By a Newsnet reporter
The Catalan capital of Barcelona was brought to a standstill on Tuesday during a massive rally in favour of Catalan independence. Marching under the slogan Catalunya, nou Estat d'Europa (Catalonia, new European state) the streets of the Mediterranean city were packed by demonstrators from all parts of Catalonia demanding independence from Spain in an unprecedented show of mass support for Catalan sovereignty, blaming the Madrid government for the economic crisis which is dragging Catalonia down along with the rest of Spain.
Attendance at the rally exceeded even the most optimistic forecasts of organisers. The regional government estimated that the crowd was 600,000 strong. Local police said the true figure was likely to be as high as 1.5 million. Catalunya has a total population of 7.5 million, meaning that even on the lower estimates, almost 10% of the entire population were motivated to attend the independence rally, held on la Diada, Catalonia's national day.
Singing the Catalan national anthem, the march set off at six o clock local time on Tuesday evening, but hours before the centre of the city was already brimming with Catalans who had arrived from all parts of the country in order to participate in the historic event.
Amongst the placards demanding that Catalonia should have the right to decide its own future, the slogan 'Catalonia is not Spain' was one of the most common.
Some observers noted with surprise that many of the demonstrators were talking amongst themselves in Spanish, not Catalan. Catalonia has a large population of people from other parts of Spain, or who come from Spanish speaking families. Traditionally native Spanish speakers were regarded as being less likely to support Catalan independence than native Catalan speakers. The strong presence of "castelloparlants" at the demonstration is perhaps a sign that the old certainties of Spanish politics are beginning to shift under the pressure of the economic crisis.
Catalonia has been badly affected by the ongoing economic crisis, and has been effectively shut out of the debt markets. Last month, Catalonia requested €5 billion (approx £4 billion) from an €18 billion emergency fund set up by Madrid to help regions service their debts and pay suppliers of health care and other basic services.
Catalonia's fiscal problems have led its regional government to make some of the deepest budget cuts in Spain, particularly in health and education, to lower the deficit from 3.7% of gross regional product last year to the 1.5% limit demanded by the Government in Madrid for this year.
The need for a bailout has only fed the demands of protestors for change.
Lluis Plangumà, one of a group of from the village of Santa Pau in the province of Girona said:
"It's absurd that we are now having to ask the government in Madrid to lend us money that should have been ours to use in the first place."
Speaking to the BBC, Alfred Bosch, a member of parliament representing the leftist party Esquerra Republicana Catalana (ERC), which ultimately seeks a Catalan republic, voiced his amazement at the number of demonstrators waving the flag of the Catalan republic, and said:
"All the flags I can see are the pro-independence flags of Catalonia with the lonely star right in the middle of the triangle.
"And everybody is wearing these flags. I have never seen so many pro-independence flags in my all life."
The former leader of the ERC, Josep-Lluís Carod-Rovira, highlighted that this march was not taking place to protest against some decision from Madrid, instead the marchers were sending a positive message about the future of Catalonia and demanding that Catalonia be able to control its own destiny.
"This is an event with a clear objective," he said, making it clear that Catalonia was not just sending a message to Madrid, but to the whole world and to the Catalan people themselves. "This is a nuclear message. This is not just making a fuss." he added.
The march was attended by a broad range of politicians and representatives of Catalan civic society. Amongst those attending were the former Catalan president Jordi Pujol and other members of his CiU party, and Helena Rakosnik, the wife of the current president of the Catalan Government, Artur Mas. Sandro Rosell, president of Barcelona football club, and Xavier Trias, the mayor of Barcelona, were also present.
The march was also attended by a number of leading members of the Catalanist wing of the PSC, the Catalan branch of the PSOE, the party of the former government in Madrid headed by José Luis Zapatero, who play a role in Catalan politics roughly analogous to that of the Labour party in Scotland. Noted PSC politicians such as Ernest Maragall, Antoni Castells, Marina Geli, Àngel Ros, Laia Bonet and Joan Ignasi Elena, amongst others, attended the march despite their party's official opposition to it.
Speaking after the march Artur Mas, the president of the Catalan Government, said that after this demonstration, the Spanish Government must "take note and listen well and attentively" to the rising clamour from Catalan society, and must "respect it and not ridicule it".