José Montilla, the Catalan president, was in Madrid yesterday for talks with José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero about the Catalan autonomy Estatut. This follows the recent, and long awaited, sentence from the Constitutional Court which declared a number of clauses in the Estatut to be unconstitutional. We have to assume that the two men talked yesterday about this subject, because the vagueness of the outcome suggests that it's equally possible that they discussed the weather, holiday plans or the World Cup.
The sentence delivered by the Constitutional Court after an inexcusable delay and numerous political manoeuvres, was more lenient with the Estatut than we had been led to believe it would be. This was essentially because the judges who opposed some or all of the statute couldn't reach agreement amongst themselves on where to draw the line. In the end it came down to clause by clause votes. The original appeal to the court by the Partido Popular challenged the constitutional validity of over a hundred clauses, including many that have been supported by the same party in other regions. The verdict only accepted around 10% of these challenges, and leaves most of the, already implemented, Estatut largely untouched.
You wouldn't think that this was the case judging by the political reaction from Cataluña, but the region is already in an unofficial electoral campaign with elections to be held later this year. This has meant that all of those in the political spectrum from parties that support the Estatut to those that want outright independence have been competing to make the most noise over the court's verdict. Only the PP has expressed quiet satisfaction, despite only getting a fraction of what they had contested. As things stand at the moment the PP doesn't want to provoke a nationalist reaction in Cataluña because they see a potential agreement with the conservative nationalists of CiU as the key to eventually bringing down Zapatero's government. Down in Valencia, Francisco Camps moved quickly to activate a clause in his own Estatut that enables Valencia to claim any powers granted to other regions. Naturally the Molt Honorable would want a finely cut, made to measure, Estatut of his own. The national PP moved equally quickly for once to put an end to that aspiration, which would have undercut their arguments at a stroke.
Neither the Catalan socialists (PSC) or CiU are likely to be that upset either by the verdict, at least privately. The absence of a Consejo de Justicia for Cataluña is not the worst disaster in the world, except for the 'amics' of those in power who would have got some cozy, well paid positions out of it. Only the pressure of the elections has forced them to compete to outdo each other in condemning the interference of the Constitutional Court. That explains Montilla's visit to Madrid yesterday, he wants some gesture from the national government to demonstrate to the electorate that he can obtain things that CiU are not able to get. It also explains the presence of both parties in the demonstration held in Barcelona to protest at the verdict.
The electoral jostling also affects those who were never that keen on the Estatut anyway. Esquerra Republicana is seeking to preserve what it can of its electoral base, under pressure from CiU and also from the threat of a new pro-independence platform which may or may not involve Joan Laporta, now ex-president of Barcelona football club and badly in need of a new power base. In some ways it's quite funny to see those who dismissed the Estatut as irrelevant, protesting against a relatively minor cutback in the document. Obviously there is the question of rejecting any interference at all by the institutions of the Spanish state, but to act as if the Estatut has been butchered is not coherent with the opinions they previously expressed about it.
This all leads to the argument that it's impossible to get any reasonable degree of autonomy within the confines of the Spanish state, an argument largely advanced by those who have never believed otherwise. Despite all the politics, there is a serious issue in the background concerning the Constitutional Court's decision. The question is whether the verdict has really drawn the limits of autonomy in Spain. I would argue that it hasn't, the purely political nature of the deliberations and the absence of any consistent constitutional doctrine after so many years means that the solution that dare not speak its name - federalism - is not as dead as some would have us believe. Things could of course swing in either direction as the Constitutional Court depends fundamentally on the balance of power between the two major national parties. Nevertheless, the Estatut is in place and even those who toured the country for months collecting signatures against are now likely to accept it.