Spain marks national day with show of unity in Catalan crisis
Spain celebrated its national day Thursday with a show of unity in the face of Catalan independence efforts, a day after the central government gave the region’s separatist leader a deadline to abandon his secession bid.
The country is suffering its worst political crisis in a generation after separatists in the wealthy northeastern region voted in a banned referendum on October 1 to split from Spain.
To mark the national holiday, Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy and King Felipe VI attended a traditional military parade in central Madrid.
Armed forces marched along Madrid’s Paseo de la Castellana boulevard to commemorate the day that Christopher Columbus first arrived in the Americas in 1492.
But events were overshadowed by the crash of a Eurofighter jet, which went down on its route back to base after taking part in the display, killing its pilot.
Separate pro-unity rallies, including one by members of a far-right movement, were organized in the Catalan capital Barcelona.
Spanish unity rally
In Madrid, cheering crowds lined the streets, waving red and yellow Spanish flags and some crying “Viva Espana!” as air force jets and helicopters swooped overhead.
Some teenagers climbed trees to get a better look as thousands of troops and vehicles parade through central Madrid.
“I love to see people waving our national flag,” said Beatriz Trapero, who was watching with her husband.
“There used to be a certain shyness in showing it but now it seems not so much.”
Rajoy has vowed to do everything in his power to prevent Catalan secession.
His government says it is ready to take control of the region after Catalan president Carles Puigdemont’s announcement Tuesday that he accepted a mandate for “Catalonia to become an independent state.”
But he quickly asked regional lawmakers to suspend it to allow for dialogue with Madrid.
Rajoy responded that Puigdemont had until next Monday to decide if he planned to push ahead with secession and then until next Thursday to reconsider, otherwise Madrid would trigger constitutional steps that could suspend Catalonia’s regional autonomy.
World leaders are watching closely and uncertainty over the fate of the region of 7.5 million people has damaged business confidence, with several listed firms already moving their legal headquarters out of Catalonia.
The region itself is deeply divided on the issue, with polls suggesting Catalans are roughly evenly split on whether to go it alone.
While Puigdemont insists the October 1 referendum gave him a mandate for independence and has said he still wants dialogue with Madrid, Rajoy has rejected calls for mediation and refuses to negotiate on anything until the separatists abandon their independence drive.
“It is not peaceful, it is not free, it will not be recognized by Europe and now everyone knows it will have costs,” he told lawmakers.
Rajoy’s announcement of the deadline was a preliminary step towards invoking article 155 of the Spanish constitution, which allows Madrid to impose control over its devolved regions -- an unprecedented move that some fear could lead to unrest.
“We ask for dialogue and they answer by putting article 155 on the table. Understood,” Puigdemont tweeted late Wednesday.
Spain’s defense ministry said the Eurofighter had crashed around 300 kilometers (180 miles) southeast of Madrid after taking part in the military show.
“Rest in peace, comrade. Thank you for helping us to celebrate the day you have given your life for. We won’t forget you,” an official ministry account tweeted, posting an image of the Spanish flag pinned with a black ribbon.
While separatist leaders say 90 percent of voters opted to split from Spain in the banned October referendum, less than half of the region’s eligible voters actually turned out.
Several rallies were called Thursday in Barcelona, including one by far-right activists.
Around 150 gathered to march against secession from Barcelona’s Plaza de Espana, flanked by Catalan police and waving Spanish and far-right nationalist flags.
“There has been a coup d’etat,” said a man who gave his name only as Eduardo.
“The Spanish have to react to defend the nation,” he told AFP.
Marchers chanted: “Puigdemont, go to jail”.
Pro-unity demonstrators held other rallies in Barcelona, following a mass demonstration against Catalan independence at the weekend.
“Today is a special day, we have to go ahead… we are many more” than the separatists, said retired Barcelona resident Eliseo Valbuena Garcia.
Catalonia, which accounts for about one-fifth of Spain’s economic output, already enjoys significant powers over matters such as education and healthcare.
Puigdemont insisted Wednesday that “the majority of Catalan people want Catalonia as an independent state.” Rajoy dismissed his plan as “a fairytale”.