In Spain, the 1978 Constitution was the legal outcome of a political transition to a democracy, following the horrors of civil war and dictatorship. Among other things, it established a territorial model – the so-called “Estado de las Autonomías” (State of Autonomous Communities) – which was in principle designed to satisfy the historical demands for recognition and self-government of, above all, the citizens and institutions of two minority nations: Catalonia and the Basque Country. This territorial model occupies an intermediate position between the classic federal and regional models of comparative politics, but has more regional than federal features.
Yet thirty-six years later, many Catalan and Basque citizens and political and social actors show a deep disappointment regarding the development of this territorial model – in terms of collective rights, political recognition and self-government.
A movement for change
In recent years, support for independence has increased in Catalonia. Different indicators show that pro-independence demands are endorsed by a majority of its citizens, political parties and civil society organizations. This is a new phenomenon. Those in favour of independence had been in the minority throughout the 20th century. Nowadays, however, demands of a pro-autonomy and pro-federalist nature, which until recently had been dominant, have gradually lost public support in favour of demands for self-determination and secession. The following graph shows this recent trend.
The reasons for this shift are to be found in Catalonia’s political evolution over the past decade, especially in the shortcomings with regard to constitutional recognition and political and economic accommodation displayed by the Spanish political system. The latter have been exacerbated by the reform process of Catalonia’s 2006 Statute of Autonomy (Constitutional Law) and the 2010 judgement of Spain’s Constitutional Court regarding this Law.
It is also important to point out two theoretical elements that are behind the current political debates, not just in Catalonia, but in secessionist processes in many liberal democracies:
- Like Canada, Belgium or the UK, Spain is a plurinational country. About ten years ago, the United Nations clearly established that a politics of recognition is an integral part of the struggle for human dignity (Human Development Report, 2004). Moreover, it established that national and cultural freedoms, which include both individual and collective dimensions, are an essential part of the democratic quality of a plurinational society. As a result, values such as dignity, freedom, equality and pluralism are more complex in plurinational contexts than in those of a uninational nature. In this sense, the overall challenge of plurinational democracy can be summed up in the phrase “one polity, several demoi.”
- An established academic typology divides theories of secession into two basic groups: Remedial Right Theories, which link secession with a “just cause”. In other words, they regard secession as a remedy for specific “injustices”. Then there are Primary Right Theories, which regard secession as a right belonging to certain collectives that fulfil a number of conditions. These latter theories are subdivided into those of an adscriptive or nationalist nature and those of an associative or plebiscitary nature.
Launching a Catalan Statute (2003-2006)
As laid down in the Spanish Constitution, the reform process of the Statute of Catalonia had to be carried out in three stages: it had to be passed by the Catalan parliament (majority of 2/3), by an absolute majority of the members of the Spanish parliament, and finally it had to be approved in referendum by the Catalan citizens. After a rather elaborate process, a referendum was finally held in 2006 to approve the new Catalan Statute. It received the support of 73.9% of the Catalan electorate, although the turnout was low at 48.8%. Two important parties, the secessionist Catalan Republican Left (ERC) and the Spanish Popular Party (PP), campaigned for a “no” vote (although for opposite reasons).
This referendum should have marked the end of the reform process, finishing the work of a legislature devoted to this issue. However, the appeal of unconstitutionality lodged by the PP caused the controversy to drag on and ended up hindering the deployment of the powers outlined in the new text.
The judgement of the Constitutional Court (2006-2010)
The twelve judges of the Constitutional Court (appointed by the Spanish parliament, central Government and the General Council of the Judiciary) took nearly four years to deal with the appeal, generating constant uncertainty regarding the final outcome. Over these four years the process became increasingly convoluted and politically convulsive. The Court’s impartiality was questioned, seriously damaging the institution’s legitimacy. Finally, the Court published its ruling in July 2010. It affected the constitutionality of fourteen articles of the Catalan Statute and “interpreted” twenty-seven others. The aspects revised by the Court can be divided into three areas:
- Recognition: the judgement states that the Preamble (in which Catalonia was defined as a nation) had no legal value. Regarding the Catalan language, the wish to make it the preferred language within the administration and the media, and the duty to know it were eliminated. As such, the linguistic rights of consumers and users and its role as the primary language in the education system were limited.
- Powers: the ruling cancelled the Statute’s regulatory power, limiting the scope of its “base laws” (the central government’s main way of invading Catalonia’s autonomous powers). Moreover, the concepts of exclusive powers, executive powers and spheres such as international relations, culture, civil law or immigration were reinterpreted.
- Finance: in this area, two articles referring to the levelling of incomes – taking into account similarity of fiscal effort and legislation on local taxes – were declared unconstitutional. The interpretative part affected regulations regarding the ordinal principle and state investments according to GDP, among others.
In short, the process resulted in a clear watering down of the objectives of recognition, self-government and political accommodation that had been established at the beginning of the reform process. This is a key element to understanding the subsequent emergence of secessionist demands in Catalonia. First of all, the reform had demanded the legally binding recognition of the national reality of Catalonia within the framework of the Spanish Constitution. This demand had been stripped of all legal value by the end of the process. Second, greater depth and protection for self-government had been sought in order for the Catalan government to develop its own distinct powers. But this demand resulted in extremely modest gains. Third, it was not possible to attain a financial model which ended a system regarded as unjust (quantified as between 7% and 10% of Catalonia’s GDP, figures that led to the use of the term “fiscal despoliation” in political debates), nor respect for the “ordinal principle” once the territorial transfers have been made.
In sum, the combination of the extremely long drawn out process to reform the Statute (seven years) and its final disappointing outcome generated a widespread feeling among the Catalan citizenry that there was a lack of institutional legitimacy.
Increasing support for secession (2010-2014)
Events sped up following the Constitutional Court ruling. Catalan elections established a new minority government (led by Convergència i Unió, a centre-right nationalist federation of two parties). It sought stability through a “Agreement of Government” with ERC in 2012. This Agreement includes aspects connected with the economic crisis as well as three aspects pertaining to the “right to decide” the Catalan constitutional future. First, this included a “Declaration of Sovereignty” (2013) in the Catalan Parliament. Second, it called for the creation of the Advisory Council for National Transition (CATN) (2013). This has been tasked with advising the government on the different scenarios, procedures, legal frameworks, international experiences and institutions related to secession. Most of its fourteen members are university professors, mainly from the areas of political science, economics and constitutional/international law). Third, it called for a referendum on the constitutional future of Catalonia (which was suspended by the Spanish Constitutional Court). A “participative process” was finally implemented in November 2014, based on civil society “volunteers” who counted on legal protection and some infrastructures of the Catalan government. The referendum had no legal consequences, but it mobilized more than 2.3 million voters. Around 80% of them voted for secession.
With regard to the legitimizing positions put forward by the different political actors, there is a clear contrast not only between the values and objectives they defend, but also between the different language and theoretical frameworks they employ. On the one hand, the central government and the main Spanish political parties put forward reasons of a legal-constitutional nature. In the Spanish case, they say, it is not legally possible to enter into a dynamic similar to Canada or the United Kingdom (based on negotiation and bilateralism). Moreover, a number of actors have employed arguments relating to the potential economic decadence of an independent Catalonia or its automatic exclusion from the European Union (in contrast with empirical evidence and the Scottish debate). In practical terms, macroeconomic decisions remain in the hands of the central government, as do decisions relating to the management of the main taxes and money transfers which enable the Catalan government to pay everything from the salaries of its employees to its suppliers. The economy is currently one of the central government’s key instruments for putting pressure on the Catalan institutions.
On the other hand, the Catalan actors put forward two kinds of legitimizing argument depending on whether the aim is to justify the holding of a referendum on secession, or to justify the advisability of Catalonia becoming an independent state. The fundamental reason used to justify the referendum is its democratic nature. The prior assumption is that Catalonia is a specific demos that has the right to decide about its future according to liberal-democratic values and rules. The differentiating roots of this demos are of a historical and national-cultural nature (Catalonia was an independent state some centuries ago, Catalans have their own language and culture). Thus the legitimizing arguments for the right to decide usually combine the perspective of adscriptive or national theories of secession with perspective democratic and plebiscitary theories. Moreover, the legitimizing arguments in favour of independence add further avenues associated with theories of just-cause secession. Injustice is present both in relation to the systematic mistreatment at the economic and fiscal levels that Catalonia receives from the Spanish government and Catalonia’s fiscal deficit. This is in the order of 15,000-20,000 million euros a year, according to a number of studies. The accumulated negative balance since 1986 is calculated to be around 230,000 million euros. Other grievances include a lack of infrastructure; ‘centralism’ in regard to Barcelona’s airport; a lack of recognition of the distinct national reality of Catalan society; the absence of linguistic pluralism in state institutions and practices; and marginalization of Catalonia from the European and international spheres.
To sum up, the current political situation in Catalonia is an example of tension between legality and democratic legitimacy. The future prospects of Catalan and Spanish politics regarding the territorial question remain open. Spanish opposition to a referendum in Catalonia, in contrast with the agreement between the British and Scottish governments, leads the current political process into unknown territory. There are a number of different possible scenarios: either through agreements within the context of the Spanish state through agreements with European or international mediation (which currently seem unlikely), or through the mobilization of citizenry and a secessionist institutional disconnection.
The lack of national recognition and accommodation shown by the Spanish state has played a decisive role in causing the predominant Catalan demands to shift from being regionalist or pro-autonomy towards secessionism. The Catalan case constitutes a clear empirical point of reference within the sphere of comparative politics on secessionist processes in liberal democracies, and constitutes a dynamic element in the European Union in an increasingly globalised world.