Divided over talks with Spain, Catalonia’s separatists rally

BARCELONA, Spain (AP) — Catalan separatists held their first major mass gathering since the start of the pandemic on Saturday, trying to offer a display of unity despite the divisions in their ranks over upcoming talks with the Spanish government.

Tens of thousands waved pro-independence flags and wore T-shirts with messages for their cause in downtown Barcelona. People used face masks for the event, which went ahead after regional authorities dropped restrictions on the number of people who could gather with COVID-19 cases dropping.

There was a moment of tension when a large crowd pelted a police station with toilet paper, trash and other objects, prompting police in riot vans to roll in and clear them out.

The meeting between representatives of the Catalan and central governments doesn’t have a date yet, but it is supposed to be soon. This second meeting between the two sides is supposed to advance negotiations toward the eventual finding a solution to the political crisis that has festered since the failed 2017 bid by Catalan’s secessionists to force a breakaway.

Expectations remain extremely low for a quick fix because the Catalan separatists demand an authorized referendum on independence. The central government says a vote would have to be on a proposal to improve the relationship of the northeast region with the rest of Spain.

Catalonia’s voters have for several years been roughly equally divided over the secession question, with half in favor and half wanting to remain in Spain.

The difference of opinion within the separatist camp on the usefulness of the negotiations marked Saturday’s rally.

Catalan regional president Pere Aragonès and his Republic Left of Catalonia party defended the negotiations with Spain’s government.

“Catalonia is on the brink of doing something that it has never achieved before: opening a negotiation with the Spanish state, government to government, to tackle how we resolve this conflict,” Aragonès said. “And we do so with the commitment from both sides that the result of this negotiation will be put to the Catalan citizenry for a vote.”

The other two main pro-secession parties and the movement’s leading grassroots groups, however, see the negotiations at best as a waste of time, and at worst a betrayal of the mandate for independence that they claim to already have from the illegal referendum held four years ago that most unionists boycotted.

The National Catalan Assembly, the powerful group that organized Saturday´s rally, sees the talks as a ruse to defuse their momentum. The official slogan of the rally was “Fight and We Will Win Independence.”

Jordi Sànchez, the general secretary of Together for Catalonia, also sees the talks as futile.

“We are deeply skeptical of the attitude of the Spanish government and the outcome of this negotiation,” he said.

Sànchez is one of nine high-profile separatists who were pardoned in June by Spain’s left-wing government led by Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez for their roles in instigating the failed breakaway attempt.

“Let the spirit of reunion, mutual affection and concord be our guides on this (Catalan holiday),” the Spanish leader said in a message on Twitter written in Catalan. “We are advancing toward that which unites us.”