By Sara Ramos
On October 3rd the King of Spain Felipe VI addressed all Spaniards on the issue of Catalonia in a six minute discourse.
Days later, Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy asked the senate to employ the ‘nuclear option’. As permission was granted to execute Article 155 of the Spanish Constitution, autonomy was suspended and the Catalan parliament was dissolved, imposing direct Spanish rule over the region.
In their speeches, both the king and the prime minister accused Catalan leaders of breaching Spanish constitutional law and consequently undermining the democratic value upon which the 1978 constitution was created. Can the government, however, truly rely on the premise of the Constitution to address the Catalan question? How effectively can the emotional appeal to national unity in the name of democracy silence not only the Catalan leaders but also their supporters?
The Catalan Statute…. Not so Catalan
After almost forty years of dictatorship, the 1979 climax of the transition from Francoist Spain saw the creation of a constitution that recognized ‘autonomous communities’ through Statutes of Autonomy agreements between state and regional parliaments. Catalonia re-established their autonomy within the Spanish state and constitution with the Catalan Statute of Autonomy. Consequently, the region was granted special powers and the right to form institutions of self-government with control over all but education, health and justice.
In 2006 a referendum was held to expand the power of the autonomous government and officially define its institutions, regulations and finances. This resulted in 78% of voters in favour of approving Catalonia’s Statute of Autonomy. Although the turn out must be considered with only 49% of all Catalans participating in the vote, the prominence of the pro-independence movement was evident and democratically manifested.
Despite the Spanish government’s deification of the Constitution and democracy, the center-right People’s Party attempted to reverse this process. Along with surrounding autonomous communities (known as Espanyolistes to Catalans) who charged Catalonia with ‘breaching solidarity between regions’, they challenged the result of the 2006 referendum at the Constitutional Court.
After 4 years of deliberation, the Court over-rode the democratic mandate given by the Catalan electorate and agreed upon by the Catalan parliament and Madrid. As a result, 14 articles were considered unconstitutional and required rewriting and re-interpretation. The original preamble of the Statute had gone so far as to define Catalonia as a ‘nation’, and established the superiority of the Catalan language in the region, bringing the ire of the Espanyolistes upon themselves. The Court ruled that the use of ‘nation’ had no basis in law, and the status of the Spanish language was reinstated, referring to the Constitution to re-affirm the ‘indissoluble unity of the Spanish nation’. Catalonia became the only Autonomous Community out of 17 to be founded not on a democratic process, but by one enforced by the Constitutional Court as a result of a motion brought by the then-minority People’s Party.
Since then, the central government’s strategy has been to elude the responsibility of engaging in effective dialogue with a defiant silence.
Meanwhile, the voices of those who echo the humiliation that Catalan society was subject to in 2010 emerge and are now more flagrant than ever. Arguably, the salience of the independence movement today can be attributed to the events following the 2010 ruling. Unsurprisingly, as we learnt from the Castilian and Basque experiences, opportunistic politicians will not, and in fact have not, wasted a minute in employing these injustices to forge a national discourse that often excuses fallacious claims and hyperbolic victimisation.
Sadly, at stake is the value of democracy that, while trapped in between the technicalities of a federal system, is distorted by both sides to legitimise their own undemocratic actions.
Flags and the constitution
Resolving the Catalan question is no simple task; in fact it requires an extraordinary political effort from both sides that cannot afford the excesses of any nationalist discourse.
The first step toward a solution stems from acknowledging that the 1978 constitution is not a God-like, absolute source. Although it was democratically approved during the Spanish Transition, it can no longer effectively address the most prominent issues in modern Spain. The monarchy and ironically the government, have utilised the Spanish constitution to entrench their opposition to the Catalan independents (and in some cases to legitimize the use of violence against pacifist civilian movements). Attempts to justify the violence make it evident that arbitrary interpretations of the Constitution have been exploited to serve the political aims of those in power.
The Indissoluble unity of the Spanish nation: the unity/autonomy paradox
Article 2 of the Spanish constitution states:
‘The Constitution is based on the indissoluble unity of the Spanish Nation, common and indivisible mother land of all Spaniards, and recognizes and guarantees the right to autonomy of the nationalities and regions that integrate it and the solidarity among them all’.
The façade of Franco’s rallying cry of ‘Una grande, libre y unida!’ has fallen away to reveal the paradox in the very foundations of the Spanish nation and Constitution. ‘Unity’ and ‘autonomy’ seem now to be irreconcilable premises; reform is inevitable and urgent. Just as society evolves, so too should the constitution. Every political effort to amend it should ensure the safeguarding of citizen’s rights and, more importantly, the principle of democracy.
With the benefit of hindsight and the historic record of two other prominent Spanish nationalisms, it is evident that neither flags nor constitutional sentences will resolve the problem. The imprisonment of the Catalan Parliament’s leaders will certainly not lock up the spirit of the pro-independence movement. Similarly, succumbing to the allure of nationalism and falling into the trap of moral and cultural supremacy will only exacerbate fissiparous tendencies. After all, nationalism is dramatically failing its defenders and proponents; solutions fall victim to fallacy as the Catalan question turns into a zero-sum game, pitting Catalans not just against one another, but also against their Spanish brethren.
With all of this in mind, I shall end on a note of apprehension. The Spanish government and its supporters should stop claiming to speak in the name of ‘democracy’. Both sides ought to abandon nationalist discourses. Instead, they shall focus on a democratic resolution to the Catalan question; one that embraces plurality as opposed to either crushing it as the government has, or abandoning it as the independence movement has attempted to do.
The paradoxical nature of the Constitution and its relationship to the Autonomous Statute requires resolution. This could be achieved through intelligent dialogue with both sides laying down their nationalist weapons. The ‘indissoluble’ conception of the Spanish state, as laid out in the 1978 Constitution, is a relic of the Francoist past and must be reconsidered in the context of growing inequality between autonomous communities. The Spanish state has outgrown the 1978 Constitution, written during a turbulent time as Spain underwent its transition from Francoist dictatorship to democracy. Spanish democracy requires modernising, and new forms of unity and autonomy must be considered.
Spanish democracy must also be defended against those who seek to exploit it for nationalist gain, and it is the duty of politicians to safeguard it.
It is the duty of citizens to stand up against nationalist discourse and to reject the allure of nationalist narratives and movements that have fomented crises. If the Spanish government had not stubbornly resorted to the narrative of ‘unity’ without ‘autonomy’, perhaps the cries for independence would have quietened. But state violence and what was perceived as the deprivation of Catalan democracy, all in the name of national unity, inflamed the crisis and inspired the national character of the Catalan people to erupt in what became a defense of the ‘Catalan nation’. Nothing inspires nationalist tendencies like being invaded by an ‘other’.
The Spanish constitution, although remarkably elaborated and democratically approved, will not offer a democratic solution to the Catalan question. For as long as we leave the value of democracy in the hands of nationalist discourses, we will continue to witness the tragic destruction of plurality. Far from experiencing any of Thomas Kyd’s theatre, we could be witnessing the real Spanish Tragedy.
Featured picture source: Pro-independence protest, La Vanguardia
Born and raised in Spain. Sara Ramos is an IR student interested in Spanish politics, African history and environmental philosophy.