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Is Spain’s Constitution outdated?

Summary:
Today being the Spanish Day of the Constitution, it is an apt time to reflect on said Constitution and its commitment to democracy. While it may have worked in 1978, Spain ought to amend its constitution to be truly democratic, especially with regards to the question of Catalan independence. On 14th October, nine of Catalonia’s independence leaders were jailed for a total of over 100 years but what Madrid seemingly fails to realise time and time again is that imprisoning their leaders doesn’t address the complaints of angry Catalan nationalists— and may exacerbate the issue. Support for independence and anti-Spanish rhetoric is still prominent both within Catalonia and internationally. Catalonia’s now infamous 2017 independence referendum was allowed under the Law on Referendum on

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Today being the Spanish Day of the Constitution, it is an apt time to reflect on said Constitution and its commitment to democracy. While it may have worked in 1978, Spain ought to amend its constitution to be truly democratic, especially with regards to the question of Catalan independence. 

On 14th October, nine of Catalonia’s independence leaders were jailed for a total of over 100 years but what Madrid seemingly fails to realise time and time again is that imprisoning their leaders doesn’t address the complaints of angry Catalan nationalists— and may exacerbate the issue. Support for independence and anti-Spanish rhetoric is still prominent both within Catalonia and internationally. 

Catalonia’s now infamous 2017 independence referendum was allowed under the Law on Referendum on Self-determination of Catalonia passed by the Parliament of Catalonia. It was not, however, permissible under the Spanish constitution. And so, Spain’s national government enacted Article 155 which allowed them to use ‘necessary measures’ to force Catalonia to comply with the idea of ‘the indissoluble unity of the Spanish nation’. Madrid’s idea of ‘necessary measures’ included dissolving parliament, and police brutality, actions that would ultimately add fuel to the (now literal) fire(s). 

Whether or not the referendum should have gone ahead, Madrid’s response of clamping down on Catalonia so harshly is telling of how desperate they are.  Prohibiting the referendum today seems just as anachronistic as Spain declaring war in Catalonia back, in 1934. It seems that the government strategy has changed little since. The ban on Spain’s autonomous regions gaining independence was written in the constitution after the Franco dictatorship in order to keep Spain unified while it regained its feet. Madrid shouldn’t cling to this outdated system. By amending the constitution, Spain may seem less fragile and tension will likely be eased. Indeed the reforms are a step in the right direction. 

The neoliberal standpoint is that liberty is of utmost importance and as such, the legitimacy of state ought to depend on its people. If the majority of Catalans withhold their consent to being part of Spain, then the region should be able to leave Spain.

Allowing a real vote does not mean that Spain will automatically lose Catalonia. It is important to remember that the result of the 2017 referendum should not be viewed as gospel. The referendum was not verified and there are claims that some people voted twice. Furthermore, it is likely that those who would have voted against independence would have also wanted to obey central government and not legitimise referendum by voting in it. This suggests that were Spain to hold a legitimate referendum it is possible that the outcome would be less overwhelmingly pro independence. While 90% of votes being in favour of independence may seem pretty conclusive, it was 90% of 43% of the population. When discussing Catalonia, the debate shouldn’t simply be pro independence or anti independence, but rather pro choice or anti choice. Catalonia should only have independence if the majority of Catalans do genuinely support it.

Allowing a real vote would, however, allow Spain to gauge the Catalan people’s level of discontent with the rest of Spain. It allows discussions to go ahead to de-escalate the situation, knowing whether independence truly is the desired outcome from the majority of the Catalan people. 

If Spain were to ever allow its autonomous regions independence, then a key detail that should be ironed out is whether or not any final negotiations must be voted on. As we have seen with Brexit, there are calls for a ‘people’s vote’ on any possible withdrawal agreement. This ambiguity can be avoided by making it clear whether it is the government or the citizens that have the  final say in any agreements. 

The issues arising in Catalonia could stem from the inflexibility of a written constitution. When discussing Catalonia, comparisons with Scotland seem natural, however, Spain and the United Kingdom are very different countries. First of all, it is not illegal in Britain for different regions to secede from the union. The question of a Scottish independence referendum was not as outlandish. Another key difference between the two countries, is that Spain, unlike the UK, has a written constitution. Having a written constitution makes Spain inflexible and forced into upholding principles that may now seem archaic. Spain has had its current constitution since 1978 which may not sound like a long time, but Spain has changed a lot since then. In 1978, Spain had transitioned from a dictatorship that spanned five decades to a fledgling democracy. Now, it is a democratic country (or at least it is well on its way to being one). Any efforts to update the constitution will undergo much scrutiny and debate, making Spain a cumbersome nation and making it harder to adapt and keep up with the modern world. 

The question should not be whether or not you support an independent Catalonia but if you support democracy. For those who do support democracy, the way of achieving it is clear: in the spirit of liberty, reform the constitution and have a real vote.


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