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Federalism May Save Spain From Itself

Published 12 Dec 2018
Dayna Santana 

The Spanish Constitution stresses the “indissoluble unity of the Spanish Nation”, yet it is the attachment to this very notion that is undermining national unity. In the aftermath of the illegal Catalonian elections and the present context of enduring separatist sentiment, it is imperative that idealistic notions of an indisputably unified Spain are put to the side.

Despite elements of quasi-decentralisation, Spain is a unitarian state like France. Madrid maintains rule through ‘basic and constitutional laws’, judicial power and a senate that operates separate to the federated units. In order to save itself, Spain must embrace the fact that its reality is more like Germany, a country containing many diverse regions and historical identities, and as such must reflect that through federalism.

The 1978 Spanish Constitution, developed when Spain became a constitutional monarchy after the death of Franco, organises the country into 17 Autonomous Communities with asymmetric decentralisationSome Communities, such as the Basque Country, enjoy the right to collect and administer its own taxes, while other Communities enjoy more partial control over key competences. The political system is not federalist as it lacks a clear division of competences, does not accept the subsidiarity principle, and has no governing chamber to represent the Autonomous Communities. This asymmetrical system developed haphazardly, as accommodations where made over time in response to demands from the main “historical nationalities”, such as Galicia, the Basque County, and Catalonia.

It is in Catalonia where present threats to Spanish unity lie. On 1 October 2017, an illegal referendum was held in Catalonia whereby 90 per cent of Catalan voters supported independence with a turnout of only 43 per cent. After the Catalan parliament declared independence on 27 October, Madrid imposed direct rule on the region by invoking Article 155 of the constitution, dissolving Catalan parliament, arresting several separatist politicians, and calling a snap regional election which the nationalist parties won in December. The ‘Catalonian Crisis’ surrounding the illegal referendum split the nation, with images of government-ordered police brutality against voters dividing Spaniards into those in favour of then-Prime Minister Rajoy’s tough stance, and those appalled.

The crisis can be felt a year on, with support for the secession of Catalonia at 46.7 percent, and separatists calling for another referendum on independence. Catalan nationalism stems from its distinct sense of identity separate from Spain, with the region having its own history, language and traditions that can be traced back to the early Middle Ages. However, the key issues secessionists have with Spain can be resolved without separating from the country entirely. Key qualms that Catalan nationalists have with Madrid can be boiled down to two issues: fiscal autonomy, and symbolic recognition. Firstly, they assert that the region, which contributes 19 per cent of GDP and 25 per cent of all exports, is losing money to less well-off regions of Spain, as the federal government controls taxes. They also condemn the Constitutional Court’s 2010 ruling which decreased regional autonomy in a symbolic way, disallowing attempts to place Catalan over Spanish as an official language in the region and ruling that references to ‘Catalonia as a nation’ in the Statute of Autonomy of Catalonia had ‘no legal effect’.

Federalism would address these key points of contention. Under federalism, a division of authority between the federal government and 17 Autonomous Communities would occur, ensuring governmental functions such as tax administration and regional planning would be discharged to regional governments in a uniform manner. It would provide Catalonia the keep more of their taxation revenue, protect their language and recognise the Catalans as a “nation”; measures The Economist has asserted would likely prevent Spain’s break-up. Federalism, as modelled in Germany, has been touted as a structure that allows countries to better respond to divergent regional circumstances and maintain cultural diversity by permitting citizens to identify with their community. It would essentially allow Spain to embrace its multiplicity whilst remaining an intact nation. This arrangement would also safeguard against future calls for greater autonomy from other regional identities such as Basque Country and Galicia.

Would such a transformation be possible? The rhetoric from the new Socialist government of Pedro Sánchez indicates that such a future may be within grasp. Since the Catalonian Crisis Meritxell Batet, Minister of Regional Affairs, has advocated for the establishment of a federal state through constitutional amendment, and Sánchez has proposed a national vote on setting new rules of self-government for Catalonia. In further support of Catalonia, Sánchez ended the period of Madrid’s direct rule of Catalonia and has begun talks with the Catalan president Quim Torra, saying he wants to “build bridges” with the separatists.

However, should the Socialists decide to pursue federalism, the path would not be straightforward. Their minority government holds only 84 out of 350 seats in Congress. Further complicating matters, Torra is determined to attain regional independence by the end of November and is threatening to withdraw parliamentary support for the Socialists’ government if this is not achieved. Considering this context, it is imperative that Sánchez articulates a convincing and clear vision for how Spain can remain intact whilst embracing its cultural diversity. Spain is in dire need of saving from the regional splintering that caused its current constitutional crisis. Only through acknowledging the existence of several nations within Spain will the country be able to eradicate the threat separatism poses to its immediate future.

Dayna Santana is a Master of Peace and Conflict Studies student at the University of Sydney, having graduated from a Bachelor of International and Global Studies degree in 2016. She lived for three months last year in New York interning for the Permanent Mission of Afghanistan to the United Nations, where she advised on and attended UN consultations on a daily basis. Having volunteered in refugee camps in Greece which led to the beginnings of her small non-for-profit, Dayna has developed an interest in immigration policies worldwide and how the rise of populism, particularly in Europe, is affecting this. Her other interests are International Human Rights Law, Middle Eastern affairs, and the European Union.

Dayna is an intern with the Australian Institute of International Affairs.