The Italian Government’s position on the referendum on the self-determination of Catalonia

In September 2017 the Parliament of Catalonia, a region enjoying autonomous status within Spain, passed legislation to enable the holding of a binding referendum on self-determination. Claiming a breach of the indissoluble unity of the Nation as guaranteed by Article 2 of the Constitution, the Spanish Government brought the law before the Spanish Constitutional Court and threatened to suspend the regional autonomy of Catalonia should the referendum be effectively held. The Court pre-emptively suspended the law, and later declared it unconstitutional and void due to both the lack of competence of the Government of Catalonia in calling a referendum on a matter of Spanish sovereign authority and the fact that its approval by the Parliament of Catalonia did not comply with voting procedures. In the weeks preceding the referendum, Spanish law enforcement authorities started to seize ballot boxes and occupy Catalan ministries to search for evidence of the breach of Spanish law. Some of the key figures of the Catalan pro-independence movement were arrested and put under accusation for sedition. Tension between the parties rose, and people started to take the streets both in Madrid and Barcelona.

On 29 September 2017, during an urgent question time taking place at the Chamber of Deputies (861st Meeting, XVII Legislature), the Undersecretary of State for Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation, Mr Vincenzo Amendola, was asked about the Italian Government’s position on the promotion of the referendum on self-determination by the Catalan authorities.

More specifically, he was asked whether the Government planned to undertake any politico-diplomatic initiative aimed at stopping the spiral of actions and reactions characterising the situation; whether the Government deemed useful to raise at the European level the possibility of adopting sanctions against Spain, in light of what looked like criminal repression of the legitimate Catalan authorities’ right to self-determination; whether the Government was considering the option of recalling the Italian Ambassador to Spain; and whether and how the Government intended to support internal dialogue in Spain, to the aim of guaranteeing that Catalans could legitimately decide over their own future. First of all, it is worth highlighting that, in his reply, Mr Amendola framed the issue as one of autonomy as opposed to one of self-determination – as per the question he was asked – or independence – as per the Catalan claim. The Undersecretary’s response was generally quite evasive. He called for dialogue among the parties but at the same time made it clear that any breach of the Spanish Constitution would be seen as illegitimate and that the unity of the Spanish state could not be put into question. In particular, Mr Amendola stated the following:

In executing the judicial decisions that declared autonomy illegitimate, the action of Rajoy’s Government is in full coherence with the political thesis laying in the background – that is, the constitutional incompatibility of any kind of autonomy.

Having stressed that the status of Catalonia could only be discussed in the framework of a concerted political dialogue, Mr Amendola praised the way the situation had been managed by adding the following:

To be honest, up to now we have witnessed balance and measure on the side of the law enforcement authorities within the complex system of local governmental forces and their respective competences – that are local as regards law enforcement but central as regards the execution of judicial decisions.

On 1 October 2017, the day of the referendum, voters occupied polling stations in order to keep them open notwithstanding police’s attempts to suppress the voting. Images of police repression and violence circulated all over the world. According to the Catalan Government, out of a turnout of 42,3% of voters, 90% voted for independence. The President of Catalonia, Mr Carles Puidgemont, subsequently declared that Catalonia had conquered its right to be an independent state in the form of a republic. His declarations were opposed by the central government in Madrid. In the following days, the European Commission expressed the position that the referendum was illegal and that the situation had to be dealt with by Spain as an internal matter, calling both parties to resume dialogue. At the same time, the King of Spain Felipe VI strongly condemned the Catalan government and its attempt to threaten Spain’s stability, urging the state to defend the constitutional order.

On 4 October 2017, during a question time taking place at the Chamber of Deputies (864th Meeting, XVII Legislature), Mr Angelino Alfano, Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation, was asked about any political and diplomatic activity that the Government intended to adopt in order to guarantee the right to peaceful and democratic self-determination of the Catalan people. Mr Alfano’s statement largely reflected what the Undersecretary had said some days before, but rightly brought back to the fore the question of independence as opposed to autonomy. Although not expressly taking sides, the Minister clearly framed the matter as one of management and containment of autonomist claims rather than one of unilateral self-determination.

In particular, he stated the following:

The Italian Government does not want to discuss the merits of what is an internal Spanish question. However, I cannot but share the words of the President of the Italian Republic who said that, these days, Europe has once more experienced that, when clash prevails and positions are exacerbated, it is more difficult to find any positive solution. The same concepts were repeated by the Prime Minister, in the context of the forum for dialogue between Italy and Spain held in Rome last Monday 2 October. The Italian Government, as the European Union, therefore strongly wishes for dialogue between the parties in order to prevent the further deterioration of a situation that is already serious. In our view, it is possible to see the initiative of President Rajoy, who called the parties to inclusive political dialogue, against the background of such aim. We are indeed convinced that the choice of the method used to manage Catalan autonomist claims is the key element in order to keep centrifugal forces within Spain – a country whose unity is guaranteed by the king – under control.

In the same context, Mr Alfano was later asked about the Italian Government’s position and intended course of action vis-à-vis the violent repression of the referendum held in Catalonia. Without making reference to the violence occurred, the Minister reiterated that the situation was to be considered an internal constitutional matter within Spain. He carefully framed the question as a political one, to be resolved through dialogue between the parties rather than through unilateral decisions. In particular, he stated the following:

The situation in Spain, and in particular the referendum in Catalonia, are of the outmost importance for the Italian Government. I wish to stress again that, although the Government considers the matter as one of internal politics, we are fully aware of the importance of political dialogue between the parties. […]

President Gentiloni himself expressed the wish that dialogue could bring politics back to the fore, in the search of a solution that needs to be in total compliance with the laws, the rule of law and the unitary Constitution of Spain. The same position was expressed by the European Union which, without interfering with the Catalan question, declared to believe that such a situation calls for unity and stability rather than division and fragmentation. As already mentioned, we find ourselves in line with this European position.

As emerges from the statements issued by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation, in dealing with the question of the referendum, the Italian Government decided to use the lexicon of constitutional law and internal politics rather than that of international law and self-determination. Without mentioning the right of the Catalan people to determine their own future, the Government automatically put unilateral action out of the range of admissible options. Rather, it seemed to imply that room for discussion over Catalan independence would only lie in the context of a constitutional dialogue involving both parties. In this sense, the Italian Government’s position on the Catalan referendum was overall very much in line with the one expressed by the European Union. This is easily understandable in light of the autonomist and secessionist claims currently spreading across European societies.

The full Italian version of Mr Amendola’s statement can be downloaded here.

The full Italian version of Mr Alfano’s statement can be downloaded here.

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