BARCELONA • Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy said yesterday he wanted to return to a "democratic and free" Catalonia as he aimed to rally support for a unified Spain on his first visit to the turbulent region since it declared independence.
A day after hundreds of thousands of people marched in Barcelona to demand the release of separatist officials detained over their independence drive, Mr Rajoy also urged businesses not to flee the wealthy northern region.
"We have to recover the sensible, practical, enterprising and dynamic Catalonia... that has contributed so much to the progress of Spain and Europe," Mr Rajoy told members of his Popular Party in Barcelona. "We want to regain a Catalonia for everyone, democratic and free," he added.
The Catalonia crisis has caused concern in the European Union as the bloc deals with Brexit and uncertainty over the fate of Catalonia's 7.5 million people.
More than 2,400 businesses have moved their legal headquarters elsewhere. Yesterday, Mr Rajoy urged those businesses "not to go".
A poll commissioned yesterday by the Madrid-based El Pais daily showed that less than a third of Catalans now believed independence was possible in the near future. The 28 per cent of respondents who said they thought swift secession was viable was lower than the percentage in a similar poll in October.
Mr Rajoy has used his powers as head of Spain's central government to dismiss Catalan lawmakers, suspend the region's autonomy and call for fresh regional elections on Dec 21. The Prime Minister, who attended a presentation by a party candidate at a hotel in Barcelona, did not appear in public.
Mr Rajoy's Popular Party won only 8.5 per cent of the votes in Catalonia's last election two years ago that saw pro-independence parties sweep to power. His candidate, Mr Xavier Garcia Albiol, yesterday said events since the Oct 1 referendum showed that "independence is toxic and is destroying Catalonia".
Eight ministers under former Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont have been detained on charges of sedition, rebellion and misuse of public funds. Two heads of pro-independence lobby groups are also behind bars. Six former parliamentarians were granted bail last week by Spain's Supreme Court on similar charges.
Local police said 750,000 people turned out in Barcelona on Saturday to demand the release of detained officials. The demonstrators gathered on an avenue next to the regional Parliament building, waving Catalan independence flags and chanting "Freedom!" while some held up banners announcing: "SOS Democracy".
Meanwhile, several hundred people rallied in Brussels yesterday to back the independence push in Catalonia, slam the EU and demand that Spain release jailed regional officials.