Catalan leader under pressure to drop independence

The stakes are high for Spain as it faces its biggest political crisis since it became a democracy four decades ago.

Catalan leader under pressure to drop independence
A man carries a placard in English during a pro-union demonstration organised by the Catalan Civil Society organisation in Barcelona. (Reuters Photo)

Barcelona/Madrid: Catalonia's secessionist leader came under intense pressure on Monday to abandon plans to declare independence from Spain after hundreds of thousands of unionists took to the streets at the weekend to protest against the region breaking away.

Spain fears the Catalan parliament will vote for independence on Tuesday, when Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont is due to address the assembly in the wake of a banned Oct. 1 referendum in which Catalan officials say people voted overwhelmingly for secession.

Under Catalonia`s referendum law, deemed unconstitutional by Madrid, a vote for independence on Tuesday would start a six-month process that would envisage divorce talks with Spain before regional elections and a final act of separation.

But the Spanish government, buoyed by Sunday's protests in Barcelona, the Catalan capital, made it clear on Monday it would respond immediately to any such vote.

"I`m calling on the sensible people in the Catalan government...don`t jump off the edge because you`ll take the people with you," Spanish Deputy Prime Minister Soraya Saenz de Santamaría said in an interview with COPE radio station.

"If there is a unilateral declaration of independence there will be decisions made to restore law and democracy."

Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy has not ruled out removing Catalonia`s government and calling new regional elections if it claims independence.

The stakes are high for Spain as it faces its biggest political crisis since it became a democracy four decades ago.

Losing Catalonia, which has its own language and culture, would deprive Spain of a fifth of its economic output and more than a quarter of exports. A stream of Catalonia-based firms and banks have moved their legal bases outside the region.

The crisis has also reopened old divisions in a nation where fascism is a living memory easily revived by strong displays of nationalism.

Among many moderate Spaniards, though, there is widespread opposition to a breakaway, including in Catalonia. Most of the region`s unionists boycotted the Oct. 1 referendum, which was banned by Madrid and marred by a violent police crackdown.

The European Union has also shown no interest in an independent Catalonia, despite an appeal by Puigdemont for Brussels to mediate in the crisis.

France, which borders Catalonia, said on Monday it would not recognise a unilateral independence declaration.

On Sunday, a crowd estimated by local police to number 350,000, took to the streets of the Catalan capital Barcelona, waving Spanish and Catalan flags and carrying banners saying "Catalonia is Spain" and "Together we are stronger".

The show of support for Madrid helped calm Spanish markets on Monday, along with comments on Friday from credit rating agencies Moody`s and DBRS that they expected Spain to remain united. Spanish borrowing costs fell to a one-week low and the main share index touched a week high.

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