Catalonia: Fight over right to decide political future intensifies

[For more coverage of Catalonia, click HERE, and Spain, HERE.]

By Dick Nichols

February 6, 2013 – Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal -- Political tensions within the Spanish state have reached a new pitch following the January 23, 2013, declaration by the Catalan parliament of Catalonia’s sovereign right to decide its own political future. Antagonism is intensifying between the Catalan and national Spanish governments and polarisation continues to increase among and within all main political forces.

The 135-seat Catalan parliament adopted the “Catalan People’s Declaration of Sovereignty and Right to Decide” by 85 votes to 41 with two abstentions. It was supported by the governing conservative nationalist federation, Convergence and Union (CiU), the independentist Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC), the left coalition Initiative for Catalonia-Greens and United and Alternative Left (ICV-EUiA), and by one of the three representatives of the left-nationalist Popular Unity Candidacies (CUP).

The opposition came from the Catalan branch of the conservative People’s Party (PPC), the Spanish-centralist party Citizens and from 15 of the 20 MPs of the Party of Socialists of Catalonia (PSC). Five PSC MPs from the party’s “Catalanist” wing did not vote, while two of the three CUP MPs abstained.

After voting the PP MPs made a point of walking out of the “illegal” parliament, while the PSC MPs who hadn’t voted, including a former health minister and the mayor of regional capital Lleida, were later fined €400 each for breaking party discipline.

The declaration became inevitable after forces supporting the right to self-determination won a clear majority at the November 25, 2012, Catalan election. This had been called early by premier Arthur Mas in the hope that CiU might win an unprecedented absolute majority, allowing it to deal on its own terms with the national PP administration of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy.

The rocket fuel for CiU’s attempt at a parliamentary record was to be the vastly expanded independence sentiment in Catalonia, as dramatically expressed at the two-million strong September 11 national day demonstration in Barcelona. However, the governing federation lost 12 of its 62 seats while much of the new independence sentiment flowed to the unambiguously independentist Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC). The ERC also overtook the Party of Socialists of Catalonia as the second force in the Catalan parliament.

The ERC then made a deal to support the weakened CiU as a minority government, but in exchange for a CiU commitment to implement a road map for achieving Catalan sovereignty, with a referendum or consultation to be held by 2014 (300th anniversary of the fall of Barcelona in the War of the Spanish Succession).

The ERC also extracted a €1 billion euro increase in taxes on the wealthy and business bank deposits. This was aimed at partially reducing the €4 billion program of cuts planned for the 2013 Catalan budget by the CiU government which, like all regional administrations, is under orders from Madrid to meet the steep deficit-reduction targets dictated by the European Union.

The €1 billion tax hike, part of which has already been ruled “illegal” by Spain’s Constitutional Court, will not save Catalonia’s public services and public-sector workers from savage cuts, but has been more than enough to upset Catalan big business.

PSC capitulation

The political force that has most cracked under the strain is the Party of Socialists of Catalonia. Its support base includes workers who have migrated to Catalonia from other parts of the Spanish peninsula, but it has always claimed “left Catalanism” as its ideology. Seventy-two PSC mayors belong to the Association of Municipalities for Independence (AMI), co-sponsor of the September 11 demonstration.

To stem voter desertion during the recent Catalan election, the PSC arranged an “agreed difference” with its all-Spanish sister party, the Socialist Workers Party of Spain (PSOE), over its supposed support for the Catalan right to self-determination. In the first parliamentary session after the election, PSC leader Pere Navarro said PSC MPs would abstain on all votes related to the CiU-ERC roadmap to a Catalan referendum.

However, Navarro’s abstentionism, which was aimed at keeping the fractious PSC together, provoked outrage from the PSOE. Spokesperson Elena Valenciano laid down the line: “The PSOE is against this referendum, which is illegal and would be disastrous for Spain and Catalonia. The PSOE will never agree to a referendum which asks Catalonia if it wants to separate from Spain.”

In the negotiations before the January 23 vote, ICV-EUiA, still hoping to bring the PSC on board, won removal from the initial CiU-ERC statement of all wording painting the Catalan right to self-determination as the first step along the road to Catalan independence. They also won agreement that parliament, not the government, should take responsibility for the process.

As a result, the final text simply affirmed the Catalan people’s right to decide its collective political future and the principles that should guide that choice. It was a text that any democrat — federalist, confederalist, autonomist or independence supporter — could have backed.

Besides containing commitments to “social cohesion” and “the founding principles of the European Union”, the statement required that the process be “scrupulously democratic, guaranteeing especially the plurality of options”. Catalan civil society was to have all the information needed to exercise a clear choice, and both government and parliament were to act to guarantee maximum citizen participation (which when concretised could include lowering the voting age to 16).

The statement also said that “all existing legal frameworks will be used to make effective the strengthening of democracy and the exercise of the right to decide” and commits to “dialogue and negotiation with the Spanish State, European institutions and the international community”.

Notwithstanding these changes, the PSC leadership had by now got the message from PSOE HQ. On January 23, Navarro told parliament, “the [Spanish] Constitution ... is very clear: ‘National sovereignty resides in the Spanish people, from whom the powers of the State arise... If we want to change that, we have to change the Statute [governing relations between Catalonia and the Spanish State] and the Constitution. And if we wish to push for changes through exercising the right to decide of the citizens of Catalonia, it has to be done within the framework of legality.”

This approach, compared by its supporters to those prevailing in Quebec and Scotland, means that the only way that Catalonia can exercise its right to decide is when there is a majority in the Spanish parliament prepared to sanction it — in practice, when the PP can be thrown out of government and the Spanish-centralist forces within any replacement coalition can be kept under control.

The last time anything remotely like this state of affairs materialised was in 2006, when the PSOE government of José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero negotiated a new Statute for Catalonia with the tripartite Catalan government of the PSC, ERC and ICV-EUiA. That agreement was appealed to the Constitutional Court by the PP; in 2010 the court brought down a decision that mutilated it — even though the new statute had already been adopted by the Spanish and Catalan parliaments and endorsed by referendum in Catalonia.

With this shift the PSC leadership effectively dumped “Catalanism” and became the de facto Catalan branch of the PSOE. “Welcome to the side of democracy!”, crowed PPC leader Alicia Sánchez-Camacho, when it became known that the PSC would be voting with her party.

The PSC vote has stirred internal warfare, with statements for and against the new line attracting hundreds of signatures. Joaquim Nadal, until a month ago the PSC parliamentary leader, resigned from the party executive, while on January 30 six of the seven PSC members on the Girona provincial council voted in favour of a CiU-ERC motion supporting the parliamentary declaration. In a similar vote in Lleida province, five of the seven PSCers abstained and two didn’t vote. At the January 27 PSC executive the “Catalanist” minority was accused of “high treason”.

If the PSC hasn’t yet split it is because both sides in the battle fear a premature showdown that would consign the party to irrelevance, while boosting ICV-EUiA and Citizens.

Why the PSC change of line? From the end of the dictatorship of General Franco until the present crisis broke, affirmation of Catalonia’s right to decide its own future was a feel-good exercise that won brownie points in Catalonia, put pressure on Madrid for better deals, but carried little threat to the Spanish state and the Spanish capitalist economy because support for independence rarely reached 30%.

However, in 2010, the Catalanist forces in parliament, including the PSC, could muster an overwhelming majority of 110 votes against the PP and Citizens. With support for independence now running around 50%, any implementation of a Catalan right to self-determination carries with it the possibility of a break-up of the Spanish state, providing a boost for the Basque and Galician movements for sovereignty and a positive example for other “peoples without a state” in the rest of Europe.

It also poses the hot question of what the social content of an independent Catalonia should be — a dutiful neoliberal slave of Brussels (like Slovakia, say) or a society and state striving to entrench democracy, social justice and environmental sustainability against neoliberal austerity.

Tensions in CiU

With the foundations of the Spanish house being shaken and major European “players” watching on anxiously, the PSC has been told by its PSOE masters that this is no time for light-minded fiddling with democratic rights. Important sections of the Catalan ruling elite are patiently explaining a similar message to CiU.

On January 17, Joaquim Gay de Montellà, president of Promotion of Work (FDT), the Catalan big business umbrella organisation, said: “We businesspeople don’t want a train wreck. Nor a Catalan society that ends up fragmented”. He called for a new relationship between Barcelona and Madrid “within the framework of normality” and for the PP government to accept the need to renegotiate Catalonia’s fiscal relations with the Spanish state.

Earlier, the FDT had strongly lobbied Mas not to negotiate a governmental pact with ERC, but to look to the PSC and/or PP as partners. This is because the ERC represents the radical independence sentiment within the Catalan small-business and professional classes, as against Catalan big capital for whom, in Gay de Montellà’s words, “the Spanish market is our natural market”.

These differences are finding sharpening political expression within CiU, a federation between the majority Democratic Convergence for Catalonia (CDC) and the Christian Democrat Democratic Union of Catalonia (UDC). At its last congress the CDC took a clear stance for sovereignty, while the UDC describes itself as confederalist.

The need for compromise between these positions saw CiU go to the November 25 poll with the ambiguous call for Catalonia “to have its own state”, but without ever using the word independence.

Ever since CiU flopped at that poll UDC leader Duran i Lleida, who also leads the CiU parliamentary fraction in the Spanish national parliament, has been very responsive to Catalan big business concerns — questioning the alliance with the ERC, wondering about the need to set a date for an act of self-determination and “worrying” out loud about the difficulties on the road to self-determination.

Twenty-four hours before the Catalan parliamentary vote, CDC rank-and-file anger with Duran’s white-anting surfaced in a resolution from its Barcelona region, blaming his “watering of the wine” for CiU’s election losses. Duran demand for an apology was immediately met by the CDC leadership, including Mas and Barcelona mayor Xavier Trias, but the underlying political differences are no more resolved within CiU than are those tearing at the PSC.

United Left response

The conflicting pressures that the Catalan national question brings to bear on all politicians in the Spanish state were also on display in the statement of Cayo Lara, the national coordinator of the United Left (IU), the day after January 23.

Recent polls show just 50% of people in Spain support the right of its nationalities to choose their own political futures, while only 9.5% support the re-modelling of the Spanish state to allow the nationalities to exercise that right.

Lara told the Spanish parliament that the IU had always supported the democratic right of Catalonia to decide its own future, that “no one” could take away the Catalan people’s right to decide, but that “obviously there are unilateral decisions that no one can take by themselves”.

He remarked: “Here we are all part of this thing that is called the Spanish state and any decision that is taken [with regard to Catalonia’s status] has to take account of the position that we have to make as a whole.”

Lara told parliament that the IU’s position is to defend a federal republic in which all citizens can live together regardless of nationality. As for Catalonia’s fiscal problems, these were not exclusively due to its relationship to the Spanish state, but also because the CiU government was “jointly responsible along with PSOE and PP governments for running down tax income to the public purse”.

Lara’s stance that of “never allowing a chopping up of the state” reflects the widespread feeling in the broad Spanish left that progressive people across the country should act in unison to defeat the right wing and together impose the institutional reforms acceptable to all.

Among non-Catalan and non-Basque left wingers the thought that these more progressive parts of the peninsula could “abandon” them to face the rancid right alone provokes cold shudders.

Those who were expecting Lara’s stance to lead to a showdown with the EUiA (the IU’s sister organisation in Catalonia) were disappointed. The EUiA leadership made no comment, probably because a debate within the IU at this stage would serve no purpose and because the EUiA and its alliance partner, ICV, are most focused on the job of expanding the base of social support for the right to self-determination within Catalonia itself.

Part of this struggle requires the ICV-EUiA to engage closely with the left-nationalist Popular Unity Candidacies (CUP). The abstention of two of its MPs — chiefly on the grounds that the sovereignty invoked was only for Catalonia and not the “Catalan Lands” — has provoked considerable turmoil within the assembly-based organisation, with many CUP supporters unable to understand why CUP MPs couldn’t give critical support to the majority stance once its own proposal had been voted down.

On February 4, EUiA coordinator Joan Josep Nuet announced that the formation would be calling an assembly of Catalonia’s political and social left, “people who are active in Avancem [a left regroupment initiative launched from within the left of the PSC], the CUPs, ERC, ICV or EUiA, and also social and union activists and activists in single-issue campaigns”.


The national PP government’s response to January 23 has been to pretend that it is “irrelevant”, even while intensifying its institutional and economic warfare against the Catalan government. In recent months it has declared that all regional governments will have to report their overseas activities to Madrid, thrown into doubt whether Catalonia will be able to access the €9 billion it is claiming from the central Spanish support fund, passed legislation that will undermine Catalan as the main language of instruction in Catalonia, and left open the possibility that it will appeal the Catalan parliament declaration to the Constitutional Court.

The aim is to force the Catalan government to implement even nastier cutbacks.

At the same time one of the few “goodies” Catalonia has experienced in years — the completion of the high-speed train link between Barcelona and Madrid — was trumpeted as a gift from Madrid.

In the growing war for hearts and minds the main weapon of the enemies of Catalan self-determination is the repeated claim — made from both left and right — that it is a “distraction from the real struggle” for economic recovery.

If that argument sinks in among working people in Catalonia, Spanish centralism will win. In this context, the responsibility on the shoulders of those forces fighting the double war against austerity and for Catalonia’s national rights is great indeed.

[Dick Nichols is the European correspondent for Green Left Weekly and Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal, based in Barcelona. A shorter version of this atricle appeared in the February 6, 2013, issue of Green Left Weekly.]