José Antonio Yturriaga
Ambassador of Spain and Professor of Diplomatic Law
fter the universal flood, Noah’s heirs settled in the plain of Senaar. It was a land of one language and of one word. And they said to one another, “Let us build a city and a tower, the top of which will reach to the heavens and make us famous. And Yahweh came down to see the city and the tower which the sons of men were making, and said to himself, “Behold, a people one in that they have all one language. They have purposed this, and nothing will hinder them from carrying it out. Let us go down, then, and confuse their language so that they will not understand one another.” That is why it is called Babel, because there Yahweh confused the language of the whole earth (Genesis, 11-1/9).
Language is the principal means of communication between mortals. Faced with the proliferation of languages caused by babelism, men try to find a common language to better understand each other. In the Middle Ages it was Latin, in the Modern Age it was to some extent Spanish, and in the Contemporary Age English is the lingua franca. Spanish is the second universal language and the most taught language in the world after English. Its study is expanding everywhere, except in some regions of… Spain, such as Catalonia, because even in this “Spain is different”.
According to Article 3 of the Constitution, Spanish is the official language of the State and all Spaniards have the duty to know it and the right to use it. The other languages are official in the respective Autonomous Communities in accordance with their Statutes. Consequently, Catalan in Catalonia, Basque in the Basque Country, Galician in Galicia and Valencian in the Community of Valencia are co-official languages. Some Communities have promoted to the maximum the knowledge and teaching of their own languages -which is praiseworthy-, but they have done so by marginalizing Spanish and even excluding its use in education and public administration.
Abuse by some communities in promoting their own languages
In Catalonia, after the ostracism suffered by Catalan during the Franco governments, the pendulum has swung to the other extreme. According to the 1979 Statute of Autonomy, Catalan is the official language of Catalonia, while Spanish is the official language throughout the State. “The Generalitat will guarantee the normal and official use of both languages and will adopt the necessary measures to ensure their knowledge, and will create the conditions to achieve their full equality in terms of the rights and duties of the citizens of Catalonia” (Article 3).
During the Tarradellas presidency, a reasonable formula was achieved, consisting of promoting Catalan to make it equal to Spanish and to normalize at the official level a harmonious bilingualism that existed in real life. Jordi Pujol, on the other hand, began a gradual process to establish monolingualism in Catalan, aware that language was the basic instrument for creating the structure of a future independent state. Hence his Laws of linguistic normalization of 1983 and of linguistic policy of 1998, and the introduction of the system of forced immersion in Catalan, made official in the Education Law of 2009. In 2005, the tripartite government of Pasqual Maragall promoted the reform of the Statute of Sau, and the new rule established that Catalan was the normal and preferential language in education and in the Administration, but the Constitutional Court ruling of 2010 removed the qualifier “preferential”.
Faced with the refusal of schools to teach classes in Spanish, some parents had to resort to the courts and -although the courts gave them the reason- school principals, with the connivance of the Administration, did not apply the sentences. The TSJC ruled in 2020 that Catalan schools were obliged to teach at least 25% of subjects in Spanish. The Generalitat did not comply with the sentence and issued Decree-Law 6/2022 to make its execution impossible, and the Parliament approved in 2022 -with the vote of the PSC and the Commons- the Law of official languages of non-university education, which established that Catalan was the only vehicular language and that the use of Spanish -which was only a curricular language- was left to the decision of the schools. The central government condoned the Law “de facto”. Now, the pro-independence parties, which prevent the full application of the official language in a part of the Spanish State, want Catalan to be used in Congress.
According to Article 6 of the 1979 Statute of Guernica, Euskera, the language proper to the Basque people, shall, like Castilian, have the status of official language in Euskadi and all its inhabitants have the right to know and use both languages. The autonomous authorities will guarantee their use and will take the necessary measures to ensure their knowledge. The Basque Government has promoted the Basque language and has given it preference. In 2016, the Law of Local Institutions of Euskadi was approved, which established that the City Councils could decide the language in which to work. The TC has estimated in 2023 that some provisions of the Law attacked the linguistic balance between the two languages, by conditioning the use of Castilian to the lack of knowledge of Basque, and that the Law was not aimed at promoting a co-official language, but prescribed a priority use of Basque, with which an unjustified imbalance in the use of Castilian was produced. In 2019, the Basque Government issued a Decree on the normalization of the institutional and administrative use of the official languages in the institutions and premises of Euskadi, which regulated the privileged use of Basque to the detriment of Castilian, thus incurring the same vices of unconstitutionality as the 2016 Law.
In Navarre, the official language is Spanish, but in the northern Basque-speaking third Basque is co-official and the same educational system as in Euskadi is in force there. The last coalition governments of Geroa Bai (PNV) and PSN have followed a policy of Euskaldunization, both in the Administration and in education. In a 2017 decree regulating the use of Basque in the Administration, its use was imposed throughout the Community. In a 2019 ruling, the High Court of Justice of Navarre annulled the articles that valued the knowledge of Basque as a merit in non-Basque-speaking areas.
Article 5 of the 1981 Statute of Galicia considers Galician as the community’s own language and, together with Castilian, they are official languages. Since Fraga’s time, the PP has welcomed conservative Galician speakers, who have introduced a certain degree of nationalism into the Xunta. Galicia joined the nationalist grouping Galeusca, together with the Basque Country and Catalonia, and has joined some of their demands. Without reaching the extremes of Catalonia or Euskadi, Galicia has also committed hostile actions against Castilian, especially in the educational field. The Galicia of the PP should be self-critical and correct these excesses.
According to article 6 of the Statute of the Valencian Community of 1982, Valencian is the language of the Community and has official status along with Spanish. During the coalition governments of the PSOE with Compromís and Podemos, a law on multilingualism was adopted that promoted Catalan and discriminated against Spanish. The previous autonomous governments undervalued Valencian and promoted Catalan, including the Community in the “Catalan countries”. The situation has changed radically with the new PP-Vox government presided by Carlos Mazón, which has established the principle of freedom of choice of language and educational center by parents.
A similar situation occurred in the Balearic Islands, where the coalition government of the PSOE with Podemos and the nationalist Més, led by Francina Armengol promoted Catalan in education and public administration to the point of requiring a high level of knowledge of Catalan by employees in the health sector, which led to an acute deficit in the coverage of medical services in all the islands. The new PP government of Marga Prohens has radically changed its orientation and advocates a system of freedom of education.
Use of co-official languages in Congress
In the pact that Sánchez made with Puigdemont so that JxC would allow with its votes the formation of the Congress table presided by Armengol, the former put as a condition that the use of Catalan, Basque and Galician -not Valencian- would be allowed in the Congress. In her first speech after her election, Armengol announced -without having the power to do so- that from now on the deputies could use these languages in all the activities of the Chamber. She also opened the way for the use of other non-official languages such as Bable, Aragonese or Aranese.
The PSOE, Sumar and the nationalist parties presented a proposal to modify the Rules of Procedure of the Congress, which was admitted for processing on September 18. It was a proposal that reproduced the one presented 15 months ago and which was rejected by 71 in favor and 268 against, including those of the PSOE deputies. What has changed since then? Well, Sánchez needs the seven votes of JxC to be invested president and Puigdemont conditions his support to the granting of an amnesty to all those involved in the procès and the use of the Catalan language in Congress and in the institutions of the European Union. The Bureau of the Congress authorized the proposal that allows the use of the three co-official languages and Armengol illegally authorized such use in the plenary of the Congress on the 20th, since the latter had not yet tested the reform of the Regulation, which it has done on the 21st today with 180 votes in favor, including that of Coalición Canaria, which has changed its block.
Despite the warning of the lawyers of the House, its president has gone ahead to pay in kind the price agreed by the ¨PSOE with JxC for her election and has not hesitated to abuse her power. As Ger hola holamán Teruel has pointed out in his magnificent article “Parliamentary Babel and territorial integration”. any materially constitutional decision -and the use of languages in Congress is- should be preceded by an agreement including the two major parties. We are -in the expression of Manuel Aragón- a “consensual” democracy, so that in these matters it is not enough to have half plus one of the votes, but we must aspire to generate consensus. It is harmful for an emboldened majority to adopt institutional reforms without the support of the other half of the parliamentary arc. The overwhelming rejection of the proposal of 2022 showed that there was no gap to be filled by a resolution of the President of the House, but rather that there was an express will that the House should not modify the Rules of Procedure and maintain Spanish as the only language “Does it make sense to turn Congress into a linguistic Babel?
All the left-wing speakers used the co-official languages, thus giving the impression that Spanish -the red and yellow flag- was the heritage of the right wing. Only the illustrious spokesman of the PP, Borja Semper, who pronounced three paragraphs in Basque against the regulations still in force, the instructions of his party and common sense, broke this presumption. The deputies of Vox left the hemicycle, but not before depositing their earpieces in the empty seats of the president and his first vice-president. For the moment there will only be interpretation from the co-official languages into Spanish, in a unidirectionality that should not please Puigdemont, because -as Arcadi Espada has observed-, if Catalan is a language of going but not of returning, “the ‘manquée’ nature of the nation will remain in force and Castilian will continue to preserve its koiné character”.
Sixty former parliamentarians from different parties -including several presidents of Congress, the Senate and Autonomous Communities, and 17 ministers- have sent a letter to Armengol to express their astonishment and dismay at the hasty initiative to modify the uses of Congress to turn it into a plurinational institution. “We have felt the Parliament as the house of dialogue and deliberation at the service of the Spanish people. During all this time, Spanish -the official language of the State- has been the language with which we have dialogued. We have done so normally since Castilian is our common language, the language in which all Spaniards understand each other in our daily lives in all parts of Spain. No Spaniard needs an interpreter when speaking with another Spaniard”. The real intention of its promoters is to deny the status of Castilian as the common language of Spaniards, who will have to resort to the pinganillo to understand each other. The pretension that half of the Chamber of Deputies impose such a reform is an unacceptable tragedy and a rupture of the rules of any democratic system. “If it were not tragic, it would be profoundly ridiculous.” That is why they have expressed their firmest rejection to a reform of the Rules of Procedure that contradicts the Constitution, is not adapted to our linguistic reality and is not reasonable.
As pointed out by an editorial in “El Debate”, “if the lady with the earpieces had any dignity left, she would do well to read this letter carefully and act accordingly, denying the co-official status of regional languages in Congress”. According to “El Mundo”, the Government is not making a symbolic recognition of the co-official languages, but is taking a new step in the denial of Spanish as a common language. “The objective is the de-vertebration of civic and constitutional Spain. Therefore, it is not acceptable for the PSOE to impose a modification that it rejected in June 2022 and that it now only defends in order to retain power.”
Use of the co-official languages in the institutions of the European Union
The first letter that Sánchez had to pay in his murky pact with Puigdemont was the attempt to have Catalan, Basque and Galician considered as official languages of the EU and -to that effect- the Minister of Foreign Affairs, José Manuel Albares, sent in the early hours of August 17 a letter to the General Secretariat of the European Council to -skipping the current rules- request the reform of the linguistic Regulation 1/1958, because that day the vote of JxC was indispensable to elect Armengol president of the Congress. On the 22nd I signed, together with several members of the Teachers’ Forum, a letter addressed to the General Secretariat of the Council, in which we denounced the illegality of the Minister’s action, for having made an important proposal when a Government in office is not qualified to do so and for not having the mandatory decision to that effect of the Council of Ministers.
Having cleared the first hurdle of the election of the Congress Bureau, the Government had to overcome the second one, and Albares went to Brussels on the 19th to attend the meeting of the General Affairs Council to implore the Member States to agree to the outlandish Spanish proposal. States such as Sweden, Finland, Belgium, the Netherlands and France had expressed their reluctance to such a proposal. Albares tried to convince them by promising that Spain would assume the costs of the operation and -in the face of the maintenance of the reservations and the requirement that a study be made on the consequences of the proposal- suggested starting with the incorporation of Catalan and leaving for later the incorporation of the other two languages, which has provoked the anger of the PNV, Bildu and BNG, and has had to rectify.
It is not normal for a State to suddenly and urgently request the inclusion of three regional languages as official languages of the Union, which would have a high economic cost, would imply structural changes in the administrative services, and would represent a dangerous precedent that would open the door to the official status of the 60 languages spoken in the member countries. And it is even less normal for a state to do so, taking advantage of its status as rotating president of the European Council. The General Affairs Council has postponed “sine die” its decision on the request in order to study it calmly, following the preparation of reports on its legal basis and the estimation of the costs and the impact on the operational functioning of the EU institutions. The decision -which requires the unanimous support of all the Member States- is therefore left “ad calendas comunitarias”. The willing Albares – who has been described by Jorge Bustos as the Foreign Minister of Catalonia in exile – has been satisfied because no one has vetoed the proposal and, above all, because he has complied with the demands of the fugitive from Waterloo, who has thanked him for his efforts despite them being insufficient. This unusual comment by Puigdemont is a sign that it seems that he will not deny the support of his party to Sánchez’s candidacy because the community objective has not been achieved. Sánchez is aware that Puigdemont has the frying pan by the handle and the remote control/handle as well, so he is willing to swallow any toad to keep power. Thanks to him and his allies, Spain has once again become the laughing stock of Europe.
As Teruel has observed, in the European Parliament there is no common language, but in the Congress there is, Spanish. As the Constitutional Court pointed out in its ruling 821/1986, Spanish is the only official language of the State and the other Spanish languages are only official in their respective territories, an officiality that implies that Spanish is recognized by the public authorities as the normal means of communication within and between them, and in their relationship with private subjects. Languages -which are means of communication and understanding- have been converted by nationalist identitarian nationalisms into means of incommunication and misunderstanding, and such an aberration has been bought and paid for by the Government of Pedro Sánchez.
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