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José Luis Meilán Gil

​Nationalism and populism in Spain

Professor of Administrative Law

Nationalism and Populism are two issues that have gained general interest in this stage of history, characterized by globalisation. The terms and their implementation do not always respond to the same reality. It does not seem that Trump's nationalism, America first, identifies with that of the Scottish Nationalist Party or Québec's Nationalism. The same happens with populism: Le Pen's National Front with the 5 Star Movement in Italy or the Syriza coalition in Greece is not identifiable. Phenomena of this nature may have something in common, but their explanation depends on the particular circumstances of each country, including their history and legal configuration.

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As regards the current reality in Spain, a nationalist party (PNV) governs in the Basque Country and nationalism in Catalonia has led to an attempt at a unilateral declaration of independence. Expression of populism is the Podemos phenomenon and its concordances, "En Comú, Compromis, En Marea, the third political force, with a parliamentary presence and in autonomous and local governments. Nationalism and populism in Spain follow different paths although they can coincide, as in Catalonia, in the "right to decide". The former is based on a historical story that has been shaping an identity of its own, differentiated from the rest of the State. The latter appeared recently, fruit of the economic-financial crisis, with theoretical inspiration in Latin American populism and an aggiornamento of the strategy of the old communist party, as its leader Pablo Iglesias wrote.

The story has its own characteristics in different nationalisms. The Basque language connects with the medieval privileges, prior to the acceptance of the idea of sovereignty, with elements imported from the Volkgeist as the weighting of its own language, cultural traditions and roots in the country. In the nineteenth century, the abolition of the privileges was compensated for by the economic grants to each of the Basque Provinces with the State, a "confederal" uniqueness. These historical rights have been respected in an addenda to the 1978 Constitution. 

The pactist character is manifested in the reform of the Statute of the Basque Country that was proposed, after the one tried in 2005 to configure the Community of Euskadi as a kind of associated State, but rejected by the Congress of Members of parliament.

The story of Catalonian nationalism uses the attempted separation of the Crown in 1640, the rebellion of the Segadors, as well as the one promoted in the war of succession that ended with the surrender of Barcelona in 1714, another mythical date. In the nineteenth century in the Renaissance wave, with its exaltation of the language, shapes Catalonian, generating a self recognition of the superior development of Catalonia compared to the rest of Spain. Faced with the centralism of the State, "grievances" are exposed, even coming to speak at some of the Assemblies of a Catalonian state within the Spanish Monarchy.

Catalonian nationalism emerged with the proclamation of the Republic. With its advent on April 14th, 1931 Macià, President of the Generalitat, proclaimed the "Catalonian state" within an Iberian federation. The matter was amicably settled with the guarantee of fulfilling the commitment of a Statute of autonomy. For this, the Constitution of 1931 adopted the unpublished formula of "an integral State, compatible with the autonomy of the municipalities and regions". 

In its duration, in addition to the Statute of Catalonia, the Basque Country one was approved and in extremis, without any effective force, the Galician one.

In 1934, on the occasion of the entry into the government of ministers of the right wing confederation (CEDA) President Companys declared the independence of Catalonia that lasted only a few hours due to the then imminent military action. The civil war and the subsequent political regime ended with Catalonian autonomy. Forty years later, in the first government of the established Monarchy presided over by Adolfo Suárez, the Generalitat was provisionally restored with the recognition of the honourable Tarradellas, who had presided over it in exile.

With this panorama, the outlook had to be regarded by consensus to the 1978 Constitution. As regards the structure of the State, the rejection of the previous regime was identified with that of centralism when recognizing the right to autonomy of nationalities and regions, "within the indissoluble unity of the Spanish Nation". It is not a matter of adding detail what I have denominated" the deviated itinerary of the autonomous State "that goes from the uniform generalization of the Autonomous Regions in the preliminary draft, to the approved in the draft, by Parliament and in the referendum by the general public. Within the generality, a singularity is recognized as regards the Regions that was approved their statutes in the past, open to others that conform to a demanding procedure that only Andalusia achieved in a constitutionally debatable way. It served to deal with the Catalonian problem without it seeming to be a privilege.

The singularity was basically that there would be a Legislative Assembly, a Governing Council and a Superior Court of Justice, the institutions that had formed the Generalitat. The 1978 Constitution was widely approved in Catalonia.

The constitutional consensus was broken in 1981, although it is not usually highlighted, with the agreement of Calvo Sotelo, the new President of the Government due to the resignation of Adolfo Suárez, and the PSOE of Felipe González, of making all the Autonomous Regions uniform, counting on the doctrinal backing of a Commission of leading experts. The Organic Law of Autonomic Harmonization, appealed by the Generalitat, was declared unconstitutional because of a question of competences, but the uniformity has remained. Its sponsors have not discarded the conviction that this generalization would allow the Catalonian problem to be diluted.

With the help of the Convergence and Unió Party, a centrist nationalism led by Pujol, Socialist and Popular Party governments came to obtain parliamentary majorities, with the corresponding compensations. A significant moment in this general drift was the coalition government between the Socialists (PSC) and Esquerra Republicana (ERC).

In the middle of the campaign for the general elections, at the end of 2003, Rodríguez Zapatero, who would become president of the government, promised to support the reform of the Catalonian Statute that was proposed. 

The project after a series of adjustments was approved by Parliament, ratified in referendum of the people of Catalonia and sanctioned by the King in 2006. Previously appealed by the PP, the Constitutional Court in 2010 issued a ruling that has constituted a "grievance" for the nationalists by contrasting the jurisdiction of the Tribunal with the "sovereign" legitimacy of the people. It was no longer enough to recognize "the national reality of Catalonia as a nationality", a term defined in the Constitution, but in the intervening parliamentary debates specified that it is "Stateless nation", without theoretical foundation, which is not the case.

From then on, a climate of growing "detachment" occurred. Significant changes took place in nationalism: CiU disappeared, its successor the PDdeCAT, with Artur Mas went clearly towards the independence movement competing with ERC that had increased its importance. Nationalism tends to constitute an adversarial situation, in the face of which a differentiated identity can be fostered: "they do not understand us", and formulate grievances; a feeling of disaffection and economic vindication. Both have expressed frustration that Catalonia was recognized as something equivalent to the economic agreement that the Constitution provides for the Basque Country. The "Spain robs us" is quite indicative of this attitude.

The unilateral declaration of independence formulated by a parliamentary majority was the culmination of a procés that had as background in 2014 the celebration of a pretended popular consultation annulled by the Constitutional Court, and in 2017 the approval of two laws for the holding of a referendum on secession and the process of disconnection in the event that the result was positive. This was held on October 1st, 2017 against the resolution of the Constitutional Court and without the guarantees of a true referendum. The unilateral declaration of independence and all the related activity, seriously undermined the interests of Spain, and justified that in application of article 155 of the Constitution, the Government, with the approval by an absolute majority of the Senate, would dismiss the Generalitat, taking charge of it and call elections in Catalonia. Held on December 21st, 2017, the absolute majority in the Parliamentary of the Nationalists was repeated with an "anti-system" populist variety, the Popular Unity Candidacy (CUP).

At the moment of writing there is an impasse. The ex-president Puigdemont, leader of the Junts per Catalonia list after the forced removal of Artur Mas, and currently proposed as a candidate, remains in Belgium with a search and capture order and the Constitutional Court, in an appeal filed by the Government, has decided that he has to appear before a judge to be invested, something that has not happened.

As a summary of the situation, we can summarize that implementing Article 151 made the independence of Catalonia impossible in the future. 

The attempt for independence has no place in the Constitution, which does not allow a binding referendum to decide on secession, and so self-determination is excluded. It is not backed by the majority of Catalonians, nor even internationally if it has been tried; it has produced a fracture in Catalonian society and a distancing from the rest of Spain; it has caused the departure of many companies in Catalonia, negatively affected economic expectations, and ultimately eroded the viability of a constitutional nationalism. It has consisted of a constitutional disloyalty, as the King had to recognize in an extraordinary television statement on October 3rd, after the fraudulent referendum of day 1, with a negative international impact for the image of Spain.

The existence of 47% of voters who supported the secessionists in their challenge indicates that a political problem persists.

In the current situation of constitutional exception, the search for what has been called a new "fit" for Catalonia in the Constitution does not seem viable. On this, either in isolation or through a general reform, valued colleagues have spoken. At the beginning of 2015, I personally proposed, in line with a "founding father" of the Constitution, the minimum reform consisting in converting into additional second transitory Addenda to the Constitution, a legal support to modify the current Statute. From the outset, it would be recognized as constitutional "the recognition of a unique position of the Generalitat in relation to civil law, language, culture, the projection of these in the educational sphere and the institutional system in which the Generalitat is organized", as it said in an article annulled by the Constitutional Court. A singularity that, as is logical, has to be compatible with the fundamental rights of all Spaniards. In short, a waiting time, between Ortega's co-existence (the Catalonian problem has no solution - we can co-exist with it) and the search for solutions, the idea of forever does not exist in politics, as Azaña countered in a famous parliamentary debate.



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