Catalonia Update: Alea Iacta Est

Article written by Fernando Betancor.

“But finally, with a sort of passion, as if abandoning calculation and casting himself upon the future, and uttering the phrase with which men usually prelude their plunge into desperate and daring fortunes, ‘Let the die be cast,’ he hastened to cross the river” 

– Plutarch, The Parallel Lives, The Life of Julius Caesar[1], 32-8

“All Norfolk need do is sign this paper and treason will have been committed.”
“Then let him sign it. And let it all be done.”

–          Elisabeth (1998)[2]

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On Monday, the newly elected Catalan Parliament met in Barcelona, in the historic Palau del Parlament[3]. The first order of business was to elect a new President of the Parlament[4]; the pro-independence MP, Carme Forcadell, was duly elected with 77 votes[5]. That is five more votes than Junts pel Si and CUP have in the legislature; the additional support came from Catalonia Si Que Es Pot delegates, which must have come as an unpleasant shock to pro-unionists in the chamber. President Forcadell’s first declaration dispelled any doubts as to whether the pro-independence groups would actually proceed with their promised (or threatened) transition plan:

“We represent a sovereign parliament which wants to represent a free people. We are transitioning from a regional parliament with limited powers to a national parliament with full capabilities. Long live the Catalan Republic!”[6]

The very next day, Junts Pel Sí and CUP submitted a joint resolution to the Parlament to initiate the separation process from Spain[7]. The preamble to the bill states: “The democratic mandate obtained from the past elections on the 27th of September 2015 form the basis for a parliamentary majority with the object that Catalonia become an independent state.”[8] The resolution continues, requiring the Catalan government to enact the necessary legislation for framing the constituent process as well as the ordering of the public finances and the social security fund. It calls for a massive, democratic, sustainable and peaceful rupture with Spain and for negotiation with the Spanish government to facilitate the process. And finally, most importantly, it declares that it will no longer heed any decisions by Spanish institutions, including the Constitutional Court, which the resolution declares “incompetent.”

That is called “crossing the Rubicon”[9]. For ultraconservative Spaniards, it is much more than that: it is rank treason[10] (hence the second quote at top). The Catalans have just overturned the national authority throughout their region: for while Spanish law is still in effect for the conduct of daily life and business, no political decision or direction from Madrid will be heeded. The only thing the Parlament will accept from the Spanish government is the credentials of the negotiators who come to agree to the terms of separation. That is not what Mariano Rajoy has planned. The Spanish Prime Minister has promised to use “all political and legal means” to prevent the secession of Catalonia. It is unclear what measures this implies. The Spanish Parliament has just been dismissed in preparation for the general elections on the 20th of December, but could be reconvened as an emergency measure. What is more likely is that Mr. Rajoy will ask the Constitutional Court to invoke Article 155 of the Spanish Constitution[11], which gives the national government broad powers against regions that fail to uphold that charter, including suspension of the region’s Statute of Autonomy. But what use is that in a region which has already, for all intents and purposes, suspended its own Statute of Autonomy and is crafting a new constitution?The Parlament has just declared it will not heed any injunctions of the Constitutional Court; and it will not dissolve itself upon the order of Madrid. Nor can the pro-union parliamentarians block the process by defection en masse to prevent a quorum, they don’t have the delegates for it[12].

It is difficult to see how Mr. Rajoy can block the separation process without the use of force at this point. The Prime Minister has said that he hopes Article 155 will not have to be invoked, yet he promises to act decisively. Decisive action is not in Mr. Rajoy’s DNA, yet act he must: the general elections are to be held in 53 days and it will be hard to convince Spanish voters that Rajoy is the man for the job if he has done nothing by then. Even worse would be taking “decisive action” that is simply ignored by the Catalans as they happily go about ordering their affairs. Assuming Mr. Rajoy does not face an internal party revolt[13], led by the hardline wing of former Prime Minister José María Aznar[14], he will be mauled by his principal opponents, the centrist Albert Rivera and the socialist Pedro Sánchez.

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The resolution has not yet been adopted; and the final vote count will be important. The pro-independence party wants as many votes in favor as possible, though they will be satisfied with a bare majority. So the delegates from Catalonia Sí Que Es Pot will find themselves to be very popular people, especially the five that supported Carme Forcadell. Even some Socialist MPs might be cajoled to join the vote for independence, though it is hard to see them doing so.  The expectation is that the vote should be held in early November, around the same time that the President of the Generalitat is selected. It appears increasingly unlikely that that person will be Artur Mas.

We have been witness to indisputably historic events in our life time: the fall of the Berlin Wall, the collapse of the Soviet Union, the establishment of the single European market and currency, the terrorist attack on the Twin Towers in New York. This week’s events in Catalonia may rank among these occurrences; for it is not often that a people declare themselves determined to take their place among the powers of the Earth; that so old a state as the Kingdom of Spain faces such an existential challenge; or that a tiny corner of the Mediterranean sets an entire continent atremble.

Lest you think I wax unnecessarily poetic, just consider that the repercussions of Catalan independence will affect regions as diverse as Scotland, Quebec, Northern Italy, Flanders, Eastern Ukraine, Kurdistan, and the Republic of China; that it might lead to a Spanish default and a level of civil strife not seen in Iberia since 1939; and that it will challenge the most fundamental principles of the European Union, setting democracy against sovereignty, pragmatism against orthodoxy. If global impact rather than population is taken as the key measure, the “Catalan Question” surely ranks in the first order.

Events are now moving quickly: and whether Catalonia will remain part of Spain or declare itself a free and independent Republic will be decided in a matter of days and weeks, not months or years.

It is worth taking a moment to briefly review the events that have led to the current situation. This is only a partial list of events:

  • On the 30th of September 2005, the Catalan Parlament approved a draft reform of their 1979 Statute of Autonomy. Support for a reform had been a key campaign promise of Socialist candidate and future Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero;
  • On the 2nd of November 2005, the Spanish national parliament approved the draft reform as submitted, with the exclusive opposition of the delegates of the Partido Popular;
  • Subsequently, the Partido Popular filed a lawsuit with the Constitutional Court charging that the reform violated parts of the Spanish Constitution;
  • On the 10th of May 2006, an amended text was approved in the Spanish Congress of Deputies (lower house);
  • On the 18th of June 2006, the Catalan people approved the reformed statute in a referendum, with 74% of votes in support and a 49% turnout;
  • On the 28th of June 2010, the Spanish Constitutional Court struck down 14 out of the 277 articles and declared another 27 articles subject to “restrictive interpretation.” The vote was 6 against and 4 in favor of the constitutionality of the reform There were immediate protests at the validity of this decision citing the fact that four of the six judges against the reform had remained in office long after their terms of office had ended;
  • On the 20th of November 2011, the Partido Popular won the Spanish general elections with an absolute majority of votes and seats in the new national Parliament;
  • On the 25th of November 2012, the Catalan regional elections saw a fierce contest between pro-union federalists and pro-independence groups openly debating separation from Spain. The pro-independence parties gained 14 seats with the Esquerra Republicana becoming the second force in the Parliament;
  • Subsequently, President Artur Mas declared that his government and party (CiU) would organize and support a “non-binding consultation” that would ask Catalans whether 1. Catalonia was a nation; and 2. Whether it should be and independent state;
  • On the 23rd of January 2013, the Catalan Parliament overwhelmingly adopted a resolution declaring the “Sovereignty and of the Right to Decide of the Catalan People;”
  • On the 8th of May 2013, the Spanish Constitutional Court provisionally annulled the declaration;
  • On the 12th of December 2013, the Catalan government announced that an agreement had been reached on the exact wording of the consultation, and that it would be held on the 9th of November 2014;
  • On the 8th of April 2014, the Spanish Parliament overwhelmingly rejected the petition of the Catalan government for approval of the consultation. President Mas vowed that it would go ahead regardless;
  • On the 19th of September 2014, the Catalan Parliament approved the Consultation Law, outlining the framework of how the non-binding plebiscite would be held;
  • On the 29th of September 2014, the Spanish Constitutional Court provisionally annulled the Consultation Law and issued an injunction against any official supporting or financing the consultation;
  • On the 14th of October 2014, the Catalan government announced that it would obey the injunction, but that the consultation would proceed regardless, being organized by “the civic forces of Catalonia”;
  • On the 9th of November 2014, the Catalans voted in an unofficial, unsanctioned consultation opposed by Madrid and subject to an injunction by the Constitutional Court. Over 2.3 million people voted, with 81% of voters favoring independence from Spain;
  • Following the 9N2014 vote, the Catalan government announced that it would advance its regional elections to the 27th of September and use them as a de factoreferendum on independence;
  • The main pro-independence parties, Convergencia i Unió and Esquerra Republicana, then joined forces to form a joint list denominated Junts pel Sí to contest the election. Another pro-independence party, CUP, held itself aloof from the joint list due to ideological differencies. Unió, led by pro-union federalist Josep Antoni Duran i Lleida, later separated from the alliance and presented itself as a separate party;
  • On the 27th of September 2015, Catalonia held regional elections. The pro-independence parties between them won 48% of the popular vote and 72 of the 135 seats in the Parlament. With that legislative majority, Junts Pel Sí promised to proceed with the transition to independence;
  • On the 26th of October 2015, the new Catalan Parliament sat for the first time and voted to establish Junts Pel Sí MP, Carme Forcadell, President of the assembly;
  • On the 27th of October 2015, a resolution on Catalan independence was presented to the plenary assembly by Junts Pel Sí and CUP.

Sources and Notes

Warning: In compliance with Spanish Intellectual Property law, Common Sense no longer quotes nor reproduces links to sites based in Spain. Verification of the veracity of this information is the sole responsibility of the reader.


[1] Taken from the University of Chicago Digital Library

[2] Script by Michael Hirst, direction by Shekhar Kapur

[3] It is ironic that the Palau del Parlament sits in the Parc de la Ciutadella, which was first built as a fortress by the new Bourbon kings of Spain in the aftermath of the 1714 War of the Spanish Succession. The current building was the Arsenal of that fortress. It now houses the parliament which is declaring independence from a descendent of those same Bourbon kings

[4] Not to be confused with the President of the Generalitat, who is the head of the general government, not just the legislature. The President of the Parlament is more akin to our Speaker of the House, though Catalonia has a unicameral legislature.

[5] “Catalan parliament opens with pro-independence majority,”  New Straits Times, 27 October 2015

[6] Ibid

[7] Ciaran Giles, “Catalan Parties File Parliament Motion to Begin Independence,” ABC News, 27 October 2015

[8] Full text of resolution available in Catalan at the Catalan Assembly webpage. Translation by author.

[9] In the Roman Republic, no Roman governor was allowed to enter Italy at the head of their army. The ancient boundary between Italy and the province of Cisalpine Gaul was the Rubicon River. When Julius Caesar, the Governor of Cisalpine Gaul, led his veterans across the river, he was legally in rebellion against Rome and any citizen could legally kill him with impunity. At that point, there was no turning back from conflict.

[10] “Update: Manos Limpias demands pro-independence CUP be outlawed,” The Spain Report, 15 October 2015

[11] It should be noted that many Spanish constitutional scholars doubt whether Article 155 actually permits the suspension of a region’s charter of autonomy, since the wording actually states that the government “can adopt those means necessary to obligate the region to a forced compliance with its obligations” but not one word authorizing a suspension of the legal authority of the regional government. Of course, in times of crisis, such legal niceties may go out the window.

[12] According to the current Statute of Autonomy, the Parlament can continue to operate with a quorum of 50%+1 of its members present, which means that the pro-union MPs cannot stage a “filibuster” by failing to appear during the plenary sessions. Article 32-5. Els acords, per a ésser vàlids, tant al ple com a les comissions, hauran d’ésser adoptats en reunions reglamentàries amb l’assistència de la majoria dels components i per aprovació de la majoria dels presents, llevat dels casos en què el reglament o la llei exigeixin un quòrum més alt.

[13] A Popular MP from Madrid, Cayetana Álvarez de Toledo, has already announced that she would not stand for reelection on Mr. Rajoy’s list on the 20th of December, citing “insufficient arguments to defend the policies of Rajoy.” “Cayetana Álvarez de Toledo renuncia a repetir como diputada del PP,” Europa Press, 14 October 2015

[14] An indignant José María Aznar publically scolded his successor on social media, tweeting out a series of humiliating rebukes on the inaction and passivity of the government to deal with the Catalans. “He who does not fight a battle has already lost it” was one such jewel.

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