Confronting Catalonia: a day in Spanish parliament

A huge march in support of self-determination for Catalonia in Barcelona, September 2012.

The Spanish congress met in Madrid on April 8 to hear a petition from the parliament of Catalonia: that the power to hold a non-binding referendum on its political future be granted to Catalonia under Section 150 of the Spanish constitution.

Three MPs from the Catalan parliament presented the request. They were Jordi Turull, head of the parliamentary fraction of the governing right-nationalist Convergence and Union (CiU), Marta Rovira, national secretary of the centre-left nationalist Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC), and Joan Herrera, co-leader of Initiative for Catalonia-Greens (ICV, known as eco-socialist in Spain).

Everyone knew beforehand the petition would be rejected. Both the ruling People’s Party (PP) government of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy and the main opposition Spanish Socialist Workers Party (PSOE) had declared their parties would vote against it.

Nonetheless, the seven-hour debate, broadcast live, was watched with close interest across the Spanish state.

It was the first time the case for Catalan self-determination was presented directly to a Spanish-wide audience. All MPs knew they were taking part in a contest for hearts and minds that would impact on the intensifying clash over Catalonia’s right to choose whether to remain part of the Spanish state.

The petition was finally voted down 299 to 47, with one abstention. The yes votes came from the Plural Left and Basque, Catalan and Galician nationalist parties. as well as some regionalist forces. The no vote came from the PP, PSOE (including its Catalan affiliate), the Spanish-centralist Union for Progress and Democracy and right-regionalist groups from Navarra and Asturias.

The Catalan government will now implement its Plan B ― a Catalan legal framework for the consultation, set for November 9.

Strong case

In the discussion, speakers supporting Catalan's right to decide strongly answered opponents.

The CiU's Jordi Turull said: “A vast majority of the people of Catalonia has reached the simple but very clear conclusion that things cannot go on as is, and that they don’t want them to …

“Honourable members, you will remember that we negotiated and that this parliament approved a new statute [in 2006] that was put to referendum in Catalonia ... It was left in the hands of the Catalans alone to decide whether or not they wanted that supposed improvement in their self-government, and they approved it with their vote.

“And what happened? Afterwards, that statute was beheaded by another state institution [the Constitutional Court in 2010] and with that they beheaded the hopes of very many people of improving our self-government within the present framework …

“Consulting the people of Catalonia about what future they want is legal, possible and, above all, necessary. It is possible because all the experts in constitutional law … agree in stating that if there is political will, the consultation fits within the constitution …”

The ICV's Joan Herrera said: “We are here because the enemies of the welfare state who never lose a good opportunity to weaken it are today the very same enemies of self-government who do not lose a good opportunity to wreck that too.

“That’s why the majority sentiment of Catalan nationalism, which in the past has been for reform of Spain, is today for the right to decide [whether to stay in Spain] …

“The territorial debate is only one expression of the end of epoch that we are living through today in Spain. I would go so far as to say end of regime ... This scenario of an end to the regime was there in the streets of Madrid on March 22 [in the million-strong demonstration to welcome the anti-austerity Marches for Dignity]; it was there in the 'white tides' defending public health; it was defending public education with the 'green tides'; it is there in the mortgage victims platforms that reject a law that saves banks while abandoning people …

“You have decided to behave as if it were just a rainy day, you paint the petition as a whim, you say that it’s only [the Catalan] president, without understanding that this is much more plural and social than you depict, without noticing that the petition has been accompanied by one of the most intense and widespread mobilisations that Catalonia has ever known …

“The problem is not the law, the problem is that you cannot [accept self-determination] for an unspeakable reason. You cannot because you are prisoners of the anti-Catalanism you have sown for so many years … You cannot because you are prisoners of that 'public opinion' that fortunately contrasts with a Spanish society that is much more plural …

“Frankly, I believe that the only chance for Spain itself to survive is to have another Spain emerge … This is what the polls are saying. Without any campaign of consciousness-raising four out of every 10 Spaniards, and most PSOE voters, are in favour of Catalans being able to decide.

“And that, frankly, is our hope ― that luckily you do not represent Spanish society.

Weak response

In response to such arguments, Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy said: “The power you are asking for cannot be transferred and the purpose for which you are seeking it is not in accordance with the law. To my understanding both of these matters openly clash with the constitution.

“Honourable members, if this parliament had the power to transfer ownership of all these exclusive responsibilities or to break down national sovereignty, it would be placing itself above and beyond the entire Spanish people…

“Faced with this inescapable reality, it is no use invoking the claims of popular enthusiasm. There are things that neither demonstrations nor plebiscites change …

“It is not true they suffer an intolerable oppression in Catalonia ... It is not true that the Catalan language is persecuted or that its culture is suffocated ... It is not true that obstacles are placed in the way of its economic development or that its welfare system is sabotaged …”

For his part, PSOE leader Alfred Perez Rubalcaba added: “There’s an economic crisis and, to speak with complete frankness, speeches about that crisis link independence to … what? To an easier, quicker way out for Catalonia. This speech [of Marta Rovira] that we’ve heard today is familiar ... It’s an especially damaging discourse, a discourse lacking in solidarity …

“What is intolerable, and I’m going to be clear, is that there are people in Catalonia who say: 'Spain robs us' …

“We do not agree with the right to self-determination. It doesn’t feature in any constitution in the world … It means permanent instability.”

A question of democracy

The Pluhral Left's Joan Coscubiela responded to Rajoy, saying: “You have insisted on making the citizens believe that today we are discussing the independence of Catalonia, and you know that isn’t true …

“You have introduced major dishonesties into the debate. The most important of all is to confuse the method with the result, the right to decide democratically with the one that concerns you, that of independence.”

The PNV's Esteban Bravo said: “The argument that all citizens in the Spanish state and not only the Catalans should vote is a very poor one, very, very poor. Where have we seen such a thing? In Scotland? No. In Quebec? No. In Norway? No. In East Timor? No …

“Half a year ago, in a debate similar to this, the spokesperson for the PP parliamentary caucus, using the expression written on the door of Hades, said: 'Abandon all hope.' Is that what we aspire to in this country ― to convert the constitution into a hell, a sort of prison, a trap for citizens who don’t agree with its contents?

“In Scotland, they will soon have a chance to determine the opinion of citizens about the country’s future status … In the case of Catalonia, by contrast, the appeal to the law serves to continue ignoring this will.”

The ERC's Alfred Bosch said: “Now I would like to address myself directly to you, Spanish citizens … Do you share this obsession of your representatives and rulers against the ballot box? Surely not.

“So I ask you to help avoid the terrible craziness of a government that is prepared to stage an attack on a vote and inevitably prejudice Spanish democracy itself.”

For her part, Coscubiela concluded: “You have passed this whole debate doing two things, Mr Rajoy and others. In the first place, you have denied us the right to decide, but at all the while you have been speaking in the name of Catalonia.

“You say that Catalonia has never had a better situation as an autonomous community [equivalent to a state in Australia]; well, that’s your opinion and I might even agree with it, but it’s yours.

“Mr Rubalcaba went even further and said that the best thing that could happen to Catalonia is a federal option. Please note, as emotionally and rationally a federalist, I can agree with you. But there’s a small difference: I don’t speak on behalf of the Catalans. No, I speak on my own behalf and of the group I represent, the Plural Left, while you have passed all this time speaking on behalf of the Catalans.

“Let them vote and you will know what the Catalans think. Don’t substitute for them with your interventions here today.”

[Dick Nichols is Green Left Weekly’s European correspondent, based in Barcelona.]