BARCELONA, Spain (AP) — More than 100,000 Catalan separatists gathered in Barcelona on Sunday to try to revive the independence movement which is unraveling as the fifth anniversary of its failed attempt to secede from Spain approaches.
For the past decade, the 9/11 rally held on Catalonia’s public holiday has been the focal point of the separatist movement in the northeast region. It attracted several hundred thousand people demanding the creation of a new country in this province of the western Mediterranean.
But the unity between pro-independence political parties and civil society groups that led the October 2017 independence campaign, which received no international support and was quickly quashed, is in danger of collapsing due to differing views on how to move forward.
The Catalan National Assembly (ANC), a civil group organizing Sunday’s march, strongly opposes talks the Catalan government is holding with the Spanish central government in Madrid. The influential organization says it has lost confidence in the political parties and is ready to move forward without them towards a new attempt to break with Spain.
This led to the regional president of Catalonia, Pere Aragonès, announcing that he would be the first Catalan president not to attend the annual march.
ANC president Dolors Feliu told The Associated Press that she hopes Sunday’s rally will serve as a wake-up call for Aragonès to halt negotiations with the central government.
“It must be the people on the streets and the institutions committed to independence who achieve independence and the Spanish state will oppose us,” Feliu said. “If we wait for approval from the Spanish state, we won’t go anywhere.”
Barcelona police calculated that 150,000 people attended the rally. The organizers demanded several hundred thousand more. Amid a sea of pro-independence flags, some demonstrators carried signs asking the Catalan authorities to make a “declaration of independence or resign”.
Feliu told the huge crowd in downtown Barcelona that “this rally has instilled fear”, presumably, in the separatist parties.
Aragonès participated in other events during the holidays, but other members of his Republican Left of Catalonia party endured the mockery of “Traitors!” spectators during the traditional offering of flowers in front of a monument to a Catalan nationalist in Barcelona.
“Make no mistake who our real adversary is: the Spanish state,” said Marta Vilalta, spokesperson for the Aragonès party. “Enough of the criticism and everything that divides us.”
Aragonès defends the talks with the government of Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez as vital. He insists he will not back down from his promise to hold another independence referendum, but said the talks are crucial to finding solutions for the dozens of Catalans in legal trouble for their role in the 2017 dissident candidacy which was ruled illegal by Spanish courts.
Coinciding with the talks, the Spanish government last year pardoned nine Catalan separatist leaders who had been sentenced to long prison terms for leading the 2017 bid.
The infighting that threatens Catalonia’s separatist cause comes as Scotland seeks to hold a second independence referendum after winning a ‘No’ vote in 2014.
Catalan separatist parties won 52% of the vote last year and maintained their grip on the regional parliament, but after years of extreme tensions and protests that turned violent in 2019, many people, especially around half Catalans who want to stay in Spain, are relieved that there is a dialogue with the central authorities.
There are also divisions between the separatist political parties that form the government of Catalonia. The young member of the Aragonès government shares the ANC’s skepticism about the talks with Madrid. Its leaders have publicly spoken of leaving the government unless there is a stronger plan of action to force independence.
But no one, not the ANC or the more radical separatist parties, seems to be able to articulate exactly how they can achieve independence other than through an authorized referendum. The 2017 bid was based on an unauthorized referendum on independence, and that only caused legal problems for the separatists.
Historian Enric Ucelay-Da Cal, author of several books on Catalonia and its separatist movement, says this marks the low point of the current push.
“I think the whole movement is on a limb,” Ucelay-Da Cal told the AP. “I don’t see the associative movement being able to lead better than the parties have done, because none of them is confronted with the reality of the facts. They don’t measure who they are. They say “we are everyone”.
He said the breakup of the movement is “just a hangover: you partied and it didn’t work out”.