Federalism and the future of Spain

The donkey and the bull, rival symbols of Calatonia and Spain

By Joan Marc Simon

Spain is a unitary state like France and Italy. Its constitution defines it as “one and indivisible”. Since 1978 Spain has structured itself as Estado de las Autonomias, a state with 17 Autonomous Communities with an asymmetric decentralisation of competences. Some Communities such as the Basque Country have inherited from the past the right to collect and administer its own taxes, some other Communities like Catalonia have regained competences such as healthcare and prisons that other regions have left to the central power to administer.

Over the last 35 years, Spain has seen substantial decentralisation in the administration of competences but it cannot be called a federation. Some scholars define the Spanish political system as asymmetric federalism but in my opinion that is an overstatement because the country doesn’t fulfil the minimum conditions to be called such. For instance, it lacks a territorial chamber representing the 17 Autonomous Communities, a clear cut division of competences or the simple acceptance of the subsidiarity principle, among many others. The institutional framework of Spain is of a central state with the characteristic of having ceded some competencies to the regional level.

The nature of the Spanish decentralisation has been also somewhat awkward. The delegation of competencies to the regions has neither followed a functionalist nor an efficiency rationale. In fact, in 1978 the majority of the Spanish regions did not ask for such decentralisation. If it happened it was to satisfy the demands from “historic nationalities” such as the Basque Country, Galicia and Catalonia. In order to accommodate these demands – Spain opted for the “à la carte” method- but at the same time kept certain homogeneity in the governance system for those regions that either did not wish or need to have more autonomy-, whilst avoiding radicalised debates clearly unfit for the time of political transition from dictatorship to democracy in the 1970s. , A method that has become to be known as “café para todos” –coffee for all- was created.

All Spanish regions, regardless of their history, culture or political will were defined as e Autonomous Communities, a compromise solution which upgraded the majority of the Spanish regions, those who did not seek such decentralisation, whilst temporarily satisfying the demands of the most demanding regions. This meant the creation of regional administrations, regional parliaments and all the pertinent bureaucracy in which was seen as a workable compromise given the delicate historical and political moment.

Many saw in the “café para todos” the embryo of a federalist project for Spain but in reality this process was implemented in the name of unity and not of federalism. Indeed, since then the governance of Spain has been fragile and the lack of a proper senate or regional chamber has meant that all negotiations between regional governments and the Spanish government have had to take place on a bilateral basis and there has never been an open discussion between the regions as to how they would like to see the state organised. In this sense Spain has remained a union of Spanish people and not of regions/communities/nations. This lack of debate and transparency has kept the Spanish government in the middle, deciding which region gets what competence and when. This pivotal position of the Spanish government has allowed it to exercise power but also to create mistrust and jealousies between Autonomous Communities.

After 30 years of development of “Estado de las Autonomías” the process of decentralisation reached a stalemate with the ruling of the Spanish Constitutional Court on the constitutionality of the new Statute of Autonomy of Catalonia. After an appeal from the Partido Popular, the leading opposition party, the Spanish Constitutional Court declared parts of the Catalan Statute of Autonomy unconstitutional, notwithstanding that the text had been approved in a referendum by the Catalan people. Leaving aside the considerations on the democratic legitimacy of a court ruling against a text approved by popular referendum -which has been a case study very much enjoyed by avid constitutionalists-, the decision of the Spanish Constitutional Court may be interpreted as an end of a process. The Constitutional Court has ruled that the Spanish government, backed by the Congreso de los Diputados, cannot continue to give what some Autonomous Communities want. From here onwards the Catalans are aware that a limit has been put to what can be achieved inside the state of Spain in the current constitutional setting.

The end of the “café para todos” means that Spain has to find a new way to structure itself and find new procedures to negotiate the future organisation of the country. Broadly speaking there are two options: going back to a Unitarian centralist state or advancing towards a federation.

The first option is defended by some members of the Partido Popular, the Spanish conservative party, and more especially by its former Prime Minister Mr Aznar. However, this idea has little chances of succeeding, unless it is imposed by force – an unlikely scenario in the current European framework. It was precisely in the times of maximum push for centralisation during the years when Aznar was in power when the independentist parties in regions such as Catalonia or Galicia grew the most. Therefore one of the consequences of a move towards centralisation could be the dissolving of the country, especially if we take into account the relative maturity obtained by the independentist parties, particularly in Catalonia, and the successful self-organised citizen-led consultations on the independence of Catalonia on April 10.

The second option is to advance towards a Spanish federation. There are many challenges with this option. The first being that this option has a lot less proponents than the pro-centralisation one. In fact, the federalist cause does not have any prominent figure supporting it in Spain. Mr Zapatero, the current Prime Minister, gave his pro-federalist stance up a while ago. Indeed, it seems that there are very few federalists in Spain but what makes it more complicated is that firstly, most of them are in Catalonia and secondly, they seem to be slowly starting to forego loose the illusion that Spain can ever become a federation. As Mr Carod-Rovira, former Vice-president of the Catalan government, put it: “In Spain nobody wants to be federated with us”.

Indeed, the federalist ideal has been traditionally identified with Catalonia. The First – and short-lived – Spanish Republic of 1873 was a federal one with the Catalan government of Mr Pi i Margall, and since then most of the federalist Spanish intellectuals have come from Catalonia. This has caused some reservations in the rest of the country that has never seen the need for such a change in the institutional setting but, above all, also a change in the understanding of what a pluri-national multicultural Spain intrinsically means. Partly, the problem lies in the fact that Spain has never seen accommodating historical nations such as Catalonia or the Basque Country in the state as a Spanish problem that needed a Spanish solution but rather as a regional problem that the central government should fix.

Federalism has been proven to be the most viable way to satisfy both the need for union and the desire for autonomy around the world. But in Spain this “need for union” is fading away because of the globalised economy –markets and economy are less and less national- and the EU membership -with sovereignty being diluted in the European project. Simultaneously, in some regions the “desire for autonomy” is changing into a growing desire for independence. It is the case that former Spanish federalists and even important figures who always defended the “need” for Spain are starting to look for other options outside the constitution after the ruling of the Constitutional Court on the issue of the Catalan Statute, as well after having seen the lack of feedback in the rest of Spain about the need to define the future of the country as a whole.

There is the danger of reaching a point of no return in this continuous misunderstanding of the parts. The federalisation of the parts is not something that can be agreed overnight by the two ruling parties; it requires a “federalisation process” based on trust in which the Spanish citizens should participate in the creation of this common space in which democracy and rule of law would organise the relationships between regions and peoples. Neither autonomy nor loyalty can be imposed by decree.

Nicolas Schmitt from the University of Fribourg describes very well the danger of using federalism as a tool without embracing its values. He contrasts the example of Switzerland in which federalism was a way to organise a common future in a fair and democratic way, to the example of Belgium in which federalism was introduced as an administrative tool to allow the two linguistic communities to coexist without having to cohabitate.

Historically federalism designated a process of union. The federal pact between citizens and states consolidated the process of convergence that in countries such as Germany or Switzerland started as loose confederations and with the time evolved towards a federation. It is a fact that the opposite process of evolving from a unitary state towards a federation does not have many successful records. Czechoslovakia became a federation shortly before disappearing and it looks like Belgium is following a similar path.

The federation should be seen as the consolidation of a relationship. This is why trying to solve problems of coexistence with a forced federation is like trying to force a marriage in a couple that is already undergoing serious crisis. The European Union is a good example of this gradualist approach; the process of integration has been slow but the “need” for the union, as highlighted by the current crisis, is making the process of European federalisation advance with a lively –albeit sometimes harsh- debate in the capitals and in Brussels about how the EU should structure itself. This debate is non-existent in Spain except for some circles in Barcelona and Madrid.

The theory says that Spain should start a federative debate about the internal organisation of the country and the understanding of the country itself. This is crucial as the only alternative is the radicalisation of both Spanish and regional nationalisms. Only after lengthy and in-depth honest and transparent debate, and based upon the will of the Spanish people whilst observing the right to self-determination of the parts, it can be decided whether a federation is the best way to look at a common future or whether a third way could be envisaged –perhaps a confederation?-. Unfortunately, history teaches us that the organisation and disappearance of states very rarely follows academic theories. Currently, Spain lacks the political and intellectual figures capable of raising and facilitating such a complex but necessary debate. Instead, the media, the political class and the academia seem to prefer to look at the future of the country as if it would be a football match between FC Barcelona and Real Madrid in which the purpose would be to knock out the opponent -ignoring the fact they need each other in order to continue playing. Time will tell whether the maturity of the Spanish political debate is that of a football fan or that of a mature democracy.

First published on the blog of Joan Marc Simon http://www.simonlluma.eu. Joan Marc Simon is one of the founders of the federalist movement in Spain, Democracia Global,  www.democraciaglobal.eu

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