Never before had a cause mobilised so many people. On Tuesday September 11th 2012, Catalonia experienced the biggest political demonstration in its history when 1.5 million people filled the streets of Barcelona to make an unmistakable call for independence for Catalonia from the Spanish state.
The turnout surpassed all the organiser, Assemblea Nacional Catalana's (ANC), expectations and this grassroots movement, which has grown out of civil society in just a few months, certainly cannot be ignored by political parties or governments. From this point onwards, nothing would be the same again and political leaders and journalists would have to view events in Catalonia from within a new paradigm.
More than anyone else, the responsibility of reacting to the massive popular call for independence for Catalonia fell on the shoulders of the President of the Generalitat, Artur Mas. At the time, his government's objectives were centred on reaching a tax agreement or fiscal pact with the Spanish government, which aimed to win Catalonia the right to collect its own taxes in the same way as the Basque Country or Navarre. Prior to the demonstration, Mas had said, "If there is no agreement over the fiscal pact, the way towards freedom is open".
After the demonstration, which, given his position as president of all Catalans, he had decided not to attend, he said, "Today has been a great day ... the success of the demonstration reinforces us as a country and forms part of the process of national transition that Catalonia has begun".
Olivier Bailly, the spokesperson for European Commission, admitted that there were no provision within the Treaty of the European Union " for the secession of a region of a member state" and that if Catalonia became independent, " the new state would have to apply for admission". In contrast, the organisers of the demonstration emphasised the strong pro-European tendency within the Catalan independence movement, which was clear from the demonstration's slogan Catalunya, nou estat d'Europa or Catalonia, New European State.
At the end of the demonstration, twenty anonymous people proclaimed Catalonia's desire to be a member state of the European Union in twenty different languages. The proclamations also symbolically represented the cultural and ethnic diversity of both the Catalan population and of those who support independence. From the same stage just outside Parc de la Ciutadella, the ANC also organised a simulation of a vote on self-determination and asked the crowd if they wanted independence. The crowd responded by raising green cards, which created the effect of a massive green human wave.
Whole families participated, coaches arrived from all over Catalonia and there were people of all ages. Possibly for the first time ever, the pro-independence Catalan estelada flags outnumbered the senyera, the traditional Catalan flag, by about four to one.
What had been planned as a march, filled the streets of Barcelona to such an extent that people were virtually unable to move between the official start and finishing times of 5.30 and 9,30 pm. The sheer numbers of people obliged the organisers of the demonstration, headed by ANC president, Carme Forcadell, to abandon the original route and make their way along adjacent streets to the Parliament of Catalonia, where they presented a manifesto to the Speaker of the Parliament, Núria de Gispert, in the presence of members of the Mesa and the leaders of the parliamentary groups, with the exception of Partido Popular and Ciutadans.
Forcadell directly called on Artur Mas, the President of the Generalitat, "to initiate the secession from a state that doesn't admit us as we are or as how we want to be". The president of the ANC demanded the start of the journey to independence "with firm steps because the people of Catalonia don't have time to wait".
Nuria de Gispert, the President of Parliament, declared that the message given by the demonstration was "unequivocably pro-independence" and promised that "You can be sure that we will listen to the voice of the people". She added that "the efforts of today will make it possible for Catalonia to exercise its right to decide its future tomorrow" and also said that " the Catalan people are wide awake, Catalonia isn't sleeping".
The popular pro-independence outcry overcame all the controversy surrounding the real political objectives of the rally that had been discussed over the previous days. Although Artur Mas didn't attend the demonstration, his CiU government was represented by nine ministers and the presence of his wife, Helena Rakosnik, amongst the demonstrators showed that he was clearly there in spirit.
The general secretary of Convergència Democràtica de Catalunya, Oriol Pujol, also attended as did the wheelchair-bound leader of Unió Democràtica de Catalunya, Josep Antoni Duran i Lleida, despite his misgivings about the demonstration. Duran expressed his conviction that "the people of Catalonia are demonstrating against the financial asphixiation and the recentralisation" and added "If Spanish politicians don't understand the outcry of the Catalan people, we're going to have serious problems".
As was expected, the PSC didn't participate officially but various politicans and leaders, such as Ernest Maragall, Antoni Castells, Marina Geli, Àngel Ros, Laia Bonet, Joan Ignas Elena and Montserrat Tura did. They carried a placard, which read "Catalonia is a state and we are Europe" and Tura declared that "the relationship between Catalonia and Spain should be free, voluntary and without obligations".
Alicia Sánchez-Camacho, the leader of the Catalan Partido Popular said "you cannot talk or negotiate with a government that legitimises a pro-independence demonstration".