“The Spanish dictator Franco died more than forty years ago, in 1975, but his political legacy – a centralist government in a de facto multinational country, has emerged as a major problem in present days.Today, millions of citizens are marching in the streets of Catalonia calling not for more autonomy, as they did only ten years ago, but for the right to vote in a referendum that might conclude with the instauration – the establishment – of a Catalonian Republic. Catalonia is clamouring for its independence. The Catalan nationalist government has already passed “disconnection rules”; laws intended to create a separate legal order from Spain. The Spanish government is suffering what is considered the worst constitutional crisis since its approbation in 1976. In a tumultuous, global political moment, the struggle for national self-determination by the Catalan people is worthy of our attention and understanding. My purpose here is to shine a light on some of the lesser-discussed aspects of this major political event.
- The negotiation period: From 1977 to 2006
The Spanish restoration of democracy in 1977 meant new debates around the territorial structure of the state. The former authoritarian state was extremely centralist. Languages such as Catalan and Basque were prohibited and related nationalist forces were prosecuted. Democracy meant for Catalonia, Galicia and the Basque Country not only the opportunity to democratically elect leaders, but also freedom to express their own national feelings. It meant the freedom to talk, teach and learn in their own language; thefreedom to interpret their history.
During 1977, the discussion about the future constitution was still open. Many voices called then for a federalist state structure. But national claims weren’t on the scope of many regions: in many regions council autonomy was more important than national autonomy. The compromise reached between different political forces has been described as asymmetric federalism. Some territories struggled for their national identity to be recognized; others just wanted to developed collective social rights. Spain joined the European Economic Community on 1 January 1986. Neither the army nor the leftist urban guerrilla stopped what at the end represented the most drastic change in Spain. The country that once was isolated from Europe soon became among the most Europhilic. Its society remains one of the most enthusiastic about the idea of Europe. European membership implied a wave of European funds that forever transformed Spain. The spectacular economic growth mitigated nationalist demands, and moreover forged strange bedfellows; the conservative heirs of the Franquist regime and the Catalan nationalists established a fruitful alliance that allowed the end of the socialist regime in Spain. That companionship lasted until 2008 when the first economic crisis symptoms peaked.
- Unattended claims: From 2006 to 2014
Spain is divided in 17 different Autonomous Communities; this is a unique territorial model in between federalism and centralism. All communities have a responsible parliament but not all of them have what is called Statute of Autonomy, a regional constitution. The most recent Catalan independence events started with the promulgation of the Catalan Statute of Autonomy in the now distant 2006. Back in 2004 PSOE (Socialist Spanish Workers Party, unionist social democrats) reached an agreement with nationalist forces. As a result PSOE would finally govern not only in Catalonia but also in Spain. The statute was passed by the Catalonian parliament and then submitted to a referendum. In 2006 the majority of the Catalans voted for a new Statute of Autonomy. The Statute defined Catalonia as a nation that was part of a federalist plan of the socialist president J.L. Zapatero (the Spanish constitution recognizes the multinational character of the country in article 2, this federal plan is slightly similar to the “devolution” process performed by Tony Blair in the UK).
The federalist strategy of president Zapatero will likely never achieve its goals. The Catalan statute was first contested by the conservative party, Partido Popular (Popular Party, unionist), then in the opposition. The conservatives appealed to the Constitutional Tribunal, the highest court in Spain and the solely interpreter of the Constitution. In the meantime the economic situation started giving the first signs of the crisis. The socialist party was besieged by its bases, incapable of attending neither union demands nor nationalist claims (paralyzed by the Constitutional Tribunal). The Spanish socialist party has lost every national electoral process in Spain and Catalonia.
In 2011 the Popular Party (unionist) won the Spanish elections. One year later the Constitutional Tribunal declared as unconstitutional the character of 14 of the articles of the Catalan Statute, among them the article that recognized Catalonia as a nation. 2012 was one of the worst years of the crisis: millions of jobs were lost. Spain was under scrutiny of European authorities, and following its advice severe cutbacks were applied on education, social services and healthcare. Catalonian incomes were also severely reduced. The then-new Catalan president Artur Mas (elected in 2010), leader of CIU (Convergencia y Unió, Union and Convergence, Catalan nationalist conservative party) tried to negotiate a new budget with the Spanish conservatives with no success. President Artur Mas, a Catalan conservative leader with no previous links with Independence cause, was trapped between the political decision taken by the Constitutional Tribunal against the Catalan will, and the economic situation that pushed social forces against every institution. He took the hand offered by the Social Democrat pro-independence party Esquerda Republicana (Republican Left). They would support him with on a condition – a national condition. That year the national Catalan day increased its influx from 18,000 people to more than 600,000. Only two years later, in 2014 the number ballooned up to 1.8 million people.
- Escalating of a national conflict: 2014 to the present
In 2012 Catalan conservatives (CIU) and social democrats (ERC) became the hegemonic force in the Catalan parliament. The former electoral enemies became national allies. They took Scotland as a reference for negotiations with the central government, but, while the British government accepted to negotiate a referendum, nationalist forces in Catalonia were met by the conservative unionist government with a single, short answer: no.
Events were developing at breakneck speed. CIU and ERC qualified their alliance by promoting a referendum. That was November 2014, probably the turning point of the recent events. A succession of legal decision besieged the Catalan president Artur Mas, who called for new elections. However, this was not a renunciation but the beginning of a new political moment. CIU and ERC forged an alliance. They designed a new movement called Junts pel Si (Together for a Yes) with the only purpose of achieving independence. What once were cultural and economic claims had become a sovereign movement claiming the independence of Catalonia. They won the 2015 elections. Along with the nationalist leftist party CUP (Candidaturas de Unitat Popular, Popular Unity Candidature) they hold 51% of the seats in the Catalan parliament.
The radical leftists became not only necessary but indispensable in order to pass any law, to achieve any objective. The shining Junts Pel Si movement may had become the major force, but at the end, any decision lasted on the explicit approval of the CUP. Two months later (December 2015) the unionist conservative party won the Spanish elections with a small majority. Spain then lived through ten months of uncertainty, of interim government unable to deal with a new nationalist reality in Catalonia.
During this period the new Catalan President, with the support of Junt Pel Si and the CUP passed different laws toward the achievement of Catalonian independence. Among the many laws recently passed by the Catalonian parliament two must be highlighted: First, on 7 September the Referendum Law was passed with the support of the nationalist forces. On 12 September was the time for the “Law of Transitional Jurisprudence” a de facto provisional constitution, a document that is at least a constitutive instrument for Catalonian governance
Since the approval of these two laws the central government of Spain has decided to stop formal negotiations with Catalan authorities. The Constitutional Tribunal has suspended the referendum. Spanish National Police and Guardia Civil (militarized police) are prosecuting whoever is involved with the logistics of the referendum (Catalonia has its own police body). Instead of negotiating, Spanish government has arrested fourteen members of the Catalonian government, mobilized thousands of regular and militarized police officers, and launched an economic offensive against the Catalonian government. Since 19 September thousands of people are claiming in Barcelona and other cities for the release of Catalan officials. Meanwhile unions are meeting with political parties with the declared purpose of organizing a general strike.
Spain is experiencing the worst constitutional crisis in its young democracy. However it is still to early to say how the Catalonian situation will turn out. I will end this brief summary by pointing to what for many has been clear during the last three years: Spanish government must accept the multinational character of Spain. Polls have repeatedly showed (and still are) that the separatist cause is not on the political radar of the majority of the Catalans who, on the contrary, desire higher levels of autonomy, and the recognition of their status as a nation within Spain. This fact has been pointed out to the Spanish government by media sources as different as “The Economist” or “The New York Times”. The current entrenched position of the Spanish government, mobilizing troops and judges instead of negotiators is achieving what the independent intelligentsia couldn’t for years: uniting the fragmented Catalan society under one cause, a romantic, desperate and appealing one. That teaches also another valuable lesson: Nationalism, far from being left to history , is still a major force in politics. Those who claimed for the new cosmopolitan era, a new brave world without nation and states, have to deal and manage the post Brexit hangover, the Trump turnout, and now the Catalonia escalation question. The Nation state is dead. Long live the Nation State.
Aitor Jiménez is a registered Attorney in Spain and is currently a Ph.D. student in Politics and International Relations at the University of Auckland.
Featured image credit: Dan Kitwood, Getty Images