Anxiety is mounting in Spain as the Catalan independence crisis reaches a decisive moment

Barcelona (AFP) - Spain’s separatism crisis faced a decisive moment Tuesday with Catalonia’s leader Carles Puigdemont to address regional lawmakers in a speech his supporters hope will be a unilateral declaration of independence.

Whether the 54-year-old Catalan president will actually go ahead with it in defiance of the central government and national courts, play for time or simply back down is still a mystery.

At stake is the future of a region of 7.5 million people, one of Spain’s economic powerhouses whose independence drive has raised concern for stability in the European Union.

- Measures will be ‘taken’ -

Political leaders in Catalonia, Spain and Europe have urged Catalan separatists to back down and ease the country’s biggest upheaval since it returned to democracy in the 1970s.

But Puigdemont says an independence referendum that took place on October 1 despite a ban by Madrid justifies secession.

About 90 percent of the 2.29 million who cast ballots voted to split from Spain, as Catalans who reject independence largely boycotted an illegal poll that was severely repressed by police.

Puigdemont hinted in a weekend interview that the region would go ahead with the declaration if Madrid continued to refuse dialogue.

“We have said yes to so many mediation options that have been proposed,” he told Catalan broadcaster TV3.

“The days are going by and if the Spanish state does not give a positive response, we will do what we set out to do.”

Such a move “will not go unanswered by the government”, Deputy Prime Minister Soraya Saenz de Santamaria retorted on Monday.

A man holds a placard reading "Yes I am catalan, Catalonia is an oppressed nation" in Barcelona

“If this gentleman unilaterally declares independence, measures will have to be taken,” she told the COPE radio station.

Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy at the weekend refused to rule out an unprecedented constitutional manoeuvre to impose direct rule on the semi-autonomous region – a move likely to heighten tensions still further.

- Mounting pressure -

Catalan separatists have come under intense pressure both at home and abroad to halt plans to break away from Spain.

On Monday evening, Ada Colau, the popular mayor of Barcelona, warned a unilateral declaration of independence would put “social cohesion” at risk.

The results of the referendum “cannot be an endorsement to proclaim independence but they constitute the possibility of opening a dialogue and international mediation”, she said.

In France, Nathalie Loiseau, minister for European affairs, said that “if there were a declaration of independence it would be unilateral and it wouldn’t be recognised”.

Meanwhile German Chancellor Angela Merkel backed Spanish unity in a telephone call with Rajoy over the weekend.

The pressure also came from the street itself.

Catalan president Carles Puigdemont (R) is set to address regional lawmakers in a speech his supporters hope will be a unilateral declaration of independence

On Sunday, hundreds of thousands of Spanish flag-waving demonstrators packed central Barcelona to protest against the independence plan.

Over in the other camp, the ANC, an influential Catalan pro-independence association, called on supporters to come watch Tuesday’s parliamentary session live on screens in front of the regional parliament in Barcelona.

- Business worries -

The crisis has caused uncertainty in business circles.

Following the lead of the region’s two major banks, CaixaBank and Sabadell, a string of companies have moved their legal headquarters – but not their employees – from Catalonia to other parts of Spain.

On Monday, highway operator Abertis, telecoms company Cellnex and real estate firm Colonial became the latest to announce their move from Barcelona to Madrid.

Recent opinion polls indicate that Catalans are split on independence, though regional leaders said police violence during the referendum had turned many against Madrid.

Demands for independence in Catalonia, which has its own language and cultural traditions, date back centuries.

But a 2010 move by Spain’s Constitutional Court to water down a statute that gave Catalonia additional powers, combined with an economic crisis in Spain, sparked a surge in support for independence.