Massive thanks to my good friend, PSOE comrade and proud resident of Murcia, Mario Lopez, for allowing me to share his thoughts on this matter of critical importance to Europe, regionalism, democracy and the rule of law. It really is worth a read! I think there are some important learnings for our own constitutional position which I plan to share on this blog at a later date.
To understand the current crisis one needs to go back to 2006 when the Zapatero government, having been unable, because of PP opposition, to open up a reform of the Spanish Constitution to deepen its federal structure, kick-started a process of reform of the regional constitutions instead. Catalonia was one of the regions that reformed hers. The Catalan reform was passed at the time by a vote in the regional parliament and a referendum. However, Rajoy, then leader of the opposition, began a campaign against the new Catalan constitution. He collected signatures against it, used anti-Catalan rhetoric and took the text to the Constitutional Court. The result was that the court ruled several of the new articles unconstitutional and the entire text got diluted. For many Catalans this was seen as an attempt by the rest of Spain to limit Catalan self-government and so began a questioning of whether Catalonia would be better off as an independent state.
That sentiment has been growing steadily over the last decade because of many factors: the economic crisis, the corruption crisis and the fact that Rajoy (Catalan enemy no. 1) is now PM of Spain.
At the same time, the biggest Catalan nationalist party (CIU, now rebranded as PdeCat), which has ruled Catalonia for decades, suffered its own political crisis as its historical leader, Jordi Pujol, and many others have been jailed for widespread corruption. To avoid being overtaken electorally by other nationalist parties, the PdeCat began upping its independentist rhetoric. (Traditionally, the PdeCat has been a culturally nationalist, but politically federalist, party).
In the end, we have a convergence of a legitimate sentiment of affront among Catalans and a political class (both PdeCat and PP) fuelling nationalist sentiment on both sides in a populist manner for short-term electoral purposes.
Arriving at the current crisis, the fundamental issue is that the Spanish Constitution doesn’t permit a referendum to break up Spain. Because Spanish and Catalan laws stem from the Constitution, both governments have the duty to uphold the law. The Catalan government hasn’t done so by calling for a referendum first and then by threatening to declare unilateral independence. The Spanish government has followed the law by trying to stop the referendum and now by using Article 155 (direct rule from Madrid) to remove the Catalan government, dissolve the regional parliament – so it can’t declare independence – and calling for fresh regional elections. But as we all know, in politics the law is not always enough. The Rajoy government massively overstepped the line by sending the police into Catalonia to stop the referendum. And equally, the Catalan government for all its talk of democracy, has prevented a genuine democratic debate in many instances, from its control of public Catalan media to the forcing through of unilateral laws in the Catalan parliament without proper legislative scrutiny by the non-independentist opposition.
How do we solve the crisis? In my view, the main problem is the current interlocutors on both sides, Rajoy and Puigdemont. They are both discredited by their actions. We need a genuine dialogue between both sides. One ray of hope, in my opinion, is that PSOE has managed to get Rajoy to agree to opening up a parliamentary commission on reviewing the Spanish Constitution. This is the perfect forum for all sides to sit down and agree on a new constitutional structure in which Catalan needs and concerns can be accommodated within Spain. The key question is whether a referendum for self-determination should be included. PSOE has said no, because the main goal should be to make Catalonia feel comfortable remaining within Spain, not to make arrangements for it to leave. I despise nationalism (both Spanish and Catalan, or any other for that matter) and I believe it is a morally superior position to want Spain to remain a single state (understanding Spain as a plural state, with many identities, languages and cultures living within it, as it should be reflected in the new Constitution) than breaking it up on the basis of cultural singularity and economic selfishness. We have had that kind of democratic referendum recently in Europe, Brexit, and look how that panned out!
In the eventuality that a reformed Constitution is voted on a referendum across Spain and in Catalonia was voted down, then I would agree that a referendum on self-determination would be necessary. But that would be a last resort option, we ought to be constructive, not destructive, in the first instance.
This is just my opinion. I am sure there are many factors I have left out that other people will think are more important and not everyone will agree with my preferred solution. But that tends to be the case with my political views most of the time anyways! 😉