Demonstrators wave Spanish national flags as they gather in Colon Square during a protest for Spanish unity in Madrid, Spain. (Photographer: Angel Navarrete/Bloomberg)

Catalan President Unbowed Amid Mounting Pressure to Back Down

(Bloomberg) -- Catalan President Carles Puigdemont vowed to press ahead with his independence drive in comments broadcast Sunday as hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets of Barcelona to demand the region remain a part of Spain.

Catalan President Unbowed Amid Mounting Pressure to Back Down

"What’s happening in Catalonia is real, whether they like it or not," said Puigdemont, whose comments to Catalan broadcaster TV3 were taped Wednesday. "Millions of people have voted.”

Barcelona police estimated the number of those taking part in Sunday’s protest at 350,000; organizers said it was more than twice that amount. People streamed down Barcelona’s famous Ramblas boulevard in the sun, the majority either waving the Spanish flag, wrapped in it or dressed in the national colors of yellow and red. There were young and old, men and women, shouting “Viva Espana!” and “I am Catalan and Spanish.”

“It’s very significant that we’ve seen such huge crowds -- they’re impossible to ignore,” said Caroline Gray, a lecturer in politics and Spanish at Aston University in the U.K. who specializes in nationalist movements. “It’s been impressive.”

Pressure isn’t just coming from the streets. A delegation from Cercle d’Economia, a business forum, met with Puigdemont on Saturday to demand he withdraw his threat to declare a Catalan republic, said Jordi Alberich, the group’s director general.

“We asked him to directly remove the shadow of a declaration by saying that it won’t happen,” Alberich, who was at the meeting, said by phone Sunday. “The situation is the most tremendous mess. Despite everything I believe that some solution will be found through sensible political negotiation.”

Catalan President Unbowed Amid Mounting Pressure to Back Down

The Cercle’s board includes CaixaBank SA Chairman Jordi Gual and Jaime Guardiola, chief executive officer of Banco Sabadell SA. Both banks have said they’ll move their legal headquarters outside Catalonia to protect their customers and shareholders.

Battered by a corporate stampede to exit the region, the Catalan president is struggling to maintain support as the clock ticks down to a meeting on Tuesday that could trigger a split. About a dozen companies, including the biggest symbol of the rebel region’s wealth, CaixaBank, have said they will or plan to relocate their legal bases.

“We will apply the law,” Puigdemont told TV3, referring to a referendum law approved last month that compels parliament to consider a declaration of secession.

Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, meantime, must decide whether to preemptively reassert control, as some of his main allies are urging him to do. Rajoy told El Pais Spain will exist for a long time and portrayed his bid to stop the separatists as “Europe’s battle.”

“Today we are going to draw a line under independence,” said Spanish Health Minister Dolors Montserrat, who is Catalan, draped in a Spanish flag in a televised interview from the scene of the march.

The regional government says about 90 percent of the 2.3 million people who cast a vote in the referendum did so in favor of independence. Rajoy’s central government denies that anything resembling a referendum with democratic guarantees took place, because it lacked certified voter lists and wasn’t overseen by an official election board.

The struggle over Catalonia represents a breakdown of the political pact that has held together modern Spain. Both sides use history to stir up rancor: Spanish nationalists argue that Catalonia has always been part of Spain, while Catalans trace their independent identity back to the 13th century.

Puigdemont will meet with lawmakers Tuesday after the Spanish Constitutional Court suspended a planned meeting of the regional parliament where he planned to evaluate the result of the independence vote.

Javier Diaz, 56, a delivery man from Barcelona, said he hoped the pro-Spain demonstration would be the first of many. “We’re the invisible Catalonia,” he said.