Up to 1.5 million people flooded the streets of Barcelona on July 10 in an enormous demonstration behind a lead banner proclaiming: “We are a nation, we decide.” The turnout exceeded the most optimistic forecasts.
Even the most conservative and Spanish-nationalist media admitted this huge protest against the constitutional court’s undermining of Catalonia’s Statute of Autonomy was one of the biggest since the end of the Franco dictatorship in 1975 — 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, 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), the largest opposition party in the Spanish parliament 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 with aggressive attacks from the Spanish-centralist PP government of prime minister Jose Maria Aznar.
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 poll, 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.
The first draft of a reformed statute was produced in 2005. The newly elected prime minister of the Spanish government, Jose Luis Rodríguez Zapatero of the Spanish Socialist Workers Party (PSOE), undertook to support the statute 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.
In October 2005, the statute 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 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, but the 49% participation rate revealed the growing disillusionment with the statute’s dilution and the Catalan politicians most ready to compromise over it.
The PP immediately launched an appeal to the constitutional court on the grounds that 114 articles and 12 regulations of the statute were unconstitutional. It argued the statute 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 constitutional court judges ruled against the PP appeal being heard. The PP also achieved the removal of one of the judges from the case on the grounds he had been consulted over the wording of the statute.
This created a deadlock and increased politicisation of the court’s discussion of the text. Farcically, 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 leaked to the press.
Finally, after four years of scandals and manoeuvres and in a context of 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, 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 decentralisation of the legal system, establishment of a permanent Council of Statute Guarantee with the power to rule on disputes and limitation of the ability of the national state to adopt legislation overriding local powers.
Also ruled out was the establishment of a financial system that would oblige richer parts of Spain, such as Catalonia, to help fund development elsewhere, but which would also be transparent and equitable.
Other findings radically undermined measures that have already been enshrined in specific legislation, such as action to overcome the second-class status of the Catalan language and to consolidate it as the language of Catalonia.
Although the decision rejected most PP claims of unconstitutionality, it was no wonder it stirred up intense anger among the people of Catalonia. Even the La Vanguardia, Spain’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 be considered constitutional only if they were interpreted along lines adopted by the constitutional court itself.
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 tries to “impose a language” from “a position of radicalism”.
They also argued that concepts such as those of the Catalan “nation” and its “historic rights” should be removed from the text.
In essence, the decision was a reflection of the standard “common sense” view that has ruled in the two big Spanish parties for 30 years since Franco’s death. This remains anchored in obsessive defence of indissoluble “Spanish” unity.
It is totally allergic to any federalist or pluralist reading of Spain’s constitution, even though this specifies the country’s national plurality.
It remains to be seen how the court’s decision will affect Spain’s politics and institutions — especially the reaction of the central government. But disillusionment with the constitutional road as a guarantee of the rights of self-government is spreading. The parties on the left of the Catalan parliamentary spectrum, ERC and ICV-EUiA, explicitly recognise this 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 huge 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 planned for September 29 against the Zapatero government’s austerity policies.
Many of those with whom they marched on July 10 will be on the other side of the fence come September.
However, the fact remains that the crass manipulation of the statute by the two big 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 channelling this democratic aspiration is reform of a Spanish constitution that is now regarded as untouchable, it’s no surprise that pro-Catalan independence positions have grown in strength and visibility — even among people who don’t see themselves as pro-independence.
During the 17th, 19th and 20th centuries, sentiments such as those expressed on July 10 inspired calls for an independent Catalan republic.
Unless the much-vaunted “second transition” for Spain becomes a reality — which will take, at the very least, a convergence of all left and democratic forces across the whole Spanish state — these sentiments can only grow.
[This article is based on the Spanish-language article “The day Catalonia brought down its sentence” by Gerardo Pisarello and Daniel Raventos, on the independent left Spanish website Sinpermiso.info.]