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An 'unknown disaster' looms in Catalonia's independence crisis

Masses of Catalans gathered in Barcelona this weekend to call for dialogue and protest further confrontation with Spain. Their demand? More solutions, fewer egos. Mariel Müller reports from Barcelona.

On Saturday, Sant Jaume Square in the center of Barcelona was a sea of white T-shirts. The choice of clothing was intended to send a message of peace. Thousands of residents were gathered here between the Catalonian presidential palace and Barcelona city hall in answer to an anonymous call to demonstration. And on Sunday, hundreds of thousands once more took the Barcelona's streets under two yellow-and-red flags — that of Spain and that of the autonomous region of Catalonia (above).

The weekend's goal: to demand that leaders on both sides of an increasingly intense conflict, Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy and Catalonian President Carles Puigdemont, begin a dialogue.

Read more: Anti-independence Catalans have been 'abandoned' by Spain's central government

"They must finally sit down with one another and talk, things cannot keep on like this," said a man that came to Saturday's protest with his daughter on his shoulders. He says he has an opinion about Catalonian independence, but that is not what is called for here. "If I had seen just one flag, no matter if Spanish or Catalonian, I would have left immediately," he said. Saturday's flags were all white, emblazoned with the words "parlem" and "hablemos," Catalan and Spanish respectively for "Let's talk." 

Read more: Catalan independence: Spain rejects calls for mediation by Catalan President Carles Puigdemont

A young woman explains: "This is a people's movement, not one sponsored by a political party." That is also the reason that this particular protest is so much smaller that those which have been held over the last few weeks, such as the massive "Si" (Yes) rally that was staged before Catalonia held its controversial independence referendum on October 1. The demonstrator said it is hard to get hundreds of thousands of people out on the streets if a political party or major organization is not behind the call. And she is right: After about three hours, Saturday's demonstration was over and the square was once again the stage for newlyweds armed with confetti cannons.

Protesters in front of the presidential palace in Barcelona (DW/M. Müller)

Protesters in front of the presidential palace in Barcelona on Saturday

'We are the silent majority'

But what will happen if Catalonian President Carles Puigdemont really does declare independence on Tuesday? Will the Spanish government invoke Article 155 of the Constitution and nullify Catalonian autonomy? Many are worried. Will Puigdemont be arrested? How will his supporters react? Will there be more violence? Those are all questions that the demonstrators are asking. One answer is repeatedly voiced, louder and clearer than any other: "The politicians should do their damn job — for us. They should let the people decide instead of trying to push their own political agendas at any cost," said one agitated woman.

There is no doubt the majority of the people do not want independence. "We are the silent majority. We are the 60 percent that refused to vote, or voted 'no.'" Indeed, the overwhelming majority of those gathered on Saturday say they are decidedly against breaking away from Spain.

The Catalonian government, however, says that 90 percent of those citizens that cast ballots in the contested independence referendum are for independence. They represent some 43 percent of all eligible Catalonian voters.

Read more: Catalan independence - what you need to know

There are also a number of citizens that are open to negotiations, says Oriol Bartomeu, a political scientist at the Autonomous University of Barcelona. "Most Catalans want to remain within Spain if Catalonia's autonomous powers are expanded and if Spain truly transform itself into a pluralist system." The expert adds that if Madrid had taken steps in that direction when it had the chance to do so years ago, the situation today would look very different.

Political Scientist Oriol Bartomeu (DW/Mariel Müller)

Bartomeu said that Madrid could have acted in years past to prevent the present crisis

'The Spanish side feels like it will win'

But right now that is not the case, and Madrid has refused to give an inch. "The Spanish side has the feeling that it will win out, so why should it make any concessions?" Bartomeu explains. It is currently pursing a strategy that says, either Catalonia gives in completely or it unilaterally declares independence. "And that would be very risky for the government of Catalonia, because it does not have majority support among the population," he adds. Should that scenario come to pass, the Spanish government would then invoke Article 155. And then? "That's the unknown disaster."

One group that could greatly influence the Catalan decision is the left-wing party Popular Unity Candidacy (CUP), which guarantees President Puigdemont's parliamentary majority. Party spokesman Quim Arrufat says that he "does not want to take any unilateral steps." Especially not in the wake of the heavy-handed crackdown meted out by Spanish police on the day of the referendum, he clarifies. "If there is movement on the Spanish side, then we will wait and see what happens." Arrufat says that the CUP is prepared to start a dialogue with Madrid.

CUP Spokesperson Quim Arrufat in Barcelona (DW/M. Müller)

CUP spokesperon Arrufat says his party is open to dialog, but he doesn't see way to back down from the current confrontation with Madrid

Separatist movement could become more radical

Ultimately, Arrafut believes the question is not if Catalonia will declare independence but when. He thinks that Tuesday, the day President Puigdemont is set to address Catalonia's parliament, will be too soon. Will Puigdemont back down? "No," says the party spokesman.

Political scientist Bartomeu says the situation is precarious. "If the Puigdemont government says, 'let's forget independence,' it will have a big problem on its hands. They can say it, but that won't mean that the separatist movement's two million supporters will suddenly stop protesting — quite the opposite." Then the Catalonian government will run the risk of losing control of the situation entirely, he explains. "The movement will be smaller, but much more radical," warns Bartomeu. "At that point, no one can rule out violence between separatists and police."        

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