Gas Natural announced they were relocating their headquarters from Catalonia to other parts of Spain.

Other companies are also considering such a move to ensure that the possible secession of the region would not immediately knock them out of the European Union and its lucrative common market.

The warnings sent by the business sector have coincided with the first calls from within Mr Puigdemont's government to hold off on a declaration of independence.

Santi Vila, Catalonia's regional chief for business, told Cadena SER Radio he is pushing for "a new opportunity for dialogue" with Spanish authorities.

"We have to give it one more chance, maybe the last chance, and perhaps the only way that can happen is to start with a ceasefire," Mr Vila said.

"We can all calm down and give ourselves the opportunity to not take any decisions and see what channels we can open up to start a serene dialogue."


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