Millions march for Catalonia

by our European Affairs correspondent

TWO MILLION people took to the streets of Barcelona this week to call for independence during the celebrations marking Catalonia’s national day on Tuesday.

Catalonia, once part of the medieval kingdom of Aragon that united with Spain in the 15th century, has a distinct culture and language that was recognised by the Spanish Popular Front government in the 1930s.

The Franco dictatorship which followed the fascist victory in the Spanish civil war annulled Catalonia’s autonomous status and outlawed any expression of Catalan culture or its language. Catalonia regained its autonomous status following General Franco’s death in 1975 and the restoration of the monarchy under a bourgeois constitution.

Most of the Spanish left support demands for greater autonomy for Catalonia, the Basque country and other parts of Spain but the call for outright independence has centred around the Republican Left of Catalonia and Catalan Solidarity for Independence, who won over 11 per cent of the votes in the 2010 Catalan elections and form the third largest bloc in the Catalan parliament.

Since then support has grown with more Catalans seeing independence for one of the wealthiest regions in the country as a way out of the crisis. The world capitalist slump and national government’s austerity programme has sent unemployment soaring to record levels.

Around 5.7 million Spaniards — nearly 25 per cent of the work force — are unemployed. And this was seen on Tuesday as huge crowds converged on Barcelona carrying the red and yellow banners of the Catalan flag. Many came by train or in a thousand and more coaches hired to bring supporters into the Catalan capital for the march and rally, which brought the city to a standstill.

Even Artur Mas, the Catalan president and leader of the governing centre-right Convergence and Union Party, joined the marchers after initially saying he would boycott the event.

Meanwhile Republican Left of Catalonia MP Alfred Bosch told the BBC: "All the flags I can see are the pro-independence flags of Catalonia with the lonely star right in the middle of the triangle. And everybody is wearing these flags. I have never seen so many pro-independence flags in my all life."

But Spanish premier Mariano Rajoy, who leads the right wing People’s Party, dismissed the rally as gesture politics. "This isn't a moment for big gestures like this. What we need to do is create jobs," he said claiming that fiscal independence for Catalonia would achieve nothing in the country's overall battle against economic collapse. That remains to be seen. The Catalan parliament is considering plans for an independence referendum in 2014 and the latest opinion poll in the region showed that over half the population now favour secession from Spain.