A general in the Spanish army threatened to invade Catalunya if it goes ahead. A nationwide boycott of Catalan products is underway and the leader of the opposition has called it, "A return to the 18th century." It is, of course, the new Catalan constitution or 'Estatut' which has rapidly become one of the most hotly debated issues in Spain's young modern democratic history. Whilst some argue it's a progressive political initiative, others say it's a destructive and even illegal proposal, which could spell the beginning of the end of Spain as we know it.
Many Catalans, meanwhile, are still in the dark. "I don't know what to think about the Estatut because it hasn't been explained properly," said textile entrepreneur Toni Gassó. "The politicians keep painting a rosy picture saying we will gain more control over our region but I suspect there will be a catch. As individuals, will we end up paying more, less or the same amounts of tax, social security, etc? It's still not clear."
So what exactly is the Estatut and what on earth is all the fuss about? Essentially, the Estatut is a Catalan proposal for greater political and economic independence from the central government in Madrid. It will initiate the next important chapter in centuries of regional struggles in Spain that have already resulted in one of the most autonomous power structures in Europe. Catalunya, in particular, has fought a long and bloody struggle for greater independence, the modern origins of which can be traced back just over a century to the 'Bases de Manresa'—the first draft plan for Catalan autonomy. Inspired by the gradual demise of the Spanish empire, Catalunya was already emerging as a powerful cultural and economic region in its own right as the industrial era dawned. A conservative Catalan nationalist movement 'Lliga Regionalista' was subsequently founded and, in 1914, achieved its first milestone with the establishment of the 'Mancommunitat', the first government of any kind in Catalunya in 200 years. It was soon toppled by the 1923 military coup of Primo de Rivera, but the founding of the second Spanish Republic in 1931 brought new hope.
Francesc Macià helped establish the Catalan constitution of autonomy in 1932, but once again, a military coup—this time led by General Francisco Franco—plunged Spain into a 36-year dictatorship. It wasn't until 1978 that the second Catalan constitution was established, enshrined once again by the revival of the Generalitat. The Catalan nationalist party, Convergencia i Unió (CIU), subsequently went on to dominate local elections for the next quarter of a century. In 2003, it lost to the Partit dels Socialistes de Catalunya (PSC), which in turn has had to share power with two other left-wing parties—Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya (ERC) and Iniciativa Verds-Esquerra Alternativa (IC).These three parties formed the coalition that spearheaded a fresh drive for greater autonomy, and in September 2005, the Catalan Parliament voted overwhelmingly to propose the Estatut. The Spanish Congress subsequently approved it for formal consideration, with Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero saying, "A strong Catalunya will make Spain stronger."
Catalunya certainly does not lack autonomy as things stand. The Generalitat already holds exclusive jurisdiction in such matters as culture, the environment, communications, transportation and public safety. Even regarding education, schooling is in Catalan, meaning the only way to obtain an education in Spanish is to pay for a private school.
For Toni Gassó, the current level of autonomy is sufficient without risking alienating the rest of Spain. "I think we already enjoy a decent level of control and independence from Madrid. As a businessman, I'm particularly concerned because many of my customers are Spanish, and I'm a bit worried there might be boycotts of Catalan goods if the Estatut goes ahead."
In matters regarding health, justice and economic budgeting however, Catalunya shares power with the Spanish government and it is this latter point that has caused the most controversy. Catalunya lacks its own fiscal system, thus the economic financing of the Generalitat depends almost entirely on funds raised by national-government taxation. Estatut supporters claim that reform is long overdue, since Catalunya pays far more into the national Spanish coffers than it receives. Those against it say that this is a selfish and greedy attitude, which could devastate the Spanish economy.
Such fears are unfounded, according to UAB Economics lecturer Rafael Boix Domènech. "The Estatut proposes a federal approach to a fiscal model similar to that of the European Union," sad Boix. "It proposes that Catalunya simply collects and administers its own taxes whilst also paying the Spanish government for the cost of collective services, plus an additional share for national solidarity. This is aimed at correcting severe deficiencies in the management of taxes and avoiding dependence on the ideologies of future Spanish governments–a sensible move in view of the bad relations Catalunya has had with previous conservative administrations. People forget that the Basque country and Navarra already enjoy this level of autonomy, but there have been no catastrophic consequences for the Spanish economy."
However, out of the approximately 40,000 words in the proposed Estatut, it is perhaps one four-word statement that has caused the most controversy: 'Catalunya is a Nation'. Article Two of the 1978 Spanish Constitution states that the constitution "is based on the indissoluble unity of the Spanish Nation" whilst also referring to the "right to autonomy of the nationalities and regions". The controversy centres on whether referring to any autonomous community of Spain as a 'nation' may go against Article Two, meaning Catalunya's claim to be a 'nation' rather than a 'nationality' has separatist overtones. Much of the media and those on the right of the political spectrum have seized on this issue, with Popular Party (PP) leader Mariano Rajoy blasting the Estatut as "an outrageous fraud", protesting that trying to make it compatible with the Spanish constitution is "like trying to give a hedgehog a permanent wave".
One of the most dramatic moments in the process so far was a declaration by Lieutenant General José Mena Aguado that Spain's military would intervene if Catalunya was declared a nation. It is only 25 years since the last attempted coup d'etat in Spain was led by Army officers who were against the process of democratisation taking place in the wake of Franco's death. The general who spoke out against the Estatut was universally condemned and subsequently sacked, although the PP said his statement was an "inevitable" result of the government's decision to debate the Estatut.
Meanwhile, several groups have organised boycotts of Catalan products through websites such as 'nacionalismono.com'. They appeal to Spaniards to boycott everything from banks that are known to support the proposal, to Catalan pet-food companies and cava. Josep Ferrer, honorary president of cava producer Freixenet, expressed his concern to the press: "We are worried about the present political situation on our sales of cava. We are a Spanish company, with a global presence, and wherever we export, we always go with the Spanish flag."
Before the Congressional vote, Zapatero stated he thinks the Estatut would pass "with a substantial majority" in Congress. It will then be down to the people of Catalunya to decide its future in a referendum. Regardless of its eventual fate, the Estatut has polarised political feeling across Spain and could turn out to have a huge bearing on which party wins the next national election.
First published in March 2006.