New government in Spain, same old deadlock for Catalonia?
Barcelona (CNA).- The new Spanish executive, led again by Conservative People’s Party leader, Mariano Rajoy, has promised “more willingness to dialogue” and a more open predisposition to overcome the current deadlock between Catalonia and Spain. Formed last October, after 300 days of an acting government and following two elections in six months, the Spanish Government appointed one of its strongest assets Spanish Vice President Soraya Sáenz de Santamaría as head of a new portfolio called ‘Territorial Administrations’, a Ministry which aims to deal, amongst others, with Catalonia’s pro-independence aspirations. However, the mandate that emerged from the 27-S elections in Catalonia, which led to the first pro-independence majority in the Catalan Parliament, has been repeatedly rejected: Spain won’t call a binding referendum for Catalans to decide their political future. On the contrary, the only answer from the Spanish Government so far has been taking most of the laws oriented towards launching the pro-independence roadmap before the court, as well as some of Catalonia’s democratically elected representatives. Will this stagnation change during this 12th legislature?
Catalans want to vote
One of the essential demands of the Catalans citizens since the competences in Catalonia’s new Statute of Autonomy were curtailed in 2010 by the Spanish Constitutional Court (TC) has been to hold a referendum. The possibility to ask Catalans whether they want to continue being part of Spain or constitute a Catalan republic is not only supported by those who defend Catalonia’s independence but also those who believe that the right of the citizens to decide their political future is attached to democracy.
Although most of the articles remain untouched, the magistrates introduced significant modifications to the text. The main objections were over 5 areas: Catalonia being defined as a nation in the non-legally binding introduction; the right of the Catalan Government to have bilateral relations with the Spanish Government, similar to what the Basque Country and Navarra already have; the obligation to know the Catalan language in order to work in the public sector; the Catalan Supreme Court of Justice as the highest court for certain kinds of laws and the obligation of the Spanish Government to necessary expenditure in Catalonia and a conditional fiscal equalisation.
Thus, the definition of Catalonia as a nation has no legal effect and “Catalonia is a nationality” within the “the only and indissoluble Spanish nation”. The Catalan language cannot be used as “the main language” in the Catalan public administration and public media. In addition, Catalonia cannot have its own Justice Council, as other Autonomous Communities such as Andalusia have. Finally, Catalonia will not have a guaranteed minimum expenditure from the Spanish Government and its fiscal effort and solidarity will not have any kind of formal limitation.
Civil society takes the streets
The last five Catalonia’s National Day commemorations, held on the 11th of September, have marked a turning point in recent history. Since 2012, mass demonstrations have been added to the commemorations of this historical day and have become known worldwide as rallies that measure Catalans’ political demands. After each of these rallies, Catalan society has stated the future steps they want the Catalan Government to take in order to walk firmly towards independence from Spain. These demands have marked Catalonia’s political agenda since the first big demonstration on the 11th of September 2012.
Two civil society organisations are essential to understanding this process: Òmnium Cultural and the Catalan National Assembly (ANC). Òmnium Cultural is a civil society organisation promoting Catalan culture that was founded during Franco's dictatorship. ANC is a much more recent organisation that seeks the political independence of Catalonia from Spain through the establishment of a free and democratic state. ANC was born shortly before the big pro-independence demonstration on the 11th of September 2012 and quickly showed its ability to mobilise large and diverse sectors of society. Òmnium Cultural and ANC have played a key role in involving citizens in these demonstrations and gathering together people from different levels of society, overcoming social and political differences.
In 2014, pro-independence supporters created a colossal demonstration, unique at European level, to demand the right to hold a self-determination vote. A record 1.8 million participants formed a V-shaped mosaic displaying the Catalan flag along Barcelona's two main avenues to symbolise 'Vote', 'Victory' and 'Will', all three of which start with a 'V' in Catalan. The rally induced strong support for the 9th of November consultation vote that had been agreed by a two-third majority of the Catalan Parliament.
9-N: The symbolic vote which reached the court
The non-binding consultation on independence held on the 9th of November 2014 marked a turning point in Catalonia’s pro-independence aspirations. Not only because of the success of the event, which had a high turnout and was carried out pacifically, but because of the political and judicial consequences it entailed. 2.3 million cast their ballots in a symbolic vote which replaced the original consultation, which had been banned by the Spanish authorities. Independence clearly won, with 80.76% of the ballots and 1,861,753 votes. However, and despite its non-binding nature, several ministers of the Catalan Government and the Catalan President at that time, Artur Mas, were prosecuted for “disobeying” the Spanish Constitutional Court’s warnings and allowing the 9-N to take place. “It is disappointing and pitiful” that the Spanish authorities’ reaction to the peaceful mobilisation of 2.3 citizens is acting “though courts and prosecutors”, Mas stated. Despite the judicial complaint, he emphasised that Catalonia “will go on” with its “intentions, in a civic-minded, calm, democratic and firm way”. Former Catalan Vice President, Joana Ortega, former Catalan Minister for Education, Irene Rigau and and former Catalan Government’s spokesman, Frances Homs, were also summonsed for the same reason.
For the 9-N to take place, the Catalan Parliament passed the Law on Consultation Votes with 79% support in the Catalan Chamber, with the only opposition being from Conservative People's Party (PP) and Spanish Unionist Ciutadans (C's). This law was created specially to give a legal framework to the vote, since the Spanish executive rejected a motion to transfer to the Catalan Government the power to organise a specific non-binding self-determination referendum, using Article 150.2 of the Constitution. 86% of all Spanish MPs rejected the motion, presented by the Catalan Parliament and defended in the Spanish Parliament by left wing pro-independence ERC member, Marta Rovira, liberal Convergència’s Jordi Turull and the green left alliance ICV-EUiA.
The Catalan Parliament representatives stressed that allowing a self-determination vote was only a matter of political will. Furthermore, they stressed that today’s “no” would not stop Catalonia’s self-determination process, since there are other legal ways open.
The President of the Catalan Government, Artur Mas, did not participate in the debate since it was a parliamentary initiative, but he did make an official statement from his office in Barcelona. Mas highlighted that Catalonia's offer to talk would still be there if the Spanish authorities want to negotiate later on. In the debate, Catalan representatives insisted on several occasions on their will "to negotiate about everything". However, Mas also warned that the self-determination process would carry on using other legal and democratic means.
27-S: Pro-independence majority in the Parliament
A year ago, the 27-S Catalan elections showed a majoritarian support for pro-independence forces. Cross-party list ‘Junts Pel Sí’, which gathered together pro-independence representatives from civil society and politicians such as left wing ERC’s leader, Oriol Junqueras, former MEP Raül Romeva and former President Mas, amongst others, won the 27-S elections. They obtained nearly 40% of the vote and obtained 62 MPs in the 135-seat Catalan Chamber. However, they didn’t obtain an absolute majority and this result required them to negotiate with other forces. Emphasising their shared pro-independence commitment, ‘Junts Pel Sí’ reached an agreement with CUP, who got 10 MPs.
The 72 MPs of the two parties, ‘Junts Pel Sí’ and CUP, agreed after months of negotiations to launch a roadmap for independence and put in place the basis for the Catalan Republic; an endeavour which first required former Catalan President and ‘Junts Pel Sí’s preferred candidate Artur Mas to step aside. Former Mayor of Girona and President of the Association of Municipalities for Independence (AMI), Carles Puigdemont, then emerged as the candidate of consensus. He committed to starting a term of office which was due to last 18 months and put Catalonia “at the gates of independence”, according to Puigdemont’s own words. This endeavour has so far resulted in numerous suspensions from the Spanish Constitutional Court of the so-called ‘structures of states’, threats of legal and penal action against some of Catalonia’s main political representatives and also much talk about differences between the pro-independence forces.
Puigdemont proposal: either a referendum or a referendum
During his vote of confidence speech in September, the Catalan President emphasised the Government’s will to culminate Catalonia’s pro-independence movement by holding a binding referendum. “It’s either a referendum or a referendum”, he stated before the Parliament and forecast that the vote would take place “in the second half of September 2017”. According to Puigdemont, the offer to hold an agreed referendum with Spain on Catalonia’s independence “doesn’t expire, but [it] won’t paralyse us either”. “I hope that during the moments of maximum disagreement we will be loyal to the Catalans’ mandate”, he stated, indirectly addressing radical left pro-independence CUP. Puigdemont also assured that “there is a new opportunity for the Spanish State to recognise Catalonia and overcome this deadlock” and insisted on his willingness to “discuss the date, the question and the required results”.
A few days later, on the 10th of October, at a press conference held in Madrid which was attended by eight EU ambassadors but no representatives from the Spanish Government nor from the PP, Puigdemont confirmed his proposal. The Catalan President urged Spain to have “political courage” and “negotiate” a referendum in Catalonia. “Let’s listen to each other and let’s decide the best solution, without restrictions”, he stated and invited the Spanish Government to “present an alternative proposal which can compete with Catalonia’s”.
Puigdemont also explained that 60% of the Catalan Chamber are for calling a referendum in Catalonia while support for reforming the Spanish Constitution represents a “minority” in the Parliament. He also emphasised that according to the latest polls, the number of pro-independence supporters is currently 5.3% higher than those who are against. “You can like it or not, but it is a proved reality and it will not change until we find a solution”, he said.
Spain’s Constitutional Court blocks pro-independence roadmap
In December 2015, the Spanish Constitutional Court declared the Parliament's pro-independence declaration proposal approved by the 72 pro-independence MPs in the Parliament unconstitutional and, therefore, invalid. The TC made its decision within record time, only 22 days after the appeal presented by the Spanish executive was accepted, which made this resolution the fastest in the TC's history. The magistrates considered that the agreed pro-independence proposal approved on the 9th of November violated core articles of the Spanish Constitution, such as "the indivisible unity of Spain" and "the subjection of the public powers to the law" and that it also was an "attack" on the Rule of Law. The Catalan Government Spokeswoman, Neus Munté described the TC's resolution as "political" and "predictable" and assured that the credibility of the Spanish Constitutional Court meant "almost zero" to the Catalan Government.
Some of Catalonia’s state structures, those mechanisms projected to ensure the transition to an independent state, have been declared unconstitutional during the past year too. The TC unanimously suspended some precepts of the law on fiscal measures which foresaw the creation of the Catalan Tax Agency, the building of a catalogue of strategic infrastructures and plans for the energy and railway sectors, amongst others.
One of the latest actions taken by Spain’s government to stop Catalonia’s pro-independence aspirations was the suspension of the proposal approved by governing cross-party list ‘Junts Pel Sí’ and radical left pro-independence CUP to call a referendum in Catalonia in September 2017. The magistrates accepted the Spanish executive’s appeal, which claimed that the plan presented in the Parliament and passed by pro-independence forces was unconstitutional, since it emerged from the declaration to launch the pro-independence roadmap passed in November and in turn suspended by the TC. Moreover, Catalan President, Carles Puigdemont and Parliament’s President, Carme Forcadell have been warned by the judges that any attempt to contravene this suspension should be aborted.
Only a few days later, the Parliament’s President, Carme Forcadell, testified before the court for allegedly violating the Spanish Constitution when allowing the pro-independence debate to take place in the Parliament, last July. “We can’t open the door to censorship because if we do, we won’t be able to close it again”, Forcadell warned and added that “no court could impede” the Parliament from “discussing independence”. Forcadell considered bringing her before the Court “another step” towards the Spanish State’s attempt to “violate the separation of powers”.
A new era?
The new Spanish executive, led again by Conservative People’s Party leader, Mariano Rajoy, has promised “more willingness to dialogue” and a more open predisposition to overcome the current deadlock between Catalonia and Spain. Formed in October, after 300 days of an acting government and following two elections in six months, the Spanish Government appointed one of its strongest assets Spanish Vice President Soraya Sáenz de Santamaría as head of a new portfolio called ‘Territorial Administrations’, a Ministry which aims to deal, amongst others, with Catalonia’s pro-independence aspirations.
However, the announcement during the new Spanish Government’s first weeks that several summonses against Catalan representatives will continue have put this openness to dialogue into question.
“This is a very bad week for the Spanish Government to talk about dialogue”, Catalan Government spokeswoman, Neus Munté, told the CNA. In the interview, Munté lamented that “the supposed call for dialogue” from the new Spanish executive was “only a store window” and urged for “facts and concretions beyond words” in order to tackle the “political conflict” in Catalonia rather than “resorting only to the courts”.
Munté also criticised that “right in the 21st century” a state such as the Spanish State “which defines itself as democratic” still “prosecutes disagreement and freedom of speech and questions whether the Parliament can do its work”. “If Catalonia achieves the status we wish for, which is for Catalonia to have its own state with normality, these actions will be absolutely inconceivable”, she foresaw