Yeah, right! - Writings by Brian Murdock


January 5, 2018

The Catalan Chronicles: Clouds

If Joni Mitchell had written a song about Catalan separatism, the lyrics might have gone something like this:


I’ve looked at democracy from both sides now, from up and down, and still somehow, it’s democracy’s illusions I recall; I really don’t know democracy at all.


Absolutely. No questions about it.  It doesn’t cease to amaze me how two diametrically opposed sides can actually base their defence on essentially the same argument: democracy and democratic ideals.


The democractic ideal the separatists are talking about is the right to self-determination; the right to vote; the right to decide one’s future.  It forms the cornerstone of any serious civilization.  The pro-sovereignty band centers its appeal for international support on the argument that the Spanish government is denying them that very basic entitlement.  In short, “we just want to vote, and they won’t let us.”   And, Lord knows, on October 1st, we the world actually got to witness the extremes to which the cental government was willing to go in order to deprive the citizens of Catalonia of that very fundamental prerogative which should be available to all citizens.  The separatists were right.  It sounded irrefutable.  It sounded perfect.  It sounded like something Patrick Henry would scream, “stick it to the bastards!” to.  Who wouldn’t support them, damn it?


The central government, on the other hand, resorts to the notion of democracy when trying to dismantle the entire independence movement.  In fact, they tend to justify their whole defence by acting in the name of democracy.  They assert that when you steamroll a popular majority with an agenda that will remove them from the country they want to belong, it is equally undemocratic, and you have to admit they have a point there.  They also insist that they are defending the constitution, which is a legal manifestation of the democratic framework they all agreed to. And it’s valid too.


Is it possible that they are both right?  It is, but it ain’t easy.


You see, every time the Catalans request a referendum, they get handed a copy of the constitution they overwhelmingly voted for (that is, democratically) and are told to open to the Page 1.  “Read and weep,” say the constitutionalists.  “You see, here’s the part where it unequivocally states that Spain is one nation and that it’s indivisible and indissoluble, and that you agreed, supported and swore to uphold and respect?  Do you have any further questions?”


The indissoluble part is easy for the separatists to sidestep because they can always say, “Spain doesn’t have to be dissolved.  It can exist as long as it wants. We just aren’t going to be a part of it.”  But the first word, you know, the tiny part about Spain being “indivisible”, is a little trickier.


The only way for them to get around it, if they are to stick to playing by the rules, which they hardly do, is to find a way to show that the constitution had somehow failed them, that it is being used to violate their rights and that it is not the charter they had ratified.  Spirit had disappared.  The love was gone.  They needed what is commonly called a reason. Or, in other words, an excuse.


Enter the Estatut of 2006.  As most of you will not recall, so I will refresh your memories, the constitutional framework of Spain was set up in such a way that the central government would formalize written agreements with the separate Comunidades Autónomas, on a region to region basis.  The divisions were mainly determined by historical justification.  I have always thought, with the greatest of humility mind you, this was a compromise from the post Franco period that was destined for disaster, and I think that history is proving me right.


The first modern Estatuto was passed in 1979 and it gave Catalonia plenty of the powers the constitution had promised it would.  But barely twenty years had gone by when there were grumblings by the nationalists (that’s what the future separatists were called back then) that the situation was unbearable. Not enough powers, not enough competences, not enough control, not enough recognition.  A new accord, a more up-to-date covenant, needed to be reached between the two if they were to live in harmony.  So one was presented to the Spanish parliament, analyzed, interpreted and reworded in hundreds of places and finally sent to both houses for a vote.  It passed in both despite the vociferous objections of two very strange bedfellows: the PP, who felt the documents were infested with unconstitutional issues (and they were probably right), and the left-wing ERC, a republican party clearly in favor of independence, who deemed the document a joke and an insult to those sought total and complete separation from the  rest of Spain.  And they were right too. But in the latter’s case, they abstained in the senate vote in order to ensure the estatuto went through because, as you know, a bad estatuto is better than none at all.


The approved accord was handed over to the Catalans themselves for a referendum.  Apparently there are referendums and referendums, and this was the kind that you could hold in this country.  Turnout suggested the locals were less than enthusiastic about the whole deal to begin with.  Final participation was an anemic 49.4%, of which, about 74% said yes.  Doing the math gives you a paltry 37% of the entire Catalan population had actively manifested itself in favor of the proposal.  And that’s if we round it up.  So, when Mr. Puigdemont refers to the famous Estatuto which had been proposed, passed in parliament and ratified in Catalonia as proof that democracy had sided with him and his cause, we can rest assured that he is leaving out some pretty important details.


The Catalan president also asserted that the Constitutional Court’s decision to declare 14 articles of the   Estatuto unconstitutional to be an affront to democracy.  I’m not making it up.  He literally says that in his speeches, so I’m merely drawing from that source.  Why? The estatuto had already been drawn, voted on and passed.  It was essentially undemocratic, when not altogether illegal, to obtain in a judge’s chambers what could not be obtained in the voting booth.  While it can be argued rather successfully that the PP was just acting in response to its defeat in parliament, it’s also true that Puigdemont chooses to ignore the fact there is a safety switch inherent in any solid democratic design known as “checks and balances”, which is there to ensure none of the three branches of government can fully run the show.  The constitutional court exists for that very reason.  It reviews laws, accords, agreements, and lower court cases, when it is asked to do so, and decides on its constitutionality.  No serious democracy can live without it.  Anyone with any basic knowledge of political science is familiar with this.


I will avoid an in-depth analysis of the points under dispute because, A) I am not an expert in Spanish constitutional law and B) the subject could take up the space of an entire book itself.  Suffice it to say that, given the extensive length of the agreement (over 200 articles involving an incredibly wide range of issues), chances are somewhere a conflict of interest with the constitution would arise.


Not so surprisingly, the issue that got the most headlines was the use of the word “nation” to describe Catalonia.  The constitution describes Spain as “one indissoluble nation made up of nationalities”.  The Catalans preferred to be called a “nation”.  The court said that was an unncessary distinction. And neighboring regions complained that the Catalans were trying to gain a status of preference over the other comunidades autónomas.   And the PP feared this was a way of allowing another symbolic step towards declaring independence one day.  After all, if Spain was admitting as much, then they should have the right to be their own country.  Critics of that position claim that if the PP had let things alone, hadn’t ruffled any feathers, everything would have been fine.  But that’s a highly debatable argument.


But there is no question that it aggravated the situation immensely.  When the Constitutional Court sided with the PP party, all hell broke loose.  It was time, said the Catalans, to break free.  The excuse had arrived.


If you are asking yourself if this insane current clash in Spain is partially the result of a war of semantics, an almost childish bickering over “nation” and ” nationality”, you’re right.  As incredible as it may seem, you’re right.  You’re right, I say.




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