Territorial organization: The first debate to dismantle self-determination ended with the emergence of nationalities

There will be those who, forty-two years after the constituent debate, think that they already warned then that recognizing "nationalities" would encourage them to one day aspire to independence. Others will regret that the current situation has been reached due to the lack of respect for these nationalities. And there will be a third group that will think that the nations of Spain have always had the right to self-determination. The fact is that Article 2 and Title VIII of the Magna Carta were the hardest to write for the MPs of the constituent legislature, aware that the success of the territorial organization of the State would depend on the viability of the new democracy.

On May 12, 1978, the Committee on Constitutional Affairs of Parliament dedicated the entire day to talking exclusively about Article 2 of the draft Constitution. The result was the 43 words, two commas, and a final period that the article collects, and that were analyzed one by one, with a special chapter for capital letters (Constitution, Nation, and Homeland, although the latter was ignored). That was a debate fundamentally aimed at defining what fit Catalonia, the Basque Country and, to a lesser extent, Galicia should have, and the first great debate on the right to self-determination.

The UCD [Union of Democratic Centre] of Adolfo Suárez, the majority party in the chamber, governed the debate with great pragmatism. As the term “nation” raised susceptibilities, especially among those who considered that in Spain there is only one nation, the UCD embraced the concept of "nationalities", raised by the Catalan Minority group led by Jordi Pujol. "The suppression of the term “nationalities” would not make the demands of those who call themselves the popular echo of nationalists disappear, but would probably exacerbate them. That is why we accept the term nationalities", Rafael Arias Salgado said that day.

Attributes of a nation

He himself warned that the recognition of nationality "is not and cannot be the foundation of a process of independence". Why did he have to give that warning? Basically to reassure Alianza Popular (AP) [Popular Allegiance, later transformed into the current PP], led by Manuel Fraga, who insisted that this would be the future of Catalonia and the Basque Country if they were recognized as nationalities. In general, no one on that commission doubted that nationality was equivalent to nation. "And a nation is the principle of self-determination, the principle of self-government and the principle of its own political organization", AP deputy Licinio De la Fuente stated. His colleague José Miguel Ortí defended a Spanish referendum on the matter. Despite efforts, the AP rejected Article 2.

This occurred despite the fact that, to compensate for the appearance of the concept “nationalities” in the text, the unity of Spain was doubly emphasized ("indissoluble unity" and "common and indivisible homeland"). Jordi Solé Tura (from PSUC, the Communist party) even pointed out that not all nations – despite everyone except AP recognized Catalonia as a nation - ended up becoming states and that, ultimately, what would or would not satisfy these territories would not be a constitutional article, but "the real game of the autonomous regions and the relation they will have with the central power". Neither the Catalan nor the Basque nationalist-leaning parties favoured the right to self-determination, but they did ask for political - and not just administrative - power. That day, the MP of Euskadiko Ezkerra (the Basque independentist party) was the only one who defended this right and, a few weeks later, in the plenary session of Parliament, the MP of ERC Heribert Barrera would join him, stating that "an administrative autonomy requires full sovereignty", whilst rejecting the drafting of the article.

The competence ceiling

Over the years it has become clear that, despite the advances of the autonomous regions during the first decades of democracy, they have once again hit against a hard ceiling that some of the nations have found insufficient. Sovereign desires have reappeared, as it has occurred many times in the history of Spain. The Constitutional Court is responsible for a big part of this. The sentence against the Statute for autonomy, in 2010, stopped the federalizing intentions of the Catalans, unlike what the 1983 sentence against the centralist impulses of the organic law of harmonization of the autonomic process had supposed. And if Article 2 of the Magna Carta has brought so many controversies, Article 138 has not spared them either: the financing of the autonomous regions has been one of the greatest problems of the country’s recent history. In the latter case, however, the State has avoided having too many problems with the Basques.

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