The ruling that shook Catalan politics, revisited

Ten years ago, the independence movement was galvanized by Spain’s Constitutional Court amendment to the Catalan Statute of Autonomy

Catalan independence flags waved on September 11, Catalonia's National Day, in 2017, less than a month before the independence referendum (by ACN)
Catalan independence flags waved on September 11, Catalonia's National Day, in 2017, less than a month before the independence referendum (by ACN) / Alan Ruiz Terol

Alan Ruiz Terol | Barcelona

June 27, 2020 03:45 PM

One cannot help but note the irony of finding the roots of the greatest challenge that Spain and its constitutional order have known in decades in a decision announced ten years ago by the ultimate guardian of the constitution.

On June 28, 2010, Spain’s Constitutional Court issued a long-awaited ruling on Catalonia’s attempts to renew its Statute of Autonomy—the most important set of political principles and laws along with the Spanish constitution.

The significance of the 1978 constitution and the original statute from 1979, both agreed upon in the wake of a 40-year long dictatorship, went far beyond any legal considerations: it was a political pact.

Whether, and to what extent, this pact is up for revision has become one of Spain’s most controversial political arguments.

"The dictator [Francisco Franco] had just died. Many years later, it was thought that this agreement could be updated thanks to our experience and the knowledge gained," says Francesc Homs, a former Catalan government minister for center-right CDC pary. 

He was one of the four rapporteurs tasked with drafting a new statute in 2005.

How the Statute came through

The statute expanded Catalonia’s singularity within the Spanish state, defining it as a nation, strengthening the protection and institutional importance of the Catalan language, and updating the devolved-powers system by which Spain transferred political responsibilities to Catalan authorities.

The statute was the result of a long process fraught with political battles. The first draft was approved in 2006 by an absolute majority in the Catalan parliament, with all parties voting in favor except for the Catalan branch of Spain’s conservative People’s Party. 

By the time the proposal was taken to the Spanish congress floor, it had already been altered by an agreement between Spain’s Socialist president, José Luiz Rodríguez Zapatero, and Catalonia’s then opposition head and soon-to-be president, Artur Mas.

Spanish president Zapatero and Catalonia's opposition head Artur Mas shook hands after the Spanish congress greenlights the renewal of the Statute of Autonomy (by Roger Pi de Cabanyes)

The statute came through, but cracks began to appear among Catalan parties.

The final text was approved in a referendum with a poor turnout: while 73,9% of the votes were in favor, they accounted for only 36% of Catalan citizens with the right to vote.

Left-wing Esquerra Republicana (ERC), the most vocal —and for many years, only—  advocate for independence in the Catalan parliament, voted against the Statute in the Spanish Congress and urged its followers to vote ‘no’ in the referendum, as the amendments had left a text that fell short of the party’s aspirations. 

On the other end of the spectrum, the People's Party also campaigned against the statute. But once it was approved, the party decided that the battle was still up for grabs and challenged the text in the Constitutional Court.

A democratic agreement, broken

After a 4-year long deliberation, the ruling came out and deemed some of the statute’s key articles unconstitutional.

The conservatives rejoiced. "We, the Catalan People’s Party, are happy to finally have a constitutional statute," said party head Alícia Sánchez-Camacho.

But the Catalan parties that made the statute possible saw it with different eyes.

"The ruling puts an end to Catalonia’s aspiration to find a way to fit in Spain," Francesc Homs said.

Miquel Iceta, another statute rapporteur and the current leader of the Socialist party in Catalonia, was also extremely critical with the ruling: "The fact that the Constitutional Court altered this agreement after the Catalan people voted is a distortion of democracy that has in some ways broken the democratic agreement we reached." 

Even ERC left aside its past criticism of the statute. "This ruling is an attack on the freedom and dignity of each and every Catalan citizen," said Joan Puigcercós, Catalonia’s then senior minister and head of the ERC party. 

Catalan president José Montilla speaks after the Constitutional Court issues its ruling on the Statute of Autonomy on June 28, 2020 (by Rebeca Segura)

The ruling also widened discrepancies between Spain’s ruling Socialist party and its Catalan branch. José Montilla, the president of the Catalan government, said the ruling was a "mistake" and called a protest rally in response. 

In contrast, the Spanish Socialists largely avoided criticizing the court decision, with vice president María Teresa Fernández de la Vega saying it left the statute mostly untouched.

"The Socialist government said that striking down 5% of the statute was not that bad," says Jaume Bosch, another statute rapporteur for the Greens ICV party. "But this 5% disallowed 100% of the leap forward in self-government."

The onset of the independence movement

The protest called by Montilla was intended to be a show of unity by Catalan society, with parties rallying under the motto "We are a nation. We decide." 

Attended by 1.1 million people, according to the Barcelona’s local police, the protest is better remembered as the first massive rally where Catalan independence flags were waved by the thousands and chants to leave Spain flooded the streets of the city.

Shortly after, Catalonia’s three-party ruling coalition came to an end, marred by the disagreements between the Socialists, ERC, and ICV. 

Protest in Barcelona on July 10, 2020, against the Constitutional Court ruling on Catalonia's Statute of Autonomy Mikel Laburu)

A subsequent election was won by CiU (a coalition including CDC) and Artur Mas became the president of the Catalan government on December 23, 2010.

A year later, the People’s Party won an absolute majority in a state-wide election and Mariano Rajoy was sworn in as Spanish president in Madrid.

The first years of the 2010s were marked by austerity measures imposed following the economic crisis, and the issue of Catalan independence remained relatively dormant.

In 2012, the lethargy came to an abrupt end.

Coinciding with Catalonia’s National Day, pro-independence grassroots organizations called a protest for September 11 with a slogan that left no room for misinterpretation: "Catalonia, New State of Europe."

It was just as crowded as the protest against the statute ruling in 2010, if not more.

Independence becomes Catalonia's (and Spain's) biggest dispute

In the following weeks, Artur Mas would try to capitalize on the growing pro-independence sentiment by calling a snap election, which saw a stunning rise of ERC and forced Mas to double down on his promise to launch an independence bid.

Reflecting on the consequences of the Constitutional Court ruling, Mas recently said: "It was something that let a majority of Catalan people find out that there was no constitutional way to achieve our political goals. And when you don’t have a constitutional way to achieve your goals, you try another way." 

From then on, the independence issue became Catalonia’s —and eventually Spain’s— most consequential political dispute, culminating in the 2017 referendum and declaration of independence. Spain responded by sacking the Catalan government and imposing direct rule from Madrid. 

The most prominent leaders of the independence movement—at least those that didn’t seek refuge in other European countries—were eventually sentenced to prison terms of up to 13 years for the crime of sedition.

"The independence movement grew increasingly stronger, but they hit a dead end with the 2017 declaration of independence, which they haven’t acknowledged yet," says Bosch. "On the other hand, the imposition of direct rule by Spain’s-then ruling People’s Party was expected to end the independence movement, but it showed that its roots were way too deep." 

ERC and the political heirs of CDC eventually regained control of the Catalan government, but they haven’t been able to lay out a joint plan to move forward in their push for independence. A snap election is expected in the coming months.