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The protests in Catalonia are continuing — and they're tearing the region apart

Hundreds of thousands of pro-Spanish unity protesters took to the streets of Barcelona on Sunday — Catalan secessionist politicians may declare unilateral independence Tuesday.

Pro-Unity Rally Held In Barcelona Against Catalonian Independence Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

Residents of Spain’s wealthiest region, Catalonia, who want to remain Spanish and oppose the idea of an independent Catalan nation have long been called the silent majority.

They aren’t quiet now. With Catalan secessionist politicians dangling the possibility of a unilateral declaration of independence on Tuesday, more than 350,000 people took to the streets of Barcelona over the weekend to make clear that they want to remain part of Spain. Protesters waved the Spanish red-and-yellow flag and carried banners emblazoned with the phrase “Let’s get back to common sense” and words like “No to separatism. We are the majority.”

Pro-Unity Rally Held In Barcelona Against Catalonian Independence Photo by Chris McGrath/Getty Images

The protests came one week after Catalan political leaders held a controversial independence referendum that passed by a lopsided 90 percent to 10 percent margin. The vote had been marred by violence, with Spanish national police yanking would-be voters from polls, beating protesters, and shooting rubber bullets into crowds. Hundreds were injured.

Carles Puigdemont, the Catalan president, had said that he would declare independence once the referendum’s results were certified. But only 2.3 million out of 5.3 million eligible voters cast ballots, which means that less than half of the population of the region voted in a referendum. That’s in no small part because many believed the referendum itself was illegitimate and thus boycotted the vote.

There’s also pretty much no chance Madrid will allow for the creation of an independent Catalonia. Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, backed by the Spanish constitutional court, says the vote was illegal and has refused to accept the legitimacy of its results.

Many of those taking part in Sunday’s protests seemed to agree. Author and Nobel laureate Mario Vargas Llosa told the crowd, "You need more than a coup plot to destroy what has been built over 500 years of history,” essentially calling the Catalan separatist movement an attempted coup.

The European Union has made clear that it won’t recognize an independent Catalonia and has repeatedly indicated that it sides with Madrid in the escalating showdown. Rajoy has continued a hardline stance. And everyone is waiting to see what Puigdemont will do on Tuesday.

Meanwhile, Ada Colau, Barcelona’s mayor, implored both Rajoy and Puigdemont to find a way forward — together through negotiation rather than brinksmanship. “Don’t take any decision that would dynamite the space for dialogue and mediation,” she said in a statement Monday. “That’s the bravest thing that you can do at this moment.”

The European Union wants no part of Catalan independence

The European Union, the European Commission, and an increasingly vocal collection of politicians from EU member states have spent a week making firm statements aimed at keeping Catalonia from seceding. They are keen to shoot down any fantasies that Catalonia harbors of seceding from Spain while remaining in the EU.

“If there were to be a declaration of independence, it would be unilateral, and it would not be recognized,” Nathalie Loiseau, the French minister charged with European relations, said in a television interview Monday morning.

On Saturday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel called Rajoy to express her support for Spanish unity. Those statements closely followed firm affirmations of Spain’s position in the European Parliament and at the European Commission.

There’s a reason for all this: The EU has no interest in one of Spain’s autonomous regions breaking away. If the Catalans secede, there’d be little to stop the Basques of Spain from trying to do so as well. Or the Corsicans in France. Or the Flemish in Belgium. Spain is far from the only European nation composed of smaller nationalities.

Catalonia has its own language, education system, and cultural and literary traditions — and a relatively large degree of political autonomy. But desire for Catalan independence can be traced back to the era of Spanish dictator Francisco Franco, who suppressed both Catalan culture and language. Some in the region point to a yearning for autonomy that stretches back far deeper into history, to the annexation of Catalonia under the Spanish monarchy in the early 18th century.

Ironically, even attempting to separate from Spain might actually undermine the very economic prowess that makes Catalans think such a separation might even be feasible.

Companies are already starting to pull up stakes out of Catalonia

Barcelona has long been known for its glorious seaside, trippy architecture by Antoni Gaudí, and cutting-edge gastronomy. After this week, its global reputation has added something far less appealing to tourists or foreign businesses: mass protests and a cauldron of political and economic instability.

Some of the region’s biggest businesses aren’t waiting to see how it all plays out.

On Thursday, Banco Sabadell, one of the region’s largest banks, announced it was moving its headquarters from Barcelona to Alicante, a southern Mediterranean port city, in order to protect its shareholders from the chaos there. CaixaBank, Catalonia’s largest bank, said later that its board was meeting to discuss moving its headquarters as well.

“The Catalan high class and middle class have played to a revolution," Fernando Sánchez Costa, a conservative member of the Catalan parliament from Rajoy’s Partido Popular party, said on CNBC Friday. "And now they are discovering that revolution is not a joke.”

The banks are anxious because independence would throw the region’s finances into total disarray. The Spanish stock market briefly dipped last week due to the political uncertainty — but bounced back on Monday after the weekend’s pro-unity rallies. The banks also worry that they’d lose out if an independent Catalonia were forced out of the EU. The European Union offers umbrella protections for banks that operate within it.

The banks aren’t alone in their concern. The Spanish utilities company Gas Natural announced Friday that it would move its headquarters from Barcelona to Madrid "to protect the interests of the company, its customers, employees, creditors and shareholders."

And the Spanish biotech company Oryzon Genomics, which works on cancer-fighting drugs, declared it was relocating from Barcelona to Madrid as well. Its stock market share immediately soared.

“As a businessman, as a Spaniard and as a person, I am very worried and I am scared by what’s going on [in Catalonia],” Juan Roig, chair of Mercadona, Spain’s largest food distributor, told Reuters.

Even local Catalan businesses have said they’re concerned about how an independent Catalonia would survive in a globalized economy. Take Freixenet and Cordoníu, vintners that have been making cava, Spanish sparkling wine, in the region for well over a century — executives from the two companies said breaking away from Spain would be a burden not a blessing regarding distribution and taxation of their products.

“If we really are headed for a unilateral declaration of independence, there will be a major exit of firms from Catalonia, which will cause grave damage to Catalonia,” José Luis Bonet, the president of Freixenet, told the press late last week.

The Catalan drive for independence is even impacting Spain’s national pastime

For many Spaniards, the Catalan independence movement is also raising worrying questions about whether FC Barcelona, the Catalan regional team, might be kicked out of La Liga, the premier Spanish soccer league.

Since the referendum, sports blogs have gamed out the options for Barça, as the team is called, if Catalonia secedes from Spain. The team has expressed sympathy for the secessionists: FC Barcelona joined a regional general strike on October 2, halting practice for the day in solidarity with those who protested the use of police force during the referendum.

And on the day of the voting, the team took the highly unusual step of playing their game as planned — but to an empty stadium. It was a means of protesting Madrid’s crackdown on the vote without having to forfeit the game.

“From its origins, Barça have long been a symbol of Catalan pride,” Roger Bennett, co-host of NBC Sports’ soccer show Men in Blazers, wrote me via email. “The Catalan flag colors are incorporated into the club’s jersey, the captain’s arm band, and the stadium signage.”

Bennett noted that those roots, and that pride, go back to the days of Franco and the era of Spanish fascism. Soccer was one of the few areas in which Catalans could express regional pride. Franco’s team was Real Madrid; the rivalry between the two teams has lingered into the present day.

On Sunday, NBC News reported that the Catalan player Gerard Piqué (a member of both FC Barcelona and the Spanish national team) was heckled so aggressively during a World Cup qualifying match last week that the game was temporarily suspended.

Mariano Rajoy hasn’t backed down

Rajoy, the 62-year-old Spanish prime minister, hasn’t won many friends in Spain for his decision to aggressively crack down on voters last weekend. (Colau, the Barcelona mayor, went so far as to call on him to resign after the October 1 referendum crackdown.) But he also hasn’t backed away from his hardline stance against independence.

On October 4, Puigdemont, the Catalan leader, indicated he’d be willing to sit down and consider a dialogue with Madrid. Rajoy, reportedly, was unwilling to do so without a full renunciation of independence on the part of the separatists.

“Spain is not going to divide and national unity will be maintained,” Rajoy told the Spanish daily El Pais on Monday. “To do so we will use all of the instruments that the legislation gives us.”

Protest In Madrid To Ask For Dialogue Ahead Of Possible Catalonian Independence Photo by Pablo Blazquez Dominguez/Getty Images

For days now, Rajoy has indicated that a unilateral declaration would lead to what’s been called the “nuclear option.” In Spanish terms, that’s the invoking of the so-called “Article 155” of the Spanish constitution.

The provision, part of the constitution drafted four years after Franco’s death in 1974, allows the central government to take “all measures necessary” to compel a region to maintain Spain’s “general interest.” That could mean, potentially, removing regional leaders from power, in theory, temporarily, and suspending the Catalan parliament.

"I'm calling on the sensible people in the Catalan government ... do not jump off the edge because you'll take the people with you,” Spanish Deputy Prime Minister Soraya Sáenz de Santamaría told the press on Monday.

She added, ominously, “If there is a unilateral declaration of independence, there will be decisions made to restore law and democracy.”

It’s an option that many feel would lead to more violence, in part because the standoff -- not to mention now a week of protests for and against the Spanish state — has already been pitting neighbor against neighbor.

Writing in El Pais last week, Isabel Coixet, an award-winning Catalan filmmaker, wrote that she had been called a fascist for not supporting the Catalan referendum. “It makes no difference whether you unequivocally condemn police brutality, or whether you demand Rajoy’s resignation (in my case, I have been asking for that since long before any of this happened),” she wrote. “Because if, when you condemn the Spanish government’s actions, you don’t also condone the Catalan government’s actions, you immediately become an enemy, a fascist, a fascistoid, a Franco follower, the scum of the Earth.”

That type of anger seems unlikely to go away anytime soon, no matter what happens Tuesday.