Catalan parliament takes first steps towards independence

The Catalan parliament cannot agree who should lead a future Catalan government. [Paco Rivière/Flickr]

The Catalan parliament has this week adopted a resolution calling for the process of “disconnection” from Spain to be launched. But disunity in the separatist camp could derail the process. Our partner La Tribune reports.

One year to the day since Catalonia’s “consultation” on independence, banned by the Spanish Constitutional Court, the newly elected Catalan parliament began the process of secession from the Spanish state.

On Monday (9 November) 72 of the 135 members of Catalonia’s regional parliament – all the members of the parliament’s two separatist parties – voted to adopt a text they themselves had presented. This document asks the next Catalan government to initiate the process of “disconnection” from Spain, to “create a Catalan state in the form of a republic” and to begin negotiations to this end with Madrid.

Calls for disobedience

But the most explosive element in this motion is the Catalan government’s call for disobedience. While the motion passed does not explicitly mention the word, it does ask the executive to “only fulfil the standards and mandates of this legitimate and democratic [Catalan] parliament, in order to shield the fundamental rights that may be affected by decisions of the institutions of the Spanish State”. The separatists also wrote that “the process of democratic disconnection will not submit to the decisions of the institutions of the Spanish state”.

A referendum in the firing line

In other words, the text approved by the regional parliament on Monday recognises the illegitimacy of its own position under the Spanish legal framework, but seeks to legitimise itself outside the 1978 Spanish constitution.

Though it is not the unilateral declaration of independence initially demanded by the radical left Popular Unity Candidacy party (PUC), committing to the process of rupturing ties with Spain is a very strong gesture. “With this resolution, we are formally beginning the construction of a Catalan state,” said Raul Romeva, the leader of Junts pel Sí, the leading separatist party.

But this nuance is very important. The Catalan parliament’s rejection of the Spanish legal system is clearly calculated to achieve exactly what this system will not permit them: a referendum on independence.

The referendum of 9 November 2014 was formally prohibited by Madrid’s Constitutional Court and had to be conducted as a “consultation of citizens”. Spain is currently prosecuting the consultation’s organisers.

And while the separatists failed to win a majority of the votes in the recent regional elections, they none the less intend to organise a process that will end in a clear and definitive vote by referendum; the procedure often used in similar cases in other countries (the former Yugoslavia, Canada, Scotland).

Madrid’s reaction

Last Friday (6 November) the Spanish government promised a swift reaction. It kept its promise. Mariano Rajoy, the Spanish prime minister, brought the motion before the Constitutional Court just hours after it was passed, on Monday afternoon (9 November).

Even the authors of Monday’s resolution are under no illusion that as to how the court will rule. Once the motion’s illegality is proclaimed, the real arm wrestle between Madrid and Barcelona can begin.

The Catalan government will have to either respect the Spanish constitution or commit to the process of creating the structures of a new state. This would set the rupture in motion and raise the curtain on a new act in the drama.

Article 155

Madrid could counter this disobedience by invoking article 155 of the Spanish constitution: “If an Autonomous Community does not fulfil its obligations under Constitution, […] or acts in a way that seriously endangers the general interests of Spain, the Government, after lodging a complaint with the President of the Autonomous Community and failing to receive satisfaction therefore, may, following approval granted by an absolute majority of the Senate, take the measures necessary in order to compel the latter forcibly to meet said obligations, or in order to protect the above-mentioned general interests.”

This procedure is often understood as an opportunity for the central state to suspend regional autonomy, and by extension, the local parliament and government.

It was written in 1978, with one eye still looking back on the events of 1934, when Lluis Companys proclaimed a Catalan state and the Spanish army was forced to crush the secession attempt. So it was designed to deal with events like those unfolding today.

Disunity threatens application of the motion

According to the Spanish paper El Mundo, Rajoy’s government plans to approach the problem with a light touch, one step at a time.

For the motion to be enacted, it requires a Catalan government formed from the regional parliament. But for now, there is no agreement between the two separatist parties, Junts Pel Sí and the CUP, on who should lead such a government, and thus become the first Catalan president.

The CUP has refused to back the Junts Pel Sí leader Artur Mas, over allegations of corruption. Their suggested compromise candidate, Neus Munté, also a member of Junts Pel Sí, himself refused to take over the leadership, saying he was “100% behind Artur Mas”.

Madrid’s progressive reaction

Both Artur Mas and Mariano Rajoy have claimed this as a victory. But the Catalan government cannot start a campaign if “disobedience” under these conditions. If the situation does not change, the Spanish government will simply be able to wait until the March elections to defeat the separatists and close the book on this chapter of the secessionist movement.

So it is in Madrid’s interest not to get dragged in by the separatists’ provocations, and especially not to invoke article 155 of the constitution. Such decisive action would only serve to unite the separatist camp and accelerate the secessionist movement.

According to El Mundo, the European Commission and the other EU member states would support any possible measures taken by Madrid “to uphold the legal order”. These measures might include the central government taking control of the Catalan police and cutting off all fiscal transfers to the region in the case of a unilateral declaration of independence.

December’s general election

One factor remains uncertain: the results of the Spanish general election on 20 December. As things stand, a major shift in the balance of power does not look likely, and a coalition of Mariano Rajoy’s People’s Party and the unionist Citizens party (Ciudadanos), led by Albert Rivera, is expected to win.

One of the main political aims of the anti-independence Citizens party is to reduce the autonomy of Spain’s regions and increase the direct control of the central government. Given the importance of the Catalan question in the electoral campaigns, this may be decisive in shaping the actions of the next Spanish government, and the future of Catalonia.

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