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Prospects for a New Catalan Referendum After Rajoy

Published: 19 June 2018
Following the collapse of the Rajoy government following a corruption scandal, how does the new political landscape affect the constitutional debate in Catalonia? Prof Antonia María Ruiz Jiménez of Universidad Pablo de Olavide suggests that this apparently dramatic change will make relatively little difference. 
On June 1st 2018 Spanish President Mariano Rajoy lost a no-confidence vote in the Parliament after a final court judgement ruling that the conservative People’s Party (Partido Popular) had engaged in a corrupt system to fund their electoral campaigns. A new Socialist government headed by Pedro Sánchez is now in office. Since Rajoy and the Popular Party, with the support of Ciudadanos, had been major obstacles for the self-determination process in Catalonia, how are the prospects of an independence or self-determination referendum improved? This question can be examined in three dimensions: the composition of the Spanish Parliament; the Socialist Party positions on the issue; and the constitutional framing of the question.
The current composition of the Parliament makes it very unlikely that any proposition regarding the self-determination process in Catalonia will pass. Such a proposition will be resisted by the Popular Party and Ciudadanos, holding 133 and 32 seats respectively: 165 together. Although all other groups add to a majority 181 seats , they however are quite heterogeneous and therefore unlikely to agree in such a divisive question as a self-determination referendum. The Socialist Party by itself holds only 81 seats at this moment, and its likely allies on the Catalonia question, Podemos and Esquerra Republicana 67 and 9, which add up to 157 seats as compared to 165. And even in the unlikely event that a proposal went through the more probable outcome is for it to be referred to the Constitutional Law Court either by the Popular Party or Ciudadanos.
But how likely is that the Socialist Party could change its view on the Catalonia question? The Spanish Left, and particularly the Socialist Party, holds quite heterogeneous positions on Spain as a nation. Although there have been some debates on the administrative configuration of the state, the underlying question of Spanish nationalism remains unfledged. This is a conscious strategy since any clear movement in one direction or the other will most likely meet internal opposition within the party as well as posing an electoral threat. In comparison to the Popular Party and Ciudadanos, on the right of the political spectrum, it is clear that the Socialist Party is more open to the recognition of diversity. For example, former President Zapatero (2004-2011) expressed the idea that the nation is a questioned and debatable concept, and revived the idea of Spain as a “nation of nations” which had been previously discussed within the Constitutional debates. 
Pedro Sánchez, current Socialist president, has taken to the term and recognized that “Spain is a nation of nations, and Catalonia is a nation”. He has also used other terms such as “plurinational reality” applied to Spain. The use of this more sympathetic terminology has not implied however any clear position in favor of a self-determination referendum in Catalonia. The Socialist Party’s position was settled in 2013 in the Granada Agreement by the party’s 17 territorial representatives in each Comunidad Autónoma (Region), who agreed to reform the Constitution in a federal sense, but did not include the right of self-determination. A step forward was taken in the 2017 Barcelona Agreement between the Socialist federal and Catalan executives, but was not welcome by the Andalusian socialist federation. The Andalusian federation represents the largest one within the Socialist party, being strong enough to have a decisive influence over the federal executive. It is in favor of a symmetrical decentralization and opposes any self-determination referendum. In summary, although more open toward concepts such a state pluri-nationality or multi-nationality, different views within the party make it unlikely for the socialists to make a bold movement in favour of a Catalonian referendum, particularly in favour of an independence or self-determination one. Furthermore, as explained below, the current framing of the Catalan question would make it very easy for the conservatives to denounce the socialists as unpatriotic in such circumstances. The likelihood of a referendum on a different but related matter might be then be higher and can open the door for further referenda after the country gains some experience in popular consultation on these matters.
Last but not least, let us consider the issue of presentation in the Catalan debate. Rajoy and the Popular Party, together with Ciudadanos, have succeeded in framing the referendum within a Constitutional dichotomy, suggesting that such a referendum is not possible within the current 1978 Spanish Constitution. It follows that anyone in favor of such a referendum can be labelled as being unconstitutional. As pointed out by Leocurs (2014)  this discursive practice has pitted ‘constitutionalist’ against ‘nationalist’ and has therefore placed conservatives at a normative advantage that would be absent if the debate were between ‘Spanish nationalists’ and ‘Catalan nationalists’. Furthermore, the use of synecdoche has also implied that being labelled as unconstitutional is being labelled as antidemocratic, with the further negative implications that it bears in a country with a quite recent dictatorial past. The Socialist party has been thus forced to make an explicit statement on where it stays on this frame, which in fact means accepting it as a legitimate one. As mentioned earlier, this acceptance therefore has limited the Socialist party room from manoeuvre on the Catalan question.  But it also follows from this constitutional framing that, for a referendum to take place in Catalonia, the Constitution need to be changed. As stated in the article 168 of the Constitutional text, this would need the agreement of two thirds of the Parliament, what is almost impossible to achieve with the current configuration of seats. 
There are, however, options within the Spanish Constitution that would allow for a legal referendum to take place in Catalonia.  Article 92 of the 1978 Spanish constitutional text allows the Spanish Prime Minister to call a referendum that can be territorially limited since that option is not explicitly void within the Constitutional text. This call needs to be sanctioned by a majority of members of Parliament and that again is unlikely to happen, even if the referendum is not binding, and the question is not about independence itself. Article 150 (particularly 150.2) of the 1978 Spanish Constitution would allow the government to pass a law delegating the power to hold a popular consultation in Catalonia. This would be the first time such a delegation would take place, and even if passed by Parliament it would be most likely be referred to the Constitutional Law Court.
Therefore, the obstacles to a referendum to be held is not entirely legal or constitutional. The problem is mainly related to how the political competition has been set in terms of rhetoric and heresthetics strategies. Before any further attempt to hold a referendum takes place, it should be evident to everyone that it is constitutional to hold such a consultation in Catalonia and that anyone opposing it can be pointed to as not being really respectful to the Constitutional text. The Popular Party and Ciudadanos would not want to be seen in such a light and will find it more difficult to oppose those measures. The Catalan government will not be able to do this alone, since their messages can be easily manipulated to be interpreted as biased. Therefore, a proactive role for the new Socialist government is needed. From my point of view this role will mainly consist, among other things, in taking on political communication (rhetoric) and heresthetics strategies that change the framing of the Catalonian question and prepare the field for a future legislative action.
Having said that, any referendum on the independence of Catalonia that has taken place only in this Autonomous Community will need to be ratified at the state level, in a new state-wide referendum. This is so because it will entail in fact a relevant change within the current 1978 Spanish Constitution, unless the Constitution itself had been reformed before a referendum takes place. That, however, should be part of the communication strategy, since it will help the new government in dismantling the current fears of Spain being ripped out to pieces that conservatives put forward once and again. 
To summarize, the current distribution of seats within the Parliament, the heterogeneity of positions and lack of debate on the ‘national’ question within the Socialist party, and the constitutionalist framing of the Catalan question, all work to make it extremely unlikely that a self-determination referendum would take place in the short, or even medium, term in Catalonia. 

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