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Spain: Democratic Politicians Help Defuse Separatism

  • Ben Partridge



London, 15 February 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The democratic politicians who have ruled Spain since the death of General Francisco Franco in 1975 have devolved a lot of power to the country's regions, helping to defuse Catalan and Basque separatism.

They have divided Spain into 17 autonomous regions, most based on ancient and proud entities --Catalonia, Aragon, Valencia, Navarre-- and each with a strong sense of its own historical identity and cultural heritage. Today, these regions have substantial independence, although national policy is set by the Madrid government, and Spain remains a unitary, not a (German-style) federal state.

Some Spanish regions have more power than others, but all have set up their own legislatures, institutions, bureaucracies, public services and, in the case of the Basque country, its own police force. Many have their own offices in Brussels to lobby for financial aid from the European Union.

David Brighty, a former British ambassador to Madrid --and to Prague-- says the decision to increase the regions' autonomy was made, in Brighty's phrase, by what he calls the "wise individuals" who drafted Spain's 1978 post-Franco constitution, aimed at democratizing the country after more than 30 years of fascist rule.

Speaking last week to the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London, Brighty said that the constitution's drafters had three objectives: to establish a democratic constitutional monarchy; to engage Spain fully in the (then) European Community; and to address the issue of the nation's regional and nationalist aspirations.

Historically, Brighty said, the strongest national aspirations were in two areas. The first was in northeast Spain in Catalonia, which has sought independence since the 17th century. The second was in the western Pyrenees, or Spanish --and French-- Basque country, where people have a powerful vision of their own different identity, special history and unusual language. Brighty says:

"The Catalans and the Basques with their historic track record, their different languages, their identifiable cultures, have been a serious, if intermittent, thorn in the flesh of Madrid, a thorn which has always been impossibly difficult to remove."

Brighty said Franco fed the sense of nationalist grievance by treating the Catalans and Basques largely as defeated enemies after Spain's 1936-39 Civil War --when both groups sided against him. Franco suppressed the Catalan and Basque cultures and languages. In the Basque country, the separatist ETA then embarked on a terrorist campaign against Madrid authorities.

"A well-fed sense of grievance erupted into violence, serious violence, as ETA began its long, sad history of murders and bombings, achieving a high point --literally, since the car in which he was traveling in was hurled over the rooftops-- when they blew up Franco's closest adviser, Admiral Blanco, in 1973."

It was not only the Catalans and Basques who resented rule from Madrid. Other regional minorities also had distinctive histories and identifiable homelands, and many felt historical grievances against Castile, the powerful region at the heart of Spain, because of its past expansion and its status as a dominant center.

How to respond to their grievances and aspirations? According to Brighty, successive rulers of Spain over the centuries --the Hapsburgs, the Bourbons, the Franco regime-- emphasized the unitary character of the Spanish state. The drafters of the post-Franco constitution took a more enlightened view: they chose to address, not to repress, nationalist aspirations.

In pursuing this policy of what was termed "Spain of the regions," Brighty added, they faced hard choices. One option was to single out the Basques and Catalans and grant regional autonomy to them alone. But it was decided that giving special status to the Catalans and Basques would feed, rather than satisfy, appetites for self-determination in other regions.

Moreover, any solution which particularized the Basques and Catalans would lead to an awkward legislative difficulty. If they were granted autonomy, and given their own parliaments to legislate on their own affairs, why then --it was argued-- should their representatives in the Cortes, the national parliament in Madrid, be allowed to vote on measures that affected other regions?

For these reasons, according to Brighty, the drafters of the post-Franco constitution chose to adopt, not a particularized, but a generalized policy whereby Spain would be divided into 17 autonomous regions. This became known as the Cafe Para Todos (Coffee for Everyone) solution.

The 1978 constitution is complex, making a distinction between two basic types of autonomous communities, small ones --the Basques and Navarre-- and the 15 other larger regions. The 15 had to choose between embracing so-called "fast-" or "slow-" track devolution.

What this all boils down to, Brighty concluded, is that the regional governments in Spain have assumed considerable responsibility for health care, education, urban planning, social services and cultural activities, albeit within the context of national policies laid down by Madrid. Their work is funded by tax transfers from the central government and from local taxes. Madrid retains responsibility for national issues like defense, foreign and security policy, and running the economy.

Critics say the devolution program is very expensive and has led to a needless duplication of bureaucracies. But David Brighty said the decision of the center to yield power to the regions helped smooth Spain's peaceful transition to democracy after the Franco dictatorship, and helped the country achieve political equilibrium.

"Spain's political leadership accepted that what we call devolution [of powers] was a necessary price to pay for sustaining political equilibrium within a single state. Even so, few foresaw how far and how fast the autonomy system would develop."

(This is the first of two articles dealing with the problem of containing and satisfying national and regional aspirations. One country that has successfully addressed the problem is Spain, which has divided itself into autonomous regions, each with its own flag, parliament and officials. See also, Spain:Devolution Provides Lessons for Other Countries).
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