BRUSSELS (Reuters) – Nearly 50,000 people marched on Thursday in the European neighborhood of Brussels to support the independence of Catalonia and the president of the region, who avoided arrest in Spain by taking refuge in Belgium.
Before Carles Puigdemont addressed the crowd, many put on Catalan flags, the police estimated their size at 45,000. There were chants of "Puigdemont, president" of a generally kind crowd, many of whom had traveled from Spain for the occasion.
Some carried signs criticizing the European Union for not putting pressure on Madrid. A sign showed the face of the president of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, with the question: "Democracy? Some defend it when it suits them, it's a shame."
Gloria Cot, an employee from Barcelona who had just To arrive as a coach, he said: "Brussels is a kind of loudspeaker for us.
" He is a speaker so that people know that we do not have a 100 percent democracy in Spain and that Catalonia has always had problems with Spain. " Nuria Salvat, a student from Tarragona in Catalonia, said she had come to demand the release of the "political prisoners" – members of the Puigdemont administration imprisoned in Spain – and to support Puigdemont himself, who faces prison if he returns
"Spain," he said, "has always treated us very badly."
A short distance away at the EU executive headquarters, Juncker's deputy, Frans Timmermans, told reporters that he welcomed the atmosphere very positive "of the demonstration, which took place while an election campaign was being held for a Catalan election that Madrid hopes will put an end to the stalemate created by its refusal to recognize a vote of independence that Puigdemont held in September.
But, the former Dutch Minister of Foreign Affairs said, there was no change in the Commission's policy that the dispute with the authorities of Barcelona, now removed from his position, remains internal in which the EU has no need to intervene because the democratic constitution of Spain is functioning in accordance with the values of the EU.
Accusing Puigdemont and his allies of undermining the rule of law by choosing to ignore a Spanish constitutional ban on secession instead of trying to change the constitution, Timmermans said that they were endangering basic freedoms and noted that there were large rallies in Spain on both sides of the debate.
"If you do not agree with the law, you can organize to change the law or the constitution," he said. "What is not allowed under the rule of law is simply to ignore the law."
Additional information and writing by Alastair Macdonald; Mark Heinrich edition