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.

Ana Stanic
18 October 2012
Pro-independence protesters in Barcelona. Demotix/Mario Roldan. All rights reserved.

Pro-independence protesters in Barcelona. Demotix/Mario Roldan. All rights reserved.

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.

By the late 1980s Yugoslavia was in a severe economic crisis, inflation was rampant (400% in 1988 and 1600% in 1989) and the calls for democratisation and decentralisation were rising strongly. The year 1989 saw the legalisation of political parties and 1990 saw the first multi-party elections. At the same time, however, reactionary forces (led by the federal army and the leaders of the Serbian communist party) were trying to turn the clock back to the times before the 1974 Constitution. They succeeded in 1988 in pushing through the adoption of amendments to the 1974 Constitution, which effectively curtailed the autonomy of the republics and the autonomous provinces and thus sparked a a full-blown constitutional crisis. 

A further attack on the constitution and the political framework of the country followed on quickly when Milosevic, then President of the Communist Party of Serbia, proceeded to forcibly overthrow the local governments of the autonomous provinces of Kosovo and Vojvodina (which had been strengthened by the 1974 Constitution and attained considerable autonomy from the Serbian government) as well as the government of Montenegro in late 1988 and early 1989. These moves gave the pro-Serbian bloc de facto control of half the votes in the federal institutions, enabling them to block all economic, political and constitutional reforms proposed by the other Yugoslav republics. The next attack on the de-centralised Yugoslav constitutional framework occurred in March 1989 when under the guise of a state of emergency declared in Kosovo after the Trepca miner’s strike, the Serbian Parliament adopted a new Constitution of Serbia on 27 March 1989 whereby it considerably weakened Kosovo’s autonomy.

With the 1974 constitutional arrangement in tatters, Slovenia and Croatia were left with no other choice but to demand that a new constitutional arrangement be drawn up. As net contributors to the federal state they demanded greater fiscal independence and greater decentralisation of power and decision making.  As constitutive republics they had greater fiscal independence than Catalunya has today.   

Although calls for independence from Yugoslavia were becoming more vocal they were by no means mainstream in either Slovenia or Croatia in 1988 and 1989. In fact the political elite in Slovenia did not embrace these calls until mid-1990, after Yugoslavia had in fact ceased to be a functioning state. 

The referendum on the independence of Slovenia on 23 December 1990 took even the political leaders by surprise.  An overwhelming ninety-five percent of the vote (and 88.5% of all Slovenians turned out to vote in the referendum) supported independence.  Interestingly, a rearguard attempt to get the Yugoslav Constitutional Court to declare the referendum illegal and so prevent it from being held had failed. Based on the arguments of the constitutional judge Dr Ivan Kristan representing Slovenia, the Constitutional Court of Yugoslavia held on 20 December 1990 that no action had yet been taken pursuant to the Law on the Referendum for the Independence of Slovenia which had or would cause irreparable harm. Therefore, it concluded that although the question of the constitutionality of the Law was a matter which it would consider it refused to grant a provisional measure to stop the referendum from taking place. The resounding support of the Slovenes in the referendum for independence rendered the subsequent ruling meaningless.

The break-up of Yugoslavia had been foreseeable and certainly was not inevitable. There is little doubt that had the EU and the US supported the pluralistic and democratic forces in Yugoslavia instead of the reactionary and military forces, the bloody war that followed the break-up could have been avoided. There is even a case to argue that that the break-up of the country could have been avoided as well. 

One hopes that lessons can be learned from the Slovenian case. The key lesson for the Spanish central government is that it must resist the temptation to use the economic crisis to centralise Spain at a time when Catalunya and other regions of Spain are demanding greater fiscal independence and decentralisation. The time of centralised, top-down rule and the rule of political parties has passed. The countries in the EU which are bold enough to embrace this paradigm shift will be the ones who come out of the present crisis stronger. 

The lesson for the EU is that it must not stand on the sidelines as issues which go to the heart of democratic rule and human rights are being debated in one of its member states. The EU cannot aspire to evolve into a federation itself without ensuring that the will of the people throughout its lands is allowed to be heard and is respected. The most important lesson is that steps must be taken, and the pressures of the EU and the international community brought to bear on all parties, to ensure that there is dialogue between the Spanish central government and Catalunya as well as with the other provinces of Spain. A functioning democracy presumes a continuous process of discussion in order to ensure that democratic institutions continue to evolve and reflect the aspirations and will of all the people of Spain.

With the Catalans and the Spanish government seemingly unable to make any progress on their own, the EU must take the lead in ensuring that there is a structured dialogue between them should, as they are expected to, pro-independence parties win an absolute majority in Catalunya at the elections on 25 November 2012. There is no time to lose.


A shorter version of this article has previously been published (in Catalan) by El Punt Avui.

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