Congress debates new Catalan Statute

The leaders of all main Catalan political parties attended yesterday’s long debate in Spain’s parliament about whether or not to admit for discussion the proposal of the Catalan government for a new statute giving the region greater autonomous powers.

The whole issue has further divided the two main streams of Spanish politics. The Spanish president, José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, has given the statute his support, (pending some modifications concerning the fiscal system), whereas the Popular Party claims the Catalan initiative infringes constitutional law and that as such it would be impossible for the Spanish congress to pass the statute without first ammending the Spanish Constitution. And by law, in order to ammend the Constitution, first parliament has to approve the ammendment by a large majority, and then the proposal must be put to the Spanish people in a referendum.

Yesterday, despite the conciliatory tone of the three Catalan leaders who presented their proposal before Congress, all three defended possibly the most controversial aspect of the estatuto: the fact that it refers to Catalonia as a “nation”. This makes Zapatero’s job of convincing public opinion even more difficult than it already is. The Popular Party argues that it is constitutionally impossible to have a nation within a nation, and since the Spanish constitution refers to Spain as a Nation, debate of a statute proposing to change an autonomous “region” into a “nation” is impossible unless the wording of the constitution is changed first and Spain becomes some sort of federal state of nations.

This is one hot potato that Zapatero is going to find hard to juggle with. He said that yesterday that some ammendments would have to be introduced into the proposal, but he insisted that the essence of the statute would remain the same and asserted that “national identity of Catalonia” was “perfectly compatible” with Article II of the Constitution which “considers Spain as the nation of all its people”.

The Spanish president looked tired during yesterday’s debate which started in the morning and went on until late evening. His speech was generally unconvincing and reflected the difficult (some would say impossible) position he is in at the moment. It contrasted sharply with the open optimism and satisfaction of the Catalans and the energetic, if not aggressive, opposition of the PP who are encouraged by latest opinion polls showing that the majority of Spaniards outside Catalonia do not approve of the statute, especially the “nation” part.

The whole concept of Spanish state is still a very sensitive issue in this still relatively young democracy, and despite the president’s boast that his government is not afraid of debate or reform, a lot of Spaniards secretly are very wary of constitutional reform, especially if it touches on sensitive issues.

Many Spaniards from the rest of Spain regard Catalonian politics with a mixture of suspicion and unease, relations between Madrid and Barcelona have always been strained, and the leader of the Catalan Separatist Party, Carod Rovira, is very unpopular throughout mainstream Spain. Rodriguez Zapatero may end up having to pay a high price for his firm defence of the ambitious aims of his Catalan allies, upon whom the stability of his government majority depends.

In the end, after over 10 hours of heated debate, Congress voted to accept the Catalan Statute for further discussion, by 197 votes to 146. Only the Popular Party voted against. The plan will now be passed onto the constitutional committee, where it is expected to be amended over the next two months.