Sunday’s rally – organised by Societat Civil Catalana, the region’s main pro-unity organisation – comes a week after the independence referendum that has plunged Spain into its worst political crisis in four decades.
The march, whose slogan is “Let’s recover our common sense”, was intended to call for a new phase of dialogue with the rest of Spain and featured such luminaries as the Nobel-winning novelist Mario Vargas Llosa and Josep Borrell, former president of the European parliament.
Societat Civil Catalana said more than 1 million people had taken part, but Barcelona police put the turnout at 350,000.
The Catalan president, Carles Puigdemont, is under growing pressure to stop short of declaring independence. The political uncertainty has already led some businesses – including Spain’s third-largest bank – to move their bases from Catalonia.
According to the Catalan government, 90% of participants voted for independence in the referendum, 7.8% voted against and almost 2% of ballot papers were left blank.
Puigdemont is due to appear in the Catalan parliament on Tuesday to “report on the current political situation” and to put the referendum results to MPs.
The move – seen as an attempt to circumvent the Spanish constitutional court’s ban on a similar session scheduled for Monday – could potentially provide an opportunity for the region’s promised unilateral declaration of independence.
“I hope that nothing will happen,” Juliana Prats, a Barcelona resident taking part in the protest, told Associated Press.
“[Catalonia] is going to lose more than [Spain] because businesses are fleeing from here already. I hope it will remain like it has been up until now: 40 years of peace.”
Vargas Llosa, who was born in Peru but has Spanish citizenship, told the rally: “Besides Catalans, there are thousands of men and women from all corners of Spain who have come to tell their Catalan companions that they are not alone. We want Barcelona to once again be the capital of Spanish culture.”
Saturday saw marches and demonstrations all over the country, with tens of thousands gathering in Madrid’s Plaza Colón in favour of a united Spain. In dozens of towns and cities, including Barcelona, people joined the “white demonstrations” demanding dialogue. Dressed in white and without any flags, protesters marched under the single slogan in Spanish and Catalan: Hablemos/Parlem – “let’s talk”.
In an interview with El País on Sunday, Spain’s prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, insisted he would stop the Catalan government declaring independence over the coming days, warning that the Spanish authorities would assume control of the region from Madrid if necessary.
Rajoy said the thousands of Guardia Civil and national police officers deployed in Catalonia would remain there “until things return to normal” and repeated calls for the regional government to drop its independence demands.
“We’re going to stop independence from happening,” he told the paper. “I can say with absolute frankness that it’s not going to happen. Depending on how things develop, we’ll obviously take any of the decisions the law permits.