Catalan leaders under pressure over independence threat

Catalan leaders came under intense domestic and international pressure Monday to halt plans to break away from Spain as the clock ticked down to a regional parliamentary session where Catalonia's president could declare independence. Carles Puigdemont is due to address lawmakers in Barcelona on Tuesday evening in what separatists hope will be a unilateral proclamation of independence, a plan that has raised concerns for stability in the European Union. Political leaders urged Catalan separatists to back down and ease Spain's worst political crisis in decades, with Ada Colau, the popular mayor of Barcelona, and the leader of Spain's opposition Socialists coming out against such a declaration. France warned that Catalan independence would not receive international recognition. But the Scottish National Party was a lone voice of support, urging the Spanish government to "respect the overwhelming 'si' vote" in an independence referendum that took place on October 1 despite a ban by Madrid, with a 43 percent turnout. - Measures will be 'taken' - Tempers have worsened over the past week after police cracked down on voters during the banned referendum, in the worst upheaval since Spain returned to democracy in the 1970s. Puigdemont said the vote justified secession, with separatists urging him to declare independence in defiance of the central government and national courts. He hinted in an interview on Sunday 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 television channel 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 warned Monday. "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 region from Madrid. - Domestic, European pressure - Colau said the results of the referendum "cannot be an endorsement to proclaim independence but they constitute the possibility of opening dialogue and international mediation." Nathalie Loiseau, France's minister for European affairs, said Monday that "if there were a declaration of independence it would be unilateral and it wouldn't be recognised." Meanwhile, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker spoke with Rajoy by telephone over the weekend. Merkel "affirmed her backing for the unity of Spain, and both sides exchanged views on ways in which internal Spanish dialogue can be boosted within the framework of the constitution," said the chancellor's spokesman Steffen Seibert. The pressure also came from the street itself. On Sunday, hundreds of thousands of flag-waving demonstrators, calling themselves a "silent majority", 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 giant 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, the highway toll-road operator Abertis and the real estate firm Colonial became the latest to announce their move from Barcelona to Madrid. Kofi Annan, in his role as chairman of The Elders, a group of notable public figures formed in 2007 to promote peace, urged "consultation and not confrontation." "I urge the Spanish government and the regional government of Catalonia to renew their commitment to a resolution through dialogue," the former UN chief said. - Catalans split - 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 have surged during recent years of economic hardship. Catalonia, a northeastern region about the size of Belgium, is home to 7.5 million people and accounts for a fifth of Spain's economy.