Open Democracy – Catalunya and Spain: more than time for dialogue

In addressing Catalunya’s call for autonomy, the EU and Spain must remember lessons from Slovenia’s case for independence. There are clear parallels between the situation in Spain and that of Yugoslavia in the late 1980s.

The political and fiscal conflicts between the Spanish government and Catalunya have intensified over the last few years. After up to 1.5 million people rallied in Barcelona on 11 September 2012 the atmosphere in Catalunya has changed significantly – calls for independence are now mainstream. So far Spain has refused to engage in any dialogue with the Catalans and has invoked the provisions of the 1978 post-Franco constitution to reject calls for greater fiscal autonomy as well as to block Catalans from holding a referendum on independence.

There are clear parallels between the situation in Spain and that of Yugoslavia in the late 1980s. Spain is in the throes of an economic crisis and the central government is taking action to centralise the state and promising more of the same. The controversial 2010 decision of the Spanish constitutional court which declared any referendum organised by the Catalan government as unconstitutional, and furthermore the provocative statements by Colonel Alamán recall the situation Yugoslavia found itself in in the late 1980s.

Ethnic tension is wrongly considered the cause of the break-up of Yugoslavia. The causes were first and foremost economic and constitutional. Under the 1974 Constitution the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (SFRY) was a highly de-centralised federal state made up of six constitutive Republics (Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia, Serbia, Montenegro and Macedonia) and two autonomous regions (Kosovo and Vojvodina, which formed part of Serbia), each with its own parliament and considerable fiscal independence. At the time of its adoption, the 1974 Constitution was seen by many as the blueprint for a peaceful transition from a centralised state led by the communist party to a market-based pluralistic democracy.  The Preamble of the 1974 Constitution confirmed that “[t]he peoples of Yugoslavia, on the basis of the right of every people to self-determination, including the right to secession… have united in a federal republic of free and equal peoples”. Article 1 made clear that SFRY was “a federal state of voluntarily united peoples and their socialist republics and the socialist autonomous regions”. Despite the clear wording of the Constitution, the pro-centralists argued that the republics and autonomous provinces had no right to secede and that any such action would be illegal.

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