Fired up by Scotland, Catalans rally for breakaway vote
Fired up by Scotland's looming independence referendum, nationalists in Catalonia have vowed to throng the streets on Thursday for noisy protests to demand their own vote on breaking away from Spain.
Scotland's September 18 referendum has put the wind in the sails of nationalists in this northeastern Spanish region who want to seize sovereignty of their land from Madrid.
"If a nation such as Scotland can vote, why not Catalonia?" said the region's president Artur Mas, who has defied Madrid by calling a vote on Catalan independence for November 9.
"If the Catalan population wants to vote on its future, it's practically impossible to stop that forever," he told AFP in an interview on Wednesday.
The Scottish vote is due just a week after the most sensitive day of the year for Catalonia: Thursday's "Diada", the annual Catalan national commemoration.
Spain's national government fiercely opposes any move towards independence for Catalonia. It has branded the planned vote illegal and vowed to block it.
"I think it's absurd to pretend that could be so and I think the Spanish government will have to realise that," Mas said.
He said Scotland's vote could smooth the way for Catalonia on its own drive for independence.
EU officials have warned that breaking away to form new states would leave Scotland and Catalonia automatically out of the European Union.
But Mas predicted: "If the 'Yes' wins, I am sure there will be negotiations very quickly, even immediately, to try to keep Scotland in the European Union."
- 'Now or never' -
The Diada marks what many in the region see as the day they lost their autonomy: September 11, 1714, when Barcelona fell to Spanish and French forces in the War of the Spanish Succession.
Mas kicked off commemorations on Wednesday evening to mark the 300th Diada by laying a wreath at a mass grave for Catalans killed in the 1714 siege of Barcelona.
On Thursday afternoon supporters of independence will mass along two central Barcelona avenues in the shape of a giant letter V for "vote", which they hope will stretch for 11 kilometres (seven miles).
Organisers say more than half a million people have signed up for Thursday's demonstration, which will fill the streets with red and yellow Catalan flags.
"Three hundred years ago, they took away our freedom by force. Now we will get it back by votes," said Ramon Puig, a retired banker of 66.
Proud of their distinct Catalan language and culture, many of Catalonia's 7.5 million inhabitants feel short-changed by the national government in Madrid, which redistributes their taxes.
Catalonia accounts for a fifth of Spain's economy but it was hit hard by the financial crisis that broke out in 2008, fuelling a surge in pro-separatist feeling.
Opponents of secession think cutting themselves off from Spain would be an economic disaster.
South of Barcelona in the town of Tarragona on Thursday, the Catalan Civil Society movement has called for a rival gathering to denounce independence as a "dead end".
Secession "does not make sense economically, it is not justified politically and it divides us socially", the SCC's vice-chairman, Joaquim Coll, told AFP.
The vote "cannot and will not take place", Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy warned in July.
Mas has vowed to pass a regional law that he says will allow him to push ahead with the "consultation", but his efforts risk being thwarted by Spain's Constitutional Court.
"We have never been so close to breaking free," said the banker Ramon's wife Pepita Puig, 64, holding a red and yellow Catalan flag she had just bought for Thursday's demonstration. "It's now or never."
© 2014 AFP