Agreement at last. The pro-independence ERC and Junts, the Socialists of the PSC, and the alternative left of the Comuns have finally signed a new text on the Catalan language in schools. All this comes exactly two months after the same four parties presented a supposed consensus agreement on March 24th to amend Catalonia's Language Policy Act, a pact which began to fall apart a few hours later as criticism built up and Junts backed down. However, after a week of negotiations against the clock, made necessary by the need to take immediate action against the court order for immediate imposition of a 25% Spanish language quota in classrooms, the four parties have managed to put together an ad hoc law and regain consensus.
The talks, in fact, went all the way to the deadline: just minutes before the register at Parliament closed at 6pm. Once the proposal was registered, the parties requested a meeting of the Bureau and the Board of Spokespeople late this afternoon in order to include the bill in this week's parliamentary schedule, with the intention of having it passed to combat the ultimatum of the Catalan High Court (TSJC) on introducing the 25% Spanish measure. In fact, the timing was a key issue for the parties, who have repeatedly underlined that the court's ruling marks the deadline for applying the 25% quota as 31st May. With the proposal having been accepted for parliamentary processing by the Bureau, it is envisaged that tomorrow at 9am the plenary of Parliament will vote on the modification of the agenda to include the single-reading debate for this new initiative. After the vote, the first debate on the proposal will be held in the chamber and a 48-hour amendment period will be opened, so that the debate and final vote on the new law will take place on Friday at noon, where it is likely to be passed, given the current four-party support.
In the end, the agreement was reached without the participation of the left-wing pro-independence CUP. The party had never been part of the four-party consensus, either for the earlier kaw reform plan or now for this new law. Last Friday, after an intense week of negotiations, MP Carles Riera said that the party was open to participate in the negotiations as long as Pere Aragonès's executive brought in the educational community to discuss the agreement. The fact is, though, that the anti-capitalist party, despite its offer, did not take part in the meetings this Monday and Tuesday, and commented that the proposal that the other four parties are working on, to which they had access last Thursday, goes in the opposite line to the defence of the Catalan language immersion system and social cohesion.
What does the new text say?
The new Catalan agreement is set out as a bill, and its title refers to "the use and learning of official languages in non-university education". The document notes that the proposal aims to regulate language use and learning in education "according to pedagogical criteria", which is in line with the argument made by the parties, who want to move the issue away from court decisions. With regard to one of the central elements of the pact, which is the presence of the Catalan language, the text states that, as the language of Catalonia, "it is the language normally used as the vehicular language and language of learning in the education system and that of normal use in the reception of new students". With this final point, the intention is to remove an element that was highly questioned in the March 24th agreement, specifically, the removal of an article from the current regulations which stated that "students who join the education system of Catalonia late must receive special support and additional teaching in Catalan ".
On the other hand, reference is also made to one of the main obstacles that hindered the agreement between the four parties: the presence of the Spanish language in schools. The new text maintains that both Spanish and Catalan must have "their teaching and curricular use" guaranteed, with an "adequate presence in curricula and educational projects so that all students achieve oral and written proficiency of the two official languages by the end of compulsory education". With this vocabulary, they try to overcome the discomfort caused by this issue both for Junts, which wanted to limit the presence of Spanish, and for the PSC, which wanted to ensure its use in schools with a formal consideration similar to that of Catalan and demanded that there was a "recognition" of Spanish.
However, in order to avoid the complicated situation imposed by the TSJC with its 25% ruling, the document avoids percentages, and, instead, is committed to determining the presence of the two official languages "taking into account the general sociolinguistic situation, that of the centres and their environment, the objectives of linguistic normalization and the evolution of the process of linguistic, oral and written learning". As at the beginning of the text, it points out that the scope of this presence "must be determined exclusively by pedagogical criteria and in a way that is individual for each of the schools". Thus, it is not the courts that can dictate the percentage presence of either language. And in order not to jeopardize the school principals, the bill also states that the Catalan education department has the obligation to draw up the linguistic criteria.
The announcement of this agreement was very different from the presentation two months ago, but it coincided in one aspect: there was no attempt to give an image of unity. On March 24th, the presentation of the language policy reform left much to be desired: representatives of the four parties summoned the media to the staircase at the Catalan Parliament for a photograph and an off-camera explanation of the text. The reason? According to the parties, they did not want to apear in a joint press conference because of the risk of contradicting each other, as happened later. This Tuesday, the groups did not even stage the signing of any document, but rather a civil servant took the text to the registry, and then separate press appearances were called in order not to contradict, although it is clear that there are different positions on what the meaning of Spanish to be a "language of curricular use". The Socialists have been repeating in recent days that Spanish is a language of learning and therefore vehicular, while for ERC and Junts the reference does not signify vehicular use.
In her remarks, PSC spokesperson Alícia Romero said that the pact guarantees the bulk of the March 24th agreement, as Catalan is maintained as the "centre of gravity" and Spanish is defined as a "language of learning". “It’s pretty similar, we use other words and expressions, but it stays pretty much the same,” she said. She also emphasized that the new text makes it possible to "comply better" with the TSJC's 25% Spanish ruling, and praised the presence of this language in schools, as she considers it to represent the current social reality.
Marta Vilalta (ERC) emphasized that the new text has two objectives, to avoid percentages and to protect the school management. Regarding the effectiveness of this law in stopping an imposition by the courts, she argued that the text places pedagogical criteria as the key elements when language projects are regulated, an element that must be used to avoid any other criterion being imposed, such as that of the TSJC. She also refrained from comparing this version with the March 24th proposal, claiming that they had managed to work with consensus and that the battle could not be taken for granted: "We knew it was worth a try and we have shown that we have been able to reach this agreement in the face of those who want to fracture us as a people. "
The secretary general of Junts, Jordi Sànchez, and the party's spokesperson in Parliament, Mònica Sales, appeared together. The pair wanted to make it very clear that this agreement is very different from the agreement reached on March 24th, because the Language Policy Act has not not been touched and, therefore, it is "shielded". They also reiterated that in no case is Spanish the vehicular language: "We do not understand the text as an observance of the court ruling but as a political response," said Sales, who added that it is very clear that the vehicular language is Catalan and the language of welcome for new students is Catalan.
Finally, from the Comuns, David Cid celebrated that the agreement has kept the school apart from judicial interference and has restored consensus: “We have been able to listen to the educational community, it is established that pedagogical criteria will decide how the presence of the official languages should be combined, and define that Catalan is the vehicular language." Furthermore, he said that the agreement is a motive for "contentment and satisfaction" because it has "shielded" the Catalan language and the linguistic immersion system.