BRUSSELS - A sea of nearly 50,000 pro-Catalonia protesters demonstrated in Brussels on Thursday to show support for the region’s deposed president Carles Puigdemont, who addressed the crowd, and to urge the EU to support its drive for independence from Spain.
Demonstrators chanted “Wake up Europe!” and waved Catalonia’s red, yellow and blue Estelada separatist flag as they marched past the European Union headquarters in the Belgian capital.
“We cannot abandon our president, who is in exile here,” said Antoni Llenas, 59, a protester wearing a flag over his shoulders. “We are here to continue the struggle for our independence and to ask for the freedom of our political prisoners.”
Belgian police estimated the size of the crowd at 45,000, according to a post on Twitter, more than doubling the 20,000 that organizers said they originally expected. The rally began peacefully, according to reporters on the scene.
Puigdemont and four former ministers fled to Brussels in November, saying they wanted to take their cause to the European level after Spain charged them with sedition and rebellion over Catalonia’s independence referendum in October.
On Monday, the Spanish government dropped a European arrest warrant for the five, but Puigdemont said he would stay put for now as they still face arrest in Spain if they return for regional polls in Catalonia that Madrid has called for December 21.
Protesters arrived in a stream of coaches and camper vans with Spanish registration plates, and gathered in the Cinquantenaire Park in the city’s European quarter before the start of the march at 1030 GMT.
Some carried placards criticizing the European Union for not pressuring Madrid. One sign showed the face of European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker with the question: “Democracy? Some defend it when it suits them. Shame on them.”
Children and families were among those who began the march in high spirits despite the cold and rain.
Their route is taking them past the headquarters of the European Commission and they will end up in a square between the European Council and European Parliament.
The EU has strongly backed the Spanish government over the Catalan issue, saying that it is an internal matter for Madrid.
At the EU executive’s headquarters, Juncker’s deputy Frans Timmermans told reporters he welcomed the “very positive atmosphere” of the demonstration, which took place as campaigning has got under way for a Catalan election which Madrid hopes can end the deadlock created by its refusal to recognize an independence vote Puigdemont held in September.
But, the former Dutch foreign minister said, there was no change to Commission policy that the dispute with the Barcelona authorities, now removed from office, remains an internal one in which the EU has no need to intervene because Spain’s democratic constitution is functioning in line with EU values.