Great white tide to halt chaos

Published by The Mail on Sunday (8th October, 2017)

They came in their thousands wearing white, releasing balloons and begging their leaders to start peace talks to prevent Spain’s crisis over Catalonia’s push for independence spiralling out of control.

Demonstrations in 50 Spanish cities highlighted the seriousness of the situation confronting one of Europe’s most important nations.

In Barcelona 5,500 protesters chanted ‘Let’s talk’ in Catalan. ‘We’re afraid because there could be chaos,’ said Marieta Luma, 51, an engineer wearing a heart pinned to her white T-shirt. ‘If politicians do not arrive at agreement there may be disaster.’

At a pro-unity demonstration in Madrid thousands chanted Viva España beneath the massive Spanish flag that stands permanently in Colon Plaza.

One leading Catalan politician called for a ‘ceasefire’ with Spain to lower tensions. ‘We have to give it one more chance, maybe the last chance,’ said Santi Vila, the business minister.

The events were organised by a new group formed after Catalonia’s controversial referendum last weekend, a vote which backed secession despite brutal police attempts to prevent polling in a ballot declared illegal.

Police wielding batons tried to seize ballot boxes in scenes more redolent of a brutal dictatorship than a modern European democracy. Many fear it may be a foretaste of what is to come as populist politicians in Catalonia push for separation from Spain while a weak Madrid government and a cack-handed king worsen the situation.

On Friday, the Catalan government revealed final results of the banned referendum. There was a huge majority to secede, although fewer than half the eligible 5.3 million voters cast ballots.

Carles Puigdemont, the Catalan leader, has said the result is binding. Now Europe waits anxiously to see if he will make a unilateral independence proclamation this week, sparking fears of spiralling confrontation – with the darkest historical echoes.

The scale of the crisis, Spain’s most serious since a failed coup in 1981, has been brought home by banks and other firms already starting to move legal bases from Barcelona to ensure they remain inside the European Union.

The stakes are high since Spain is the fourth-biggest economy in the eurozone and Catalonia is a substantial source of the country’s tax revenues.

More pro-unity rallies are scheduled in several cities today, with fears that far-Right groups may flock to one in Barcelona.

Madrid has chartered three ferries, with capacity for 6,600 passengers, to accommodate police sent to Barcelona and Tarragona, another seaside city. There are unconfirmed rumours of special forces sent to secure sites such as airports in case the crisis escalates this week.

Some of the worst violence last weekend was seen in historic Girona, north of Barcelona, at the primary school attended by Puigdemont’s children, where riot police were determined to stop people reaching the ballot boxes.

Old and young linked hands to defy them in defence of their democracy. But after firing warning shots close to their heads, the black- clad paramilitary forces charged at the voters, lashing out with their batons.

One man was coshed 12 times in the melee, others kicked as they lay bloodied on the ground. ‘I was scared,’ said retired banker Jaume, 58, who went to vote. ‘I was in the third row of the crowd so when they started to beat the first row, I knew they were going to soon beat me.

‘I put my hands up but I was hit on the head. Then as I tried to leave and cross the road, with blood pouring from my head wound, another policeman hit me on the leg. The police looked savage. You could see from their faces they wanted to damage people.’

Puigdemont is due to make an official statement on Tuesday evening. Spanish courts have already suspended a Catalan parliamentary session amid threats of sedition charges and imposition of direct rule from Madrid.

Carme Forcadell, speaker of Catalan’s parliament, said: ‘We are living in an emergency situation in which the constitutional court, acting on orders of the Spanish government, is seeking to tell a democratic parliament what it can and cannot talk about.

‘We will not let that happen. Declarations of independence made democratically and peacefully in nations freely exercising their right to self-determination are valid.’

The violent police response, followed by King Felipe’s fierce condemnation of attempts to break ‘the unity of Spain’ in which he ignored their actions, has only inflamed the long-running sore of Catalonian nationalism.

Surveys show support for independence doubled after the financial crisis in 2008 that struck Spain hard, but there was never a majority in favour.

Catalonia pays billions more to Madrid than it gets back, provoking nationalist claims of ‘robbery.’ Although one of the richest regions, with lower unemployment than most of Spain and thriving tourism, it still has more than one-third of young people without jobs. Many Catalans believe they are being restrained by a backward nation.

It is impossible to ignore ghosts from the past in a region that was the home of the defeated revolutionary forces in the 1930s civil war that led to a fascist dictatorship under General Franco, which only ended on his death in 1975.

Several people on the streets quoted an infamous refrain by a 19th Century Spanish general – ‘You have to bomb Barcelona at least once every 50 years’ – while a popular television comedy show made jokes about a sleeping Franco returning to the fray.

Ramon Tremosa, an economist and Catalan MEP, joked drily that ‘at least they are only beating us, not shooting us.’ If Puigdemont presses ahead with his proclamation, that quip may yet take a darker turn.

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