Accessibility links

Spain: Devolution Provides Lessons For Other Countries

  • Ben Partridge

London, 15 February 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Spain's decision to devolve power from the central government to the country's regions has brought a vibrant new sense of identity to provincial communities ranging from Navarre in the north to Andalusia in the south.

The most visible signs of the new identity are the regional flags fluttering over regional government buildings in the 17 autonomous communities created by the post-Franco democratic constitution. Each region also has its own parliament and its own bureaucracy.

Former British ambassador to Spain David Brighty, says the decision to devolve power was made by the statesmen who drew up the 1978 constitution. They sought, he says, to safeguard democracy in the new Spain after more than 30 years of fascist dictatorship.

In a presentation last week to the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London, Brighty said their aim was to contain and satisfy the national and historic aspirations of Spain's regions, many of them ancient provinces with a strong sense of their own cultural identity. The goal was to ensure the survival of Spain as a unitary state within its historic borders, while also satisfying the national aspirations of separatist-minded Catalans, Basques and others.

The 1978 constitution divided Spain into 17 autonomous regions, some with strong identities --such as Galicia, Valencia and the Balearic Islands-- but others with no apparently distinct or established sense of identity other than as constituent components of Spain. Brighty said the autonomy system has contributed to strengthening regional identity across Spain, even in the most artificially created of the autonomous communities.

In Brighty's words: "On the identity issue, the outward and visible signs like regional flags, institutions and bureaucracies, are everywhere. The new institutions, actually almost 20 years old, have identified regional interests, issues and generated their own objective reality."

Brighty said that the constitution distinguished between two types of community, small and large. Spain's Basque country and Navarre, which traditionally had a degree of fiscal autonomy, were grouped in the small category. Of the other 15 regions, five --Catalonia, Galicia, Valencia, Andalusia and the Canary Islands-- chose the option of so-called "fast-track" devolution, while the others preferred to go at a slower pace.

According to Brighty, the fast-moving Spanish regions now have full responsibility for providing and managing education and health services, although only within the context of policies laid down by Madrid. Responsibility for internal investment, urban planning, social services and culture has been transferred to the regions.

How is this autonomy system financed? Brighty said that a 1980 law set up a financial council which brings together the Spanish minister of finance with the holders of the finance portfolios from each of the 17 regional governments. Also, the regional governments have three key sources of financing: conditional financing and unconditional financing --both involving money transfers from the central government-- and their own resources. In 1996, the regional governments were given the power for the first time to levy some personal income taxes in their own regions.

Does the new system of regional governments work in practice and, if so, how effectively? Brighty said the system has contributed to greater local democracy, but there are problems:

"If you ask the elected parliaments, you swiftly discover that local legislators have locked onto, and fought for, issues that really matter to their electorates, although a healthy skepticism is widespread about the sheer numbers and costs of the new parliaments and their associated bureaucracies."

Local news and cultural organizations have reinforced the strengthening of the new sense of regional identity. But, said Brighty, new vested interests have emerged at the same time. The hierarchies of officials employed by the autonomous regional governments have an obvious interest in defending and enlarging their competencies in relation to the center in Madrid.

Skillful entrepreneurs have seized the opportunity to play off regional governments against each other, or against Madrid, in order to extract the best possible terms for new investments. And, by one estimate, the new system has created many jobs.

"There are of course critics of the costs it has brought, but there are many more who recognize it has generated new jobs and enhanced local prestige in the historic contest with the center."

The former ambassador said that so far the aspirations of the regions have almost always exceeded the concessions of central government. There is some truth in the image of the center yielding the minimum possible, he noted, while the regional governments consistently ask for more. Still, few foresaw how far and how fast the autonomy system would develop.

The Basques now have many attributes of self-determination, short of full independence. They have their own fiscal and tax-raising powers, their own legislature and ministries that provide public services within the context of policy laid down in Madrid. They also have their own national police force and an office in Brussels to lobby the European Union. They have set up a network of overseas offices to promote trade and Basque culture. Last year, the Basques even tried --but failed-- to secure the right for a Basque soccer team to play in international competitions.

The Catalans, too, have achieved a high level of autonomy, going a long way to recreating a Catalan political entity based on their capital, Barcelona. The national police force is giving way to local police, and Catalonia has opened dozens of offices in foreign capitals.

As is true for the Basque country, Catalan roadsigns, newspapers and radio stations operate in the local language (Catalan is closely related to Castilian Spanish). Spain's Minister of Education has even complained that, in Catalan schools, Castilian Spanish is being relegated to secondary status, and that the history syllabus barely acknowledges national events where they did not impinge on Catalonia's own history.

The issue of language, Brighty said, has become extremely sensitive because it goes to the heart of collective self-definition. Not a week passes in Spain without press reports of some story of outrage either in the defense of Castilian Spanish or by the proponents of Basque or Catalan.

Voices are regularly heard in Madrid and elsewhere, asking where devolution will stop. Is it inevitable, many wonder, that Madrid will have go on yielding more and more power to the regions? What implications does all this have for Spain as a unitary national state?

According to Brighty, the view of the main national political parties, both Left and Right, is that none of this threatens the existence of Spain as a nation. But most commentators and politicians accept that Spain, without officially saying as much or even deliberately moving in that direction, has become almost a federal state.

Brighty believes that the overwhelming majority of Spanish citizens still want to remain a single nation. Even the most enthusiastic nationalists today are content to say they are, first, a Basque or Catalan, second, a Spaniard, and, third, a citizen of Europe.

The Spanish experience suggests, he says, that regional autonomy can work within the context of a nation state. As Brightly sums up:

"The view incorporates an acceptance that even the most ambitious autonomies can work within the context of a nation state. And perhaps that's not a bad provisional epitaph for Spain's system of autonomous communities."

(This is the second 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: Democratic Politicians Help Defuse Separatism).