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Catalan statute furore makes nearly everyone a loser

A top court’s painfully long decision on the legality of Catalonia’s revised relationship with Spain was relatively underwhelming. However, the ruling creates more problems than it resolves.


Catalan nationalism is likely to be fuelled by the Constitutional Court ruling. Photo: Planvi

While sport lovers have admired the Spanish football team’s advance towards the World Cup final in South Africa, political and social observers have just as much reason to be impressed. This football team has managed to unite representatives of every corner of the country more effectively than any politician has ever done. Andalusians, Asturians, Madrileños, Basques, and -most notably- Catalans, all contribute to a squad that plays like a seamless whole. All of which makes it all the more ironic, therefore, that while the Catalan-led Roja has worked together to such devastating effect, back in Spain, political relations between Catalonia and Madrid have hit a low.

On June 28, while the Spanish team were busy playing their way to a first ever World Cup final, the Constitutional Court announced its decision, after four years of wrangling, over the legality or otherwise of the Catalan statute. In protest at the ruling, a large-scale march was immediately organized through the streets of Barcelona.

The statute document -negotiated by the central government and Catalan authorities before being approved by the regional and national parliaments and also backed in a referendum by Catalans- sought to update the relationship between the north-eastern region and the Spanish state. That relationship was previously laid out in the 1978 Constitution and the Socialist government believed that the time was ripe to further devolve certain powers to the region.

The hammering out of a deal in 2006 and subsequent approval of that agreement were supposed to bring a curtain down on what has always been a sensitive issue. However, the opposition Popular Party (PP), which at the time frequently warned of the breaking up -“Balkanisation” was a word it often used- of Spain due to the desires of many Catalans and Basques for more autonomy, lodged an appeal against around half of the statute’s 222 articles.

The four years it took the Constitutional Court to rule on the appeal was not due to some bizarre adherence to the FIFA football calendar, but rather to the well-publicised political divisions that taint and hinder many of the top tribunals in Spain. A face-off between progressives and conservatives hobbled the process, with some of the magistrates on the 12-member court even having exceeded their term limits by the time of the ruling.

The actual content of the decision is relatively uncontroversial and rejects almost all of the PP’s qualms about the statute. Crucially, a clause referring to Catalonia as a “nation” is left alone, as it is deemed to have no legal resonance. Only 15 articles were struck down, relating mainly to increased judicial powers for the region.

Who’s really in charge?

This begs the question as to why Catalan politicians spent the days following the court’s ruling buried in their own negotiations over how to stage a march through the streets of Barcelona on July 10 protesting the tribunal’s action.

The answer is that however little the Constitutional Court ended up meddling in the Catalan statute, it still meddled. A painstaking process supposedly lent legitimacy by Catalonia’s people in a popular vote, by its politicians in a regional assembly vote, and even by the national Congress, was held hostage for four years by a roomful of judges in Madrid who many Spaniards believe are driven by tribal political loyalties rather than the letter of the law.

La Vanguardia columnist Ferran Mascarell has outlined a major reason for Catalan anger at the ruling:

“The sentence means that in Spain a part of the political and institutional class (…) has decided that the last word regarding the sovereignty of the Catalan people rests on the unfortunate Constitutional Court. The sovereignty of the Catalan people does not lie in the regional parliament or in the Spanish parliament, but in any interpretation the Court wishes to make.”

He adds: “Winning elections, making laws and consolidating majorities – none of that matters now. The crucial thing is to dominate the Constitutional Court.”

The broader response to the Constitutional Court ruling has been wide-ranging, reflecting both how far Spain is from resolving its regional autonomy quandary and the potentially toxic nature of the “Catalan issue.”

Almost all the Catalan nationalist parties, left and right, have expressed varying degrees of outrage at the decision. One obvious consequence of the whole affair is to have provided Catalan nationalist parties such as the conservative CiU, the leftist ERC and the ICV greens with anti-Madrid ammunition and quite possibly a boost going into the autumn regional election. CiU spokesman Oriol Pujol summarised the stance of these parties when he said: “The mutilation (of the statute) is very serious … Without a doubt there will be a political, social and cultural response to this.”

Uneasy Socialists, sheepish conservatives

So far, so Catalan. But the nationwide parties’ responses are more nuanced and intriguing. The fault line between the PSOE Socialists in Madrid and their PSC Catalan wing has started to gape after the regional president, José Montilla, accused his party colleagues in Madrid of “hiding and being afraid” of defending a fully decentralised Spain due to Popular Party intimidation. This makes an already uncomfortable situation even more so for Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero. Having chosen his words extremely carefully in accepting the court ruling, Zapatero now finds that Montilla, one of his former ministers, is calling him a coward.

The PP, meanwhile, has been sheepishly welcoming the ruling, while trying to pretend that it was not responsible for lodging the anti-statute appeal that sparked this episode in the first place. Having lost the 2008 general elections in great part because of its poor showing in Catalonia, the party has come round to the idea that it must shake off its obsessively centrist, “anti-Catalan” image.  This autumn’s Catalan vote will be a barometer of its ability to do that in the next general elections. And it is the autumn vote that throws gunpowder on an already  highly flammable court ruling.

The collateral damage from the statute appeal is substantial: the nation’s top court is further discredited, the government looks weak and the main opposition appears hypocritical. The outright winners are the Catalan nationalists, who for all their outrage have been handed a large dose of political capital just when they need it, without seeing the statute substantially altered.

It doesn’t matter how much the Spanish football team unites the country; when it comes to politics, it will be a long time before Catalonia and Madrid are playing on the same team.

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