Why Catalonia stood up on July 10
By Dick Nichols
July 12, 2010 -- When up to 1.5 million people flooded the streets of Barcelona on July 10, 2010, in an enormous demonstration -- behind a lead banner proclaiming, “We are a nation, we decide” -- the most optimistic forecasts were exceeded. The huge protest was against the Constitutional Court’s rejection of the constitutionality of Catalonia’s Statute of Autonomy. Even the most conservative and Spanish-nationalist media had to admit that this was one of the biggest demonstrations since the end of the Franco dictatorship, and the most important in the history of Catalan nationalism.
The demonstration was endorsed by more than 500 groups, including the parties that make up 88% of the Catalan parliament, Catalan trade union organisations large and small, the Peasants Union,and scores of migrant, community and cultural organisations.
The only parties that opposed the demonstration were the right-wing Popular Party (PP), formerly in power in the Spanish state but only the fourth-largest parliamentary force in Catalonia, and Citizens, a movement of Castilian (Spanish) speakers resentful of pro-Catalan language policy.
Why did up to 20% of the entire population of Catalonia take to the streets? The road leading to this immense outpouring began in 2003, in the context of aggressive attacks from the Spanish-centralist PP government of José María Aznar. At that time the Party of Socialists of Catalonia (PSC), the Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC) and Initiative for Catalonia-Greens, in alliance with the United and Alternative Left (IV-EUiA), pledged to create a “left and Catalan nationalist” government if elected at the November 2003 elections. After success at the polls the new government launched a reform of the 1979 Statute of Autonomy, seeking greater self-government and recognition of Catalonia’s specific national identity on the basis of a liberal reading of the Spanish constitution.
Statute of Autonomy
The first draft of a reformed statute was produced in 2005 and the newly elected prime minister of the Spanish government, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero of the Spanish Socialist Workers Party (PSOE), undertook to support the Statute of Autonomy that would be adopted by the Catalan parliament. A few months later, a broad majority of that parliament, including the conservative nationalist Convergence and Union (CiU), adopted a revised statute.
On October 5, the statue was introduced into the Spanish congress. However, as had already happened with the 1932 Statute during the Second Spanish Republic, the Spanish legislature cut it back, ostensibly to make it “fit in with” the Spanish constitution. On March 30, 2006, this “brushed up” Statute of Autonomy was approved in Madrid and a referendum of the people of Catalonia was called for June 18. The text was ratified by a 74% majority, although the 49% participation rate revealed the growing disillusionment with the dilution the statute had undergone as well as with the Catalan politicians most ready to compromise over it.
The PP immediately launched an appeal to Constitutional Court on the grounds that 114 articles and 12 regulations of the Statute of Autonomy were unconstitutional, arguing that it involved a “clandestine constitutional reform” and a “parallel constitution”. Despite the text’s adoption by the Catalan and Spanish parliaments and by popular vote, only one of the 12 judges of the Constitutional Court ruled against the PP appeal being heard. The PP also achieved the removal of one of the judges from the case on the grounds of his having been consulted over the wording of the statute.
This unleashed a scenario of deadlock and rising politicisation of the court’s discussion of the text. In a grisly farce, some judges whose terms had actually ended remained to adjudicate on the statute because the PSOE and PP could not agree on their replacements. Various supposedly confidential draft decisions of the court were also leaked to the press.
Finally, after four years of scandal and manouevre and in a context of rampant economic crisis, the so-called “progressive” sector of the court, headed by president María Emilia Casas, managed to create a majority with two other judges. That majority was based on drawing red lines through many pluralist and federalist aspects of the statute.
When the court published its majority decision on June 28, 2010, it struck down 14 articles of the statute as totally or partially unconstitutional. Many of the parts found null and void regarded points that would be perfectly acceptable in any genuinely federal framework. These included eventual decentralising of the legal system, establishment of a permanent Council of Statute Guarantee with the power to rule on disputes, limitation of the ability of the national state to adopt legislation overriding local powers, and establishment of a financial system that would oblige richer parts of the Spain like Catalonia to help fund development elsewhere, but on a transparent and equitable basis.
Other findings radically undermined measures that have already been enshrined in specific legislation, such as action to overcome the second-class historical status of the Catalan language and to consolidate it as the language of Catalonia.
Although the decision rejected the majority of PP claims of unconstitutionality, it was no wonder that it stirred up intense anger among the people of Catalonia (to the point that La Vanguardia, the country’s equivalent of the Sydney Morning Herald, titled its coverage of the court’s ruling “Provocation!”). This was also because the majority court decision concluded that 27 other precepts in the statute could only be considered constitutional if they were interpreted along lines adopted by the Constitutional Court itself.
So, the obligations of the Spanish state to invest in Catalonia were downgraded to mere suggestions to the Spanish legislature, as were the rights and obligations to speak and learn Catalan. As for the belated recognition of Catalonia as a nation, this was to be empty of any content in law and subordinated to the “indissoluble unity” of the “Spanish Nation” (always placed in capital letters).
Certainly, the majority didn’t adopt the most recalcitrant Spanish nationalist positions. In fact, the most conservative judges, in line with a number of PP leaders, made it clear they believe the statute “collapses the State” and attempts to “impose a language” from “a position of radicalism”, and that concepts such as those of the Catalan “nation” and its “historic rights” should completely disappear from the text.
In essence, the decision was a reflection of the standard “commonsense” view that has ruled in the two major Spanish parties for 30 years since Franco’s death. This remains anchored in obsessive defence of indissoluble “Spanish” unity, and is totally allergic to any federalist or pluralist reading of Spain’s constitution, even though this specifies the country’s national plurality.
While it remains to be seen how the Constitutional Court’s decision will affect Spain’s politics and institutions—especially the reaction of the central government—disillusionment with the constitutional road as a guarantee of the rights of self-government is spreading, with the parties on the left of the Catalan parliamentary spectrum, ERC and ICV-EUiA, explicitly recognising the reality.
From a left viewpoint it is obvious that Catalan society, like any other, is criss-crossed by different class, political and cultural interests and conflicts. For the country’s workers and poor many of these interests are common to those of the rest of the Spanish state and of Europe. In fact, judging by the massive presence of unions and left organisations on the streets of Barcelona on July 10, it is likely that many of those who marched saw the protest as in part a dress rehearsal for the general strike and protests against the austerity policies of the Zapatero government that will take place on September 29. Many of those with whom they marched on July 10 will then be on the other side of the fence.
However, the fact remains that the crass manipulation of the Statute of Autonomy by the two major Spanish parties and by the Constitutional Court was enough to bring together federalists, autonomists, supporters of independence and many people simply demanding respect for Catalonia’s democratic and peacefully expressed national rights.
When the only permissible path for channeling this democratic aspiration is reform of a Spanish constitution that is now regarded as untouchable, it’s no surprise that Catalan independentist positions have grown in strength and visibility, even among people who don’t see themselves as independentists.
During the 17th, 19th and 20th centuries sentiments like those expressed on July 10 inspired the call for an independent Catalan republic. Unless the much-vaunted “second transition” for Spain becomes a reality—which will take, at the very least, a fraternal convergence of all left and democratic forces across the whole Spanish state—these sentiments can only grow.[Based on “El día que Catalunya dictó su sentencia” (“The day Catalonia brought down its sentence”), by Gerardo Pisarello and Daniel Raventos, on the independent left Spanish web site Sin Permiso (www.sinpermiso.info). The English text of the Catalan Autonomy Statute can be found at www.parlament.cat/porteso/estatut/estatut_angles_100506.pdf.