Catalonia answers back through a colossal demonstration: 'We are a nation'

More than a million people have protested against the Spanish Constitutional Court¡s decision to trim Catalonia?s Autonomy. Today's demonstration is the largest in the history for greater self-government and against Spanish centralism.

Photo of Catalonia answers back through a colossal demonstration: 'We are a nation'
Photo of Catalonia answers back through a colossal demonstration: 'We are a nation' / CNA / Gaspar Pericay Coll

CNA / Gaspar Pericay Coll

July 11, 2010 03:28 AM

Barcelona (CNA). Many will be the interpretations of today’s demonstration, as many were the ideologies represented. However, one idea unites all of the participants: the sentence issued by the Spanish Constitutional Court is seen as an attack against Catalonia’s self-government and identity. Some Catalans answer back with claims for Catalonia’s independence, others want a federal Spain with Catalonia inside, and others want respect for Catalonia’s identity and for what the Catalan people voted on in a binding referendum which the Spanish Constitutional Court has trimmed. A million Catalans from a diverse political range have felt obliged to vindicate in the street what Spanish nationalism wants to win in the Courts. They have claimed: Catalonia is a nation, and Spain should recognise this fact. The demonstration has blocked Barcelona’s downtown and it has been the largest politically motivated demonstration happening in Catalonia in history, comparable to the ones in 2003 against the Iraq War.

Today’s demonstration was the largest in history for a greater level of self-government and it has reached the dimensions of the demonstrations against the Iraq War in 2003. The entirety of Barcelona’s central artery, Passeig de Gràcia, from Diagonal Avenue to Gran Via Avenue, has been packed with people and Catalan flags. 1.5 million citizens, according to the organisers, or 1.1 million citizens, according to the police, have participated in this massive, pacifist and democratic protest. Catalan flags, pro-independence flags, EU flags, or posters asking for independence or a federal Spain were handled by people of all ages and social backgrounds.

The President of the Catalan Government has headed the demonstration, together with the President of the Catalan Parliament and all living presidents of both institutions. They are the representatives of 4 different ideologies: Socialism, Liberal-Democracy, Christian-Democracy, and Catalan Republicanism. They also represent different conceptions of how Catalonia and Spain should relate, ranging from Catalonia being a community within a true federal Spain to being two independent states. They represent the essence of this demonstration: Catalonia vindicates its identity, being considered as a nation and its own right to self-government, and demands that Spain respects it. From this essence, many nuances and various claims are included.

The political parties supporting this demonstration represented 90% of the members of the Catalan Parliament. In addition, 1,400 civil society organisations have backed the protest, including the champion of the Spanish football league FC Barcelona. People from all corners of Catalonia have come to Barcelona, which has seen its downtown full of Catalan flags, as well as some European ones.

The demonstration has started with a delay due to the massive participation, which has exceeded all expectations. At 18:09, the head of the demonstration started to walk but was not been able to go very far, as all the streets were blocked with people. Citizens had been told to join the demonstration at its tail, but since everything was so crowded, they also started to join at the head, making movement very difficult. At 20:00, the head with the Presidents was dismantled, although the demonstration continued through Gran Via Avenue to Tetuan Square, where the Catalan anthem was sung multiple times amidst various political speeches.

Why this demonstration? What do Catalans want?

Respect. Many people in Catalonia feel that Spain does not recognise its own plurality and, even worse, pushes for a homogenisation within its borders. For instance, within the United Kingdom, Scotland is recognised as a nation. Within Canada, its Supreme Court recognises Quebec’s right for self-determination. Within Spain, the Constitutional Court has just said that the only possible nation is the Spanish one and no other. In addition, it has modified a text that was approved by the Catalan Parliament in the first place, by the Spanish Parliament in the second place and, lastly, by the Catalan people via a binding referendum. Furthermore, with this modification, it has declared unconstitutional 14 articles and it has reinterpreted 27 more, levelling down Catalonia’s self-government and also shrinking the Spanish Constitution.

The Spanish Constitutional Court issued yesterday the details of its sentence against Catalonia’s current Statute of Autonomy, which came into force almost 4 years ago. This sentence is extremely controversial and has been characterised by a spectacular and long process of manipulation of the Court, which has taken 4 years to make its final decision. However, the essence of the protest is the Court’s decision; the decision-making process and the Court’s delegitimisation are only two added ingredients to Catalonia’s indignation.

The Constitutional Court has modified Catalonia’s autonomy because the conservative and Spanish nationalist People’s Party (PP) appealed the renewed Catalan Statute of Autonomy, Catalonia’s top law. The appeal came after the approval of the text by the Catalan and the Spanish Parliaments, as well as by a binding referendum of the Catalan people. The PP’s move was seen by many citizens as a way to win in the court what they could not win through democratic voting. The PP appealed 114 articles out of the 223 that the legal text has. The Catalan Statute of Autonomy was also appealed but in much more limited way by the Spanish Ombudsman and by some governments of Autonomous Communities. The appeal of the Spanish Ombudsman was motivated because the Catalan Statute recognised the Catalan Ombudsman as the supreme one for Catalan citizens, limiting the Spanish Ombudsman’s competences. The Autonomous Communities’ governments’ appeals were mainly focusing on financial issues, as Catalonia’s fiscal effort is essential in Spain’s financial equilibration and some feared their budgets being reduced.

A regressive sentence, a modification of the Constitution and a manipulated decision-making process

The Constitutional Court has eliminated 14 articles and has modified 27 others. Although these figures may seem not so big, they affect the main reasons why Catalonia decided to renew its Statute of Autonomy. In addition, this trimming has been committed by a manipulated and clearly political Constitutional Court, which has challenged Catalan citizens’ vote and thus its legitimacy. This challenge and the content of the sentence have been received in Catalonia as a humiliation and as a dangerous lack of respect to its identity and self-government powers.

The Constitutional Court has, in the opinion of many, has given itself powers it did not have. The Court has modified a political agreement approved via referendum and has rewritten the Spanish Constitution with the sentence. The Spanish Constitution is now smaller and shorter, and it seems to no longer cover all the different sensitivities within Spain. This sentence is an inflexion point, not only for Catalonia but also for Spain. The political consequences of this decision are deep, although in the rest of Spain there is a surprising lack of interest on the issue. The rest of Spain considers that this is Catalan politician’s battle. Today’s demonstration questions this and interrogates Spain.

The Court’s sentence modifies the six pillars of the Statute:

1) Catalonia is not recognised as a nation, as “the only nation within Spain is the Spanish one”, states the Court. With this decision, the Court shrinks the Spanish Constitution of 1978, approved after Franco’s fascist dictatorship, which was intentionally vague on some issues in order to allow different interpretations. In addition, the 1978 political agreement included some contradictions to please everyone, including the fascist military and the periphery’s nationalisms, such as the Basque and the Catalan. In the same article (number 2) it states the “indissoluble unity of the Spanish Nation” (which was an obligation of the military during negotiations) and “recognises the right to autonomy of the nationalities and regions” within Spain. The term “nationalities” was clearly a euphemism to recognise the pluri-nationality of the Spanish state. With yesterday’s sentence, the Court has ignored the political agreement of those times and has altered the Constitution that brought Spain to democracy. In addition, it does not recognise the historical rights, linking Catalonia’s right to autonomy only to the Constitution and not to its history of self-government, which goes back to the 10th century.

2) The Catalan language is not “the preferred language” for Catalan administrations, public media and in school, despite the marginalisation it suffered during centuries and the positive discrimination policy it has been issued to guarantee its survival. In the last years, from Spanish nationalist positions in Madrid, there has been a campaign stating that the Spanish language is marginalised in Catalonia. This statement is false and the Catalan linguistic integration policy applied in schools has been used as a model by organisations such as UNESCO or the European Commission, as it does not create two linguistic communities but a bilingual one. The Court’s sentence opens the door to the creation of two linguistic communities, which could fracture Catalan society into one community of people who only speak and understand Spanish and another one who are able to speak both, Spanish and Catalan.

3) The Catalan people are recognised as “a people” but without any political or juridical powers. The Court wants, with this decision, to underline that the only sovereign people is the Spanish one.

4) The bilateral relation between Catalonia and Spain will never be between equals and Spain will always be in a dominant position. Besides, this relationship is seen as a complement to the one already in place. With this article, Catalonia’s Statute was institutionalising a forum of discussion of matters between the Catalan and Spanish administrations, which is no longer guaranteed.

5) Catalonia cannot ask for similar levels of fiscal solidarity to other autonomous communities. Catalonia has been transferring enormous sums of money to the rest of Spain, which have never been quantified exactly by the Spanish Government, and in the modified Statute it had included a limitation to its solidarity, as some federal systems such as Germany has. The principle of solidarity between a richer and poorer regions was not put into question with the Statute, it was only nuanced. Catalonia has a recognised (by the Spanish Government) deficit of investment from the Spanish Government. With the Constitutional Court, Catalonia will not see guaranteed a minimum level of investment and expenditure.

6) The judiciary power will remain centralised. As it already happens with the executive and the legislative powers, Catalonia asked for a limited decentralisation of the judiciary power as well. The Constitutional Court, in what has been seen by some people as a corporative decision, has eliminated this point almost completely.

In addition, the decision-making process is dubious for its legitimacy. In the process, the Constitutional Court has seen one of its members banned from the decision-making process and the final voting, another one passing away 2 years ago and not being replaced, and 4 others having their 9-year mandate expired but continuing for 3 more years in office. In total, out of 12 members, 6 of them were not in a regular position. The Spanish Constitution clearly defines the magistrates’ mandate as a non-renewable 9-year mandate and sets the needed quorum at 8 members. Besides, all political parties have tried to manipulate and influence the Court, which has acted as a third parliament, issuing a political and not judiciary decision.

Political reactions to the demonstration

The Catalan leaders who have participated in the demonstration have been surprised by the massive participation to the largest demonstration in history.

Representing the Catalan Government, its regular spokesman and Minister for Public Work, Joaquim Nadal, has stated that “Catalan people have expressed massively that they feel offended by the [Constitutional Court’s] sentence, which trims what the Catalan people voted for”. Nadal, who is a member of the Catalan Socialist Party (PSC), has said that in the demonstration there was a wide range of people and families who were simply expressing that “Catalonia is a nation and a single people who wants to have its own self-government and the capacity to solve its own problems”.

The opposition leader and president of the Centre-Right Catalan Nationalist Party, Artur Mas, states that “there will be an after the demonstration and a before the demonstration” in the “deep stream of Catalonia’s history”. He added that “it was important to test the Catalan people’s answer”. “A people are alive if citizens are alive and they defend an ideal and a future”.

The two leaders of the other two parties in the Catalan Government also expressed their opinion. Joan Puigcercós, President of the Left-Wing Catalan Independence Party (ERC) has affirmed that with the Spanish Constitutional Court’s sentence and today’s answer, “the way of Autonomous Communities is over. The only possible way is independence”. Joan Herrera, President of the Catalan Eco-Socialist Party (ICV) states that “the demonstration is an inflexion point in the will of Catalans to be respected as a nation”. He also stressed the need “to go in it altogether”.

The two parties who were not supporting the demonstration have also reacted. The leader of the People’s Party (PP) in Catalonia, Alícia Sánchez-Camacho, has pointed out that “this demonstration does not represent all of the Catalan people”. In addition, Mariano Rajoy, the PP’s leader for the whole of Spain and the main opponent to PM Zapatero, has accused the Spanish PM of being “frivolous” regarding the Catalan Statute of Autonomy and the “he will have the sense of state that Zapatero did not have”. Finally, the President of the small Anti-Catalan Nationalism Party (Ciudadanos), Albert Rivera, has considered it an act of “irresponsibility” that the President of the Catalan Government headed a demonstration against a judiciary sentence.