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The origins of the conflict for Catalan self-government (I)

10 Nov, 2015 - - @politikon_es

Catalonia’s fit within Spain has been a hot topic of Spanish politics for at least a decade. If one had to pick a starting point of the current chapter, the 2004 general election would be a defensible option. In these two pieces, I would like to provide an interpretation of one of the key issues in the genesis of the conflict, the reform of the Estatut (Catalonia’s statute of autonomy), which started roughly with the election of a leftist regional government in 2003 and ended with the ruling by the Spanish Constitutional Court in 2010. In this first piece I will provide some background for those unfamiliar with Spanish politics, while in the second one I will provide a more opinionated view of the ruling.

At the time, Catalonia’s government had shifted from more than two decades of conservative nationalist government (led by Convergència i Unió), to a left-wing coalition (the Tinell agreement, named after the location where it was signed), formed by the eco-socialists (ICV), the secessionist left-wing party Catalan Republican Left (ERC), and the –until then– main opposition party in the region, the Catalan section of the Socialist party (PSC).

The PSC is different from other members of the Spanish socialist federation in that it has historically preserved its own identity and autonomy vis à vis the central branch of the Spanish Socialist Party (PSOE).  It has traditionally had  a more Catalanist orientation, being more sympathetic to nationalist politics. It is essential to understand the internal heterogeneity of the socialist federation. Catalonian voters have traditionally been crucial for the PSOE in general elections –Catalonia is Spain’s second most populous region after Andalusia–. At the same time, however, other members of the socialist federation –Andalusia, Castilla la Mancha, and Extremadura in particular– have tended to express their discontent against the attention given to the “Catalan problem.”  José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, then socialist candidate (and subsequently prime minister), was anointed Secretary General of the party precisely with only the (public) support of the president of the catalan federation, Pasqual Maragall. His opponent, and also front-runner in the party leadership race, José Bono, was president of the Castilla la Mancha federation, and was well known for his hostility against Catalan nationalism.
The 2004 general election that took place several months later brought also a change in the national political scene. The PSOE won 164 seats, against the conservative People’s Party’s 148. The victory was however short of a majority (that required 176 seats). The result was that the socialist government had to rely on the support of nationalist parties, as has been the case for most of Spain’s minority governments over the past thirty years. Mirroring the Tinell agreement, Zapatero chose IU-ICV (the national level version of the eco-socialist coalition, with the traditional communist party –PCE– at its core) and ERC. ERC’s support was necessary and sufficient to form a majority in Congress, IU-ICV support playing a minor role. As such, it is broadly believed that a commitment to reform Catalonia’s Estatut (the piece of legislation that regulates the competence of the regional government) was the price paid by the socialists in exchange for ERC’s support.

It’s important to highlight that the Spanish devolution process was organized in an asymmetric fashion. Certain regions have more autonomy than others according to their own regional statute. As such, regional autonomy is protected by legislation that can only be reformed via proto-constitutional procedures –that is, not by ordinary legislation– and that typically involves the agreement of both the national and regional parliaments. In the case of Catalonia, the Estatut established that any reform had to i) go through the regional parliament ii) be approved by the national parliament, and finally iii) ratified in a referendum. However, just like any other piece of legislation, it was subject to constitutional review.

After several months of deliberation, by the end of 2005 the Catalan assembly agreed on a proposal that was widely seen as being very ambitious. The draft included provisions on both “policy” issues, such as education, the judicial system, or the obligation of the Spanish government to invest a certain yearly amount of resources in Catalonia, as well as others more symbolically loaded (such as the obligation to know the Catalan language, the definition of Catalonia as a nation, and others). It reflected both the wide sentiment in the Catalan political scene that sees Catalonia as a political subject –a nation– and the economic side of nationalist politics, which has historically considered the contribution of Catalonia to the national budget to be insufficiently compensated by what it gets in return.

The proposal was certainly ambitious, but it was also seen by a majority of legal scholars as transgressing the limits set by the Constitution. This was perhaps not obvious in the public debate, but a basic understanding of Spanish constitutional law –of the flavor in which it was interpreted at least– made it clear that in many senses the proposal was hard to accept. As such, the Constitutional committee of the Spanish congress, presided by Alfonso Guerra, a historical leader of the Andalusian socialist party, substantially amended it, trimming some of its most controversial aspects.

As the amendment process went on, ERC threatened to withdraw its support from the proposal and from the socialist government. It was becoming increasingly clear that the amended proposal would not pass. After a surprise meeting with Artur Mas (the leader of CiU, the Catalan conservative nationalist party), Zapatero struck a deal on a final proposal to be approved.

This move was met with anger by ERC, who saw it as a betrayal of Zapatero’s alliance with them. In the run up to the 2004 electoral campaign, Zapatero had promised at a much quoted meeting that he would approve any statute proposal coming from the Catalan parliament –that is, not its amended version–. Arguably, it was seen as a betrayal of the left-wing alliance at both the national and regional level. In Catalonia, ERC presented itself before the Catalan electorate as the best defender of Catalan interests, vis à vis CiU, who was now displaced to the opposition. Even under these conditions, however, many provisions remained beyond the limits set by the Constitution. ERC opposed the final deal and reform proposal; their position was seen by many as hypocritical and merely “position taking,” since they voted against the proposal in Congress, but abstained in the Senate. The party finally asked for a “no” vote in the referendum, although it was widely believed that they expected the “yes” to win, as eventually happened.