The current impasse playing out in the forthcoming election has been long in the making, says Joseph Valles, and recent actions by the Spanish government, the media and the Constitutional Court have exacerbated matters.
The arduous relationship between Catalonia and the Kingdom of Spain has been and remains a contentious matter. The long and rather fruitless search for a stable territorial model dates back to efforts to build a liberal nation-state in Spain in the early nineteenth century. However, let us leave to one side the historical antecedents in this process and focus on what has happened since 1978, when a ‘transition by transaction’ transformed Franco's dictatorship into the liberal-democratic monarchy of King Juan Carlos I, three phases stand out in the outlining of this territorial model.
The first stage followed the adoption of the 1978 Constitution, a vaguely defined legal scheme helped to get over a very deep initial disagreement on how to answer to the historical self-government claims made by the Catalan and the Basque communities. Despite being criticized by some legal experts as ambiguous and legally unorthodox, this new territorial model – later called Estado de las autonomías or a state of autonomous communities – showed itself as politically useful to address a historical problem, which had been deferred and aggravated during the General Franco’s conservative dictatorship.
It should be noted, however, that the implementation of the model vaguely outlined in the Constitution did not fit with the original intention of some of its co-authors. There was, therefore, a sort of constitutional mutation in the legal interpretation brought forward by the two major state-wide parties – initially the Spanish Socialist Workers Party (PSOE) and the Union of the Democratic Centre (UCD), and subsequently the PSOE and People’s Party (PP) - during the ‘80s and early ‘90s of last century.
The result of this interpretation was that no actual effect was given to the constitutional distinction between "nationalities and regions" leading to a general system of self-government in fifteen of Spain’s regions or comunidades autónomas (autonomous communities). However, a special regime was established in the remaining two communities: the Basque Country and Navarre.
This unforeseen evolution of the 1978 constitutional settlement was dubbed “café para todos” or "one size fits all", leaving aside the previously mentioned cases of the Basque and Navarrese communities. The result disappointed Catalan expectations of a broader system of self-government. On the whole, however, the new territorial arrangement awakened in the Spanish regions new local initiatives and energies traditionally stifled by a highly centralized State. In spite of some mistakes and the long-running ETA terrorist activity, this period of intense and rapid decentralization remains an unprecedented experience in the Spanish contemporary state.
The second stage began in the mid-90s as shortcomings within the system became apparent. Some were the effect of apparently unrelated factors: Spanish membership of the EU, the ICT revolution, the social impact of mass immigration, and so on. Other difficulties resulted directly from problematic aspects of the constitutional arrangements themselves: an unclear distribution of powers between central and regional governments, a lack of coordination mechanisms between territorial actors, bureaucratic inflation (on the part of the central state and of the comunidades autónomas) and last but by no means least, significant territorial imbalances in the financing system. In addition, the centralist and nationalist culture of the bureaucracy of state often hindered the new decentralization dynamics. The Spanish conservative governments of José M. Aznar (1996-2004) accentuated this bureaucratic resistance.
With respect to Catalonia, it was becoming increasingly clear to a large section of Catalan public opinion that what was officially presented as equal treatment for the fifteen comunidades autónomas had resulted in an unfair distribution of political power and of financial resources, as well as a failure to give symbolic recognition to its claim to be considered a national community. As a way to counteract this trend, political parties in Catalonia – socialists (PSC), centre right nationalists (CiU), centre left republicans (ERC) and former Communists and Greens (IC-Verds) – began to take legal steps in 2004 to reform the 1979 Statute of Autonomy. Only the PP conservatives –a small minority in Catalonia but a main political force in Spain - opposed this reform.
This initiated the third and most recent phase in Spanish territorial politics, in which we have seen and continue to see the Catalan question becoming once again a central and contentious issue within contemporary political debate. Several factors have combined to make this such a hot-button issue; the way that the reform initiative was managed by some of its drivers, the uncompromising refusal by the PP – Spain’s main conservative party - to discuss any changes to the status quo, the strong and militant media involvement in this debate and, finally, the highly controversial 2010 decision by the Spanish Constitutional Court to overturn part of the 2006 Catalan Statute previously ratified in a referendum. Collectively, these have contributed to a growing political polarization, a deep uncertainty about the conflict’s outcome and an increasing concern about its costs in many aspects of Spanish life. A suggested bibliography is available by clicking on this link.