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Does Federalism Have a Future in Spain?

By Josep Vendrell

Federalism in Spain has been advocated for in particular by the Left, specifically by the United Left (IU), the Catalan Left — namely the Socialist Party in Catalonia (PSC, which is linked to the national socialist party, the PSOE), and the Initiative for Catalonian Greens (ICV) — as well as in some academic spheres. But separating Catalonia from the rest of Spain has been always a minority option. It was only as far back as 1873 that the first, short-lived Spanish republic, set against the backdrop of revolution, first ratified a federal constitution.

The reasons for this rejection lie in the fact that, as much for the right as for the more Jacobine left, federalism is almost synonymous with the rupture of the State, the recognition of the parties as political subjects in their own right and of the reality of shared sovereignty. For the Basque and Catalonian nationalists also, federalism entails the recognition of the unity of the State, the renunciation of the dream of full sovereignty and the establishment of a state model free from ambiguities and with the freedom of interpretation open to the autonomous state.

The Spanish model of territorial administration, known as the “State of Autonomies”, is a system which shares some elements with federalism: the autonomous communities have parliaments with legislative powers as well as their own governments and they possess a series of competencies particularly with regard to social policy, such as in the areas of health, education, culture, environment and certain transportation infrastructures.

But it is not a fully federal model for the following reasons: the Statutes of the communities (constitutions) have to be approved by the General Courts (Congress and Senate) before being subjected to a referendum in the corresponding communities; the communities are not fully guaranteed their own competency frameworks as the State government has the capacity to impose its policies despite the fact that they might be in the sphere of the competencies of the communities; the finance system is controlled by the central State, with little shared fiscal responsibility with the communities; mechanisms for cooperation between the communities are practically non-existent and those between the communities and the State are very weak; the second legislative chamber, the Senate, does not directly represent the communities.  

The lack of a federal culture

However, the principal failing of the Spanish federal system is the lack of a federal culture: the lack of appreciation and generosity that the central State demonstrates towards the national minorities that make up the State.

The Catalan, Basque or Galician languages, for example, do not receive the same consideration as Castilian Spanish; they are co-official languages in their respective territories but they do not enjoy the same support and protection as the majority language, despite having endured marginalisation and persecution at the hands of the State throughout history.

Another example of the lack of federal culture is the systematic violation of the competencies of the autonomous regions on the part of the State government, to the point that it genuinely becomes a process of recentralisation and a hollowing out of autonomous competencies.

The Constitution of 1978 was the result of a series of complex balancing acts as well as of the pressures against the recognition of the territorial diversity of Spain exerted by Francoist interest groups, such as the army.

The Constitution recognises the existence of distinct nationalities and regions but, at the same time, notes the “indissoluble unity of the Spanish nation, the common and indivisible homeland of all Spaniards”. Such language reflects the worst of Spanish nationalism. It establishes the right of the nationalities and regions to their own autonomy but maintains the central State’s own territorial division: the province.

However, the Constitution did not establish a closed state model but rather allowed for diverse possibilities for the development of the territorial model—which was originally devised as a means of assuaging the demands of the Catalonians and the Basques for self-governance. The aspirations of the Catalonians and the Basques were not wholly realised but, on the other hand, what privileges were gained were generalised throughout the Spanish state. 

The resistance of Spanish nationalism

Currently, this peculiar, quasi-federal model is in crisis. Catalonia has historically been the region which has led the processes for developing an autonomous State. The demands of the Catalonian political forces—whether it be for more competencies in health and education or for greater community participation in the different tax models or the latest reforms of the autonomy statutes (2006-2008)—have been initiated and concluded by Catalonia and then subsequently spread to the rest of the communities.

The strategy of the Catalonian political forces has been to, firstly, promote an autonomist and federalist reading of the Constitution and then, subsequently, in the face of the limits of this approach, to drive reforms of the Autonomy Statute, which was then emulated by other regions in order to federalise the State without having to reform the constitution, a process for which it would have been difficult to achieve the required majorities.

The new 2006 Autonomy Statute was passed by more than a two-thirds majority in the Catalonian Parliament as well as in the General Courts and, whilst it was rejected by the PP, it was ratified by the Catalonian population in a referendum which reflected the aspirations of Catalonia to be recognised as a nation, to secure more protection for the Catalonian language, for more and more secure legislative competencies and for a more just financing system.

The political right in Spain, which is profoundly nationalist, began a campaign against the Statute which culminated in an appeal against it in the Constitutional Court.

In the eyes of the Catalonian public the deliberations in the Court were scandalous: three years of long deliberations, with constant leaks to the press; various political maneuverings sought to maintain a majority despite this being a misuse of the Court itself and a violation of its norms; the Court was politicised to an unprecedented extent, discrediting the institution.

Conflicting legitimacies

At the end of this process important parts of the Statute were declared unconstitutional or interpreted in restrictive ways such that they did not conflict with the Constitution. The judgement produced a legitimacy conflict: a Statute was passed in a referendum which was then modified by a court which was acting more as a legislative chamber than a court. The Catalonians fear that the Statute proposed by the Constitutional Court will not be the one they voted for.

This whole long process was spearheaded by the Spanish right and accompanied by passivity on the part of the PSOE. The failure of the Statute provoked a wave of indignation in Catalonia which translated into a strengthening of the Catalonian independence movement—many who considered themselves federalists are now siding with the independence movement in the face of the impossibility of reaching an agreement with the Spanish state and the lack of federalists in the Spanish state with whom a deal could be struck.

Meanwhile, the PP’s campaigns and their slick communications, which are falsely blaming the autonomous communities for the level of public debt, have sparked growing resentment towards the autonomous regions in a significant portion of Spanish public opinion.

The solution to the crisis proposed by most of the political actors in Catalonia, including the ICV, is to consult the citizenry about their own political future. When a large part of the population is questioning the statutory and constitutional frameworks and even membership in the Spanish state, it is necessary to democratically determine what the will of the majority of Catalonian society is, as was done with Scotland in Great Britain and is currently underway with Quebec in Canada.

Unlike the conservative British government, the conservative Spanish government would reject any agreement which would allow for such a consultation.

In this context of increasing divergence between the political majorities of Catalonia and those of the rest of Spain, and of divergence between their respective public opinions, is it possible to pose a federal solution?

Lately, in fact, the PSOE proposed a constitutional reform in a federal sense, although different to that envisaged by the ICV or the IU.

For a plurinational Spain

In my opinion the federal solution continues to be a reasonable and valid option to resolve the territorial conflicts in Spain, but not just any federalism will do. What the PSOE proposes is to resolve the contradictions in the Spanish autonomy model but without getting to the root of the problems.

No solution will emerge until constitutional reforms are made that will, amongst other things, recognise the plurinational and plurilinguistic character of the State—Spain is not one nation with divergent traits but rather a plurinational State or, if you will, a nation of nations. It is necessary to recognise the right of the different elements which make up the State to decide their own future, for example through a basic, democratic guarantee of a new agreement with the State. The competencies of the communities must be preserved from interference from the State government. A fairer and more balanced financing system is crucial; currently the communities which are strongest economically, headed by Catalonia, are those which contribute a greater proportion to the federal state than the richest states in any other federal country. It is also necessary to regulate the participation of the communities or member states in the decisions of the State and in European politics.

Is it too late for a federal solution? It depends if the central State and the majority of its political forces are capable of realising a new agreement with Catalonia that reflects the aspirations of the majority of Catalonian society. It is important to remember that the rise in pro-independence sentiment is a recent development and one which is due to the failure of the Statute as well as the State’s disloyal treatment of Catalonia; accordingly, the State could be open to negotiating an agreement proposal.

In the face of the Catalonian rejection of the constitutional framework and in the context of the difficulties and conflicts which could bring about a secession, it could be reasonable to look for solutions along the lines of those found in Quebec, where two referenda on sovereignty sparked new agreements between Quebec and Canada, or like in Great Britain, where a referendum on Scottish independence will be accompanied by a proposal for the broadening of Scottish self-government.

There are not many reasons for optimism: in the Spanish case the most reasonable solutions have historically not been those which were implemented. Despite thirty-five years of democracy and decentralisation, the problem in Spain continues to be the presence of a weak democratic culture and the absence of a federal culture.

In spite of these issues, a deep concept of democracy and of a federal culture continue to be values worth fighting for for many people; in Catalonia, in Spain and in Europe.

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Does Federalism Have a Future in Spain?

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