An estimated 1,500,000 people took to the streets of Barcelona yesterday, demanding independence for Catalonia, an autonomous Spanish region. (Video update.)
Update: Authorities in Catalonia are demanding a 5 billion Euro bailout from Madrid, saying that's how much Barcelona has been forced to overpay.
Waving red and yellow Catalan flags, the crowds chartered at least one train and more than a thousand coaches to travel to Barcelona from all over the Catalonia region. They are demanding that Spain give Catalonia independence, as the country faces crippling debt and austerity measures.
Rallying under the slogan "Catalonia, a new European state," protesters chanted "What do the crowds want? A new European state! What do the people want? An independent Catalonia!", and they effectively brought the city of Barcelona to a halt.
The Guardian reports that, fuelled by financial instability in the country, as well as the growing unemployment rate (around 25%), polls published on Tuesday have shown that 46.4% of Catalonians support the bid for independence - twice as many as in 2008 when the financial crisis began.
Catalonia's economy is reportedly bigger than the entire country of Portugal's economy, and accounts for a fifth of Spain's output. However, this economy is being burdened by the austerity measures put forth by the Spanish and European governments, in response to the global economic crisis.
Speaking on television prior to the rally, Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy dismissed the march, stating, "This isn't a moment for big gestures like this. What we need to do is create jobs."
Catalan president, Artur Mas, initially told reporters that he had no intention of joining the protest. However, he later said that he would attend, in a personal capacity.
He later issued a warning that should Spain's central government in Madrid not give the region more control over its tax money, independence could be an option.
"If we do not reach a financial agreement with the central government, the path to freedom for Catalonia is open," he said.
Mas told CNN back in June this year, that "If you compare the money we send to Madrid every year and the money we get back from Madrid, there is a difference - a near difference of $20 billion."
While the slogan for the march was "Catalonia: a new European state", a spokesman for the European Union in Brussels pointed out that, should Catalonia secede from Spain, it would have to leave the EU. Catalonia could only then rejoin the European Union if it met the economic criteria and if other member states voted unanimously in favor of its membership.
Much of Catalonia's wealth comes from tourism, but there are also major industries in the region, including vast wine producing areas.
Analysts are warning that should the region continue to pursue independence, boycotts could follow, giving the example of the cava (sparkling wine) boycott in 2005, when Catalonia refused to back Madrid's bid for the 2012 Olympic Games.
The Guardian quoted economist Xavier Cuadras as warning that, "A large-scale boycott could cause a 40% drop in exports of consumer goods to Spain, and a sustained boycott could cost Catalonia 4% of its GDP."
Currently, Spain accounts for 54% of the region's exports, and thus boycotts could cripple the region's economy.
Catalans are currently widely perceived by Spaniards to be rich, spoiled and constantly complaining. This perception understandably hurts Catalans. Miquel Berga, professor of English literature at the Universitat Pompeu Fabra says, "The rise in the pro-independence movement is directly related to the Spanish state's inability to include Catalonia. It seems to me that only a profound change in constitutional arrangements can address the prevailing sense of dissatisfaction."
According to Joan Fumaz, a chef, "If we were independent, we wouldn't have to go on justifying ourselves. I'm Catalan. It would be nice not to have to explain that to people all the time."
Documentary film-maker, Carles Brugueras, has said that he was not a nationalist, but that he favors independence from a strictly economic perspective. "For a long time, Catalonia has been generating a lot of resources for Spain but the fiscal balance has been very unfair," he said.
Luis Planagumà was part of a group of around 1,500 protesters from Santa Pau, who traveled for almost 2 hours by bus to attend the rally. He says, “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.”
A law student, Laura Nuñez, is a new convert to independence, and says that she believes it would boost the Catalan economy. "We're economically the most powerful part of Spain, because of industry and tourism, and we contribute more than other Spanish regions. We shouldn't be subject to this internal discrimination."