Catalan parties are vigilant regarding the Spanish Constitutional amendment limiting public deficit and debt
Many in Catalonia fear that a constitutional limitation to public deficit and debt may dramatically reduce Catalonia’s already restricted fiscal autonomy, which would not only affect self-governance but also the possibility to pay for investments or public services not guaranteed by the Spanish State. The fear goes beyond Catalan party boundaries regarding the second amendment to the Spanish Constitution, which would be approved through an “urgent procedure”, almost without public and political debate. Catalan senators could force a call for a binding referendum.
Barcelona (ACN).- The possible amendment to the Spanish Constitution to limit public deficit and debt affecting all public administrations worries most of the Catalan parties. The debate in Catalonia is not so much about Keynes\u2019 thesis versus Merkel\u2019s, but about the actual need for such a measure, which limits strong state interventions. The main debate is about the fear that the Constitutional amendment agreed between Spain\u2019s two main parties could also be used to reduce the already limited fiscal autonomy of Catalonia. Why is this a fear? Because Spain\u2019s two main parties \u2013the Socialist Party (PSOE) and the People\u2019s Party (PP)\u2013 are the political home of Spanish nationalism, which has a constant desire to homogenise Spain under a Castilian matrix, concentrating all power in Madrid. The agreement between the PP and the PSOE is the foundation for the second amendment to the Constitution, which was approved in 1978 after four decades of a Fascist dictatorship and negotiated among all political sensitivities in Spain, from Communists to Fascists, from Spanish nationalists to Catalan nationalists. In addition, the proposed Constitutional amendment would be approved as an urgent procedure, almost without public and political debate, and without a referendum. It could thus be passed only with the votes from the two main parties, undermining the rest of the political sensitivities. However, this could change as 23 Catalan senators could block the procedure and thus forcing a binding referendum if they get the support of just three other senators. It all depends on the actions of the Catalan Socialist Party (PSC), which is part of the PSOE and supports Prime Minister Zapatero. The PSC has not announced its stance yet, not as the rest of the Catalan parties. All Catalan nationalist parties oppose the amendment and emphasise the importance not to reduce Catalonia\u2019s fiscal autonomy. From a pro-Catalan point of view, fiscal autonomy cannot be reduced because, despite already being quite limited, it is the main tool to pay for the investments and public services not made or guaranteed by the Spanish State in Catalonia and to counter-act centralist policies driven by Spanish nationalism. The constitutional amendment is thus perceived by these parties as a risk to Catalonia\u2019s self-governance but also to its economy and social welfare.
After the Spanish Prime Minister proposed last Tuesday an amendment to the Spanish Constitution for the second time in history (the first one was to allow European citizens to vote in municipal elections after the approval of the Maastricht Treaty) in order to include a public deficit limitation affecting all public administration, and knowing that the measure had been previously agreed with the People\u2019s Party, a cascade of public statements was launched in Catalonia, but also throughout Spain, in particular within PSOE strongholds. Criticism within the PSOE across Spain is more linked to the measure itself, whose need has been repeatedly preached by neoliberalists and critics of state intervention in the economy. However, Left-Wing supporters have serious doubts about including such principle in the Constitution. Furthermore if it is passed as an urgent measure, it will impede debate, less than three months before the general election.
The PSOE candidate to the next election Alfredo Pérez Rubalcaba said on Tuesday that he had been informed about the announcement in advance and supported it, as the current economic situation requires the adoption of methods to cool down the markets. Nevertheless, Rubalcaba is perfectly aware that depending on the terms of the measure and the manner in which it is passed, he could loose his Left-Wing support, damaging any possibility to reverse polls and beat the PP in November. Therefore, Rubalcaba has decided to actively participate in the negotiations and get the largest possible base for the agreement, which means on one side contenting Left-Wing voters and peripheral nationalists. The possible way out is by not approving a concrete figure for the limit, including flexibility criteria regarding potential difficult scenarios and ensuring that the State will not balance its budget at the expenses of the Autonomous Community ones.
Since Spain is not technically a federal country, the State could transfer its deficit to the Autonomous Communities or could require the Autonomous Communities to tighten their belt while the State spending is not reduced in proportion. Fearing this possibility, most of the Catalan parties are vigilant, raising their voices and sending messages that a reduction of Catalonia\u2019s self-governance will not be accepted. The main debate in Catalonia is therefore not so much focused on public powers\u2019 role within the economy and what Constitutions are for, but on the fear that the measure will finally trim Cataloania\u2019s self-governance. The issue goes beyond party boundaries.
The debate in Catalonia
After Zapatero\u2019s announcement backed by the PP, the Catalan Government was on guard. The spokesperson for the Catalan Executive, Francesc Homs, who is also a key person within the Centre-Right Catalan Nationalist Coalition \u2018Convergència i Unió\u2019 (CiU), stated that Catalan parties should frontally oppose the measure. Some hours earlier and directly answering to Zapatero at the Spanish Parliament, Josep Antoni Duran i Lleida, the CiU\u2019s strong man in Madrid, explained that \u201Cthe spirit\u201D of the new measure to balance budget and control excessive public spending was shared by its group. Actually the CiU has cut the Catalan Government\u2019s spending by 10% this year to reduce the deficit. However, Duran emphasised that before deciding if the CiU was giving support to this measure he had \u201Cto read the small print\u201D. The details of the amendment are still unknown partly because Zapatero\u2019s announcement was vague and because the details are in fact still being discussed. This Thursday, the Catalan Government\u2019s Vice President, Joana Ortega, underlined that the statements made by Homs and Duran, both from CiU, were along the same line; guaranteeing Catalonia\u2019s fiscal autonomy.
CiU could vote for the amendment if Catalonia\u2019s fiscal autonomy is guaranteed
Duran has been negotiating with the PSOE and the PP and according to sources from the CiU who talked to the CNA this Thursday afternoon, the CiU would vote for the constitutional amendment as long as there are no concrete figures and only if the measures do not limit the Autonomous Community fiscal autonomy. However negotiations are still on going. Yesterday, the Catalan Minister for Finances, Andreu Mas-Colell, said to share the need to limit the deficit \u201Cif Germany wants so\u201D, but that \u201Cas member of the Catalan Government, I would like this limit to be fixed by the Catalan Parliament\u201D, not the Spanish one.
The PSC receives pressure to force a binding referendum
The main opposition party in Catalonia is the Catalan Socialist Party (PSC). The PSC is part of the Spanish PSOE and supports Zapatero. Although the PSC has some degree of independence in relation to the PSOE, most of the time they vote in line with the PSOE and many Catalans consider them to be the exact same thing. At the Spanish Senate, the PSC is not within the PSOE group but its senators form a group with those from the Left-Wing Catalan Independence Party (ERC) and the Catalan Green Socialists (ICV-EUiA). Since the constitutional amendment should not only be approved by the Parliament but also by the Senate, the 11 senators from the PSC could vote with the rest of the Catalan senators, opposing the PSOE standpoint. If all the 23 Catalan Senators from the CiU, PSC, ERC and ICV-EUiA get the support of only 3 other senators (for instance some from the Basque Country or the Canary Islands), thus getting 26 votes, they could oblige the amendment to be approved by a binding referendum. The PSC therefore holds the key to obliging the Spanish Constitution amendment to limit public deficit and debt to be approved through a binding referendum and not simply through a mere parliamentary procedure. For the moment, the PSC has not announced its official stance, as it says to wait for the measure's details, which are still being negotiated. However, leading members of the party with a pro-Catalan profile have warned that the measure cannot go against Catalonia\u2019s interests and trim Catalonia\u2019s self-governance. Tarragona\u2019s Mayor, Josep Félix Ballesteros, said that the amendment should also be used to guarantee local government funding.
The remaining two other Left-Wing parties of the Catalan political spectrum have been much more vocal. The ICV-EUiA, an eco-socialist coalition including former Communist parties, has typically been the party that has focused more on the Left-Right debate, than on the Catalonia-Spain one. The ICV\u2019s President, Joan Herrera stated that the amendment is \u201Ca financial coup d\u2019état\u201D and asked all MPs and senators \u201Cwith a social-democrat sensitivity\u201D to ask for a binding referendum. Herrera put pressure on the CiU and PSC to agree to lead a Catalan front and oblige the amendment to go through the citizens\u2019 vote. In addition, Herrera also underlined that the measure cannot in any case reduce Catalonia's self governance.
The Left-Wing Catalan Independence Party (ERC) is also against the amendment because \u201Cit limits Catalonia\u2019s self-government\u201D and it thus \u201Cgoes against Catalonia\u2019s interests\u201D, said Oriol Junqueras, the ERC\u2019s next President. Junqueras announced he would support the Catalan Government, run by the CiU, if \u201Cit defends the greatest possible levels of sovereignty\u201D. He also added that \u201CCatalonia does not need to be lectured by anyone\u201D, as it is already going through \u201Charsh budget adjustments\u201D. He stressed that Catalonia\u2019s largest financial problem is the fiscal deficit \u2013the money that Catalonia gives each year to the rest of Spain in terms of solidarity\u2013 which he said was 20,000 million euros per year (12% of Catalonia\u2019s GDP). Furthermore, Joan Tardà, the ERC\u2019s deputy spokesperson at the Spanish Parliament, asked for a symbolic action. He asked all the Catalan MPs to exit the plenary when the amendment is being voted on.
However, the spokesperson for the Catalan branch of the People\u2019s Party, Enric Millo insists that limiting the public spending within the Spanish Constitution \u201Cdoes not limit the financial autonomy\u201D of Catalonia if, \u201Cwe understand it as the management of our own resources\u201D,. He said that the \u201Crecently suffered dynamics\u201D where \u201Cmore money than we had was being spent\u201D must be avoided.