Tens of thousands of people gathered in Madrid and Barcelona on Saturday morning as Catalonia prepared to declare independence, many dressed in white and calling for talks to defuse Spain’s worst political crisis for decades.
The wealthy northeastern region of Catalonia, with its own language and culture, has long claimed to be distinct from the rest of the country and on Sunday held a referendum on leaving Spain, a vote the constitutional court had banned.
The Catalan authorities say that a majority of those who voted supported a split from Spain. Madrid says secession is illegal under the country’s 1978 constitution.
The political stand-off has divided the country, pushed banks and companies to move their headquarters outside Catalonia and shaken market confidence in the Spanish economy, prompting calls from the European Commission for Catalan and Spanish leaders to find a political solution.
In peaceful protests called across 50 Spanish cities, and fully dispersed by early afternoon, thousands gathered dressed in white and carrying banners calling for peace and dialogue between leaders.
In Barcelona, protesters chanted “let’s talk” in Catalan, while many carried signs criticising political leaders for not finding a diplomatic solution to the impasse.
“This is producing a social rupture in Catalonia and this has to be resolved through dialogue, never via unilateralism,” Jose Manuel Garcia, 61, an economist who attended the protest dressed in white said.
“I’m very worried. This will end badly and everyone will lose (without dialogue).”
While Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont has said he is open to mediation, Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy insists he gives up the independence campaign, which grew in strength during a near-six year economic crisis, before discussions can be held.
Meanwhile, in Madrid, parallel to the “Let’s talk” march, thousands gathered beneath the enormous Spanish flag in Colon Plaza waving their own flags, singing and chanting “Viva España” and “Viva Catalonia.”
“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.
Borras, wearing a “Catalonia, we love you” sticker and surrounded by thousands waving Spanish flags, added: “I wanted to be here for unity, because I also feel very Catalan. My family lives in Catalonia.”