Nationalities and regions in Spain. The limits of the Autonomic State.


Juan Romero González (*)

Professor in Human Geography. Department of Geography, University of Valencia, Avenida Blasco Ibáñez, 28, 46080 Valencia, Spain.

Corresponding author. Tel. 00-34-96-386-42-37; fax: 00-34-96-386-42-34

E-mail address:




           The main keys of the debate about the state model in Spain are analized in this paper. After more than twenty years from the creation of the Autonomous State that the Spanish Constitution of 1978 foreshadowed, one of the more difficult historical challenges of the Spanish contemporary history remains unresolved. This is to say: the integration and fitting of historical nationalities and regions in a common proyect of democratic cohabitation. The author brings up the discussion around the idea of whether Spain assists in a process of deep political decentralization that now should be “closed” or “completed”, introducing some modifications which will improve aspects of coordination between administrations, and stabilize the current Autonomous State or that, to the contrary, this constitutes the end of a positive stage which advises us to attempt the political recognition of plurinationality.





           Any impartial observer of Spanish political development can verify the formidable changes which have taken place over the last twenty years. Few would question the importance of the advances made since the signing of the Constitution in 1978 and its posterior development. Without considering its content untouchable, nor denying the possibility of a rereading or, were it the case, modification by consensus, it is essential that the transcendency of what has been achieved over the last two decades is valued most positively. The transformation from the uniformising and excluding authoritarian model of the dictatorship to the present Autonomic State, based on a unique and intense process of political decentralization, has witnessed Spain actively leading one of the most important historical episodes of her contemporary history.


           These achievements acquire their full historical transcendence and political significance by contrasting them with the absence of an idyllic past in the creation of Spain as a nation state. From the Carlist wars, through the Civil war to the repressive uniformisation of the Franco regime, the history of the ‘nationalisation’ of Spain, at least from the beginning of the XIX until 1978, is the history of an almost permanent clash between the diverse national groups which form it.


 This clash, so characteristic of the Spanish past, is the undeniable product of a very concrete cause: the outstanding pre-eminence of coercion with regard integration, used by the right during the last two centuries either as the legitimate representative of political power in some cases, or as deforciant in others. From Cánovas to Maura, from Primo de Rivera to Franco, not only have Spanish conservatives had a patrimonial idea the State, but also the very idea of what Spain was and what it should and should not be, rejecting, when not repressing, any dissident revelation of diversity that went one step further than mere folklore.


           Not bearing this past in mind, it would be impossible to comprehend the existence of a feeling of relative injustice among many citizens or the political manifestation of this in peripheral democratic nationalisms. At the same time, but in the opposite sense, bearing this past in mind, however irreconcilable certain positions among the democratic parties may seem in today’s political arena, the present state of affairs is certainly an improvement on any of the past states. And it is precisely this which necessitates moving further forward in the building of the concept of Spain which, taking its starting point in the Constitution of 1978, must delve more deeply into developing a framework for the acknowledgement and coexistence of its different identities, these having the need to construct together an affective notion of Spain on the basis of how they see themselves today and want to be in the future. An attainable concept of Spain, necessarily plurinational, prevailing over the nineteenth-century concept of ‘nation’, by definition excluding and homogenizing and based on a sterile mystification of the past.  A concept of Spain which attempts to give political meaning, in the words of Pascual Maragall, leader of the Catalonian Socialist Party (PSC), to being different but coming together in order to overcome the fundamental clashes which not only remain but, due to their recurring nature, are ever intensifying.


           The situation at present is testimony to the fact that the debate surrounding the form the State ought to take occupies a substantial part of the very broad political agenda in Spain. One is only too aware of the urgency, with renewed force, of the Spanish nationalist debate, as much in its cultural form as in its political one. One is equally faced with the presence of the political voice of peripheral democratic nationalisms in Catalonia, the Basque country and Galicia. Federalist proposals are without doubt discretely advancing within democratic socialism. However, one of the five great historical challenges which the Constitution of 1978 or, where applicable, political negotiation have faced in the last twenty years (the army, the church, the welfare state, integration in the European project and the recognition of the plurinational State), not only remains unresolved, but, to quote Felipe Gonzalez, gives the impression of being stuck in a great political jam (Gonzalez, 1999). This is a decidedly complex situation and not too many arguments exist to indicate a nearing of the distinct and divergent positions. Indeed, quite the opposite is the case and one clear example of the complexity involved is the fact that the risk of autonomic involution is debated by some today as much as the referendum for self-determination is debated by others, particularly in the Basque Country, and this for the first time in many years.


There is no shortage of examples of the growing divergence of opinions and staging of political clashes surrounding the form of the State, and all of them eloquently reflect the very different conceptions and strategies at the heart of political autonomy as well as peripheral democratic nationalisms. However, various political resolutions, the use of parliamentary majorities to either block agreements between Autonomous Communities or avoid the debate on Senate reform, the binding of bilateral agreements – disguised as State agreements – between the two majority parties in the Spanish parliament, or the announcement by central government of a future Autonomous Cooperation Law to “close” the model, do little to help build a favourable climate to obtain a basic consensus among all the political voices with democratic representation in the different parliaments. The reinforcement of political strategies designed to give a biased, incomplete, inflexible or sole, true reading of the Constitution of 1978, or the concretion of certain political debates emanating from Spanish nationalism, as in the recent elections in the Basque Country, are worrying symptoms of a mood which shows a notable political incapacity to take on board, accept or even understand that Spain is a plurinacional reality containing peoples who demand greater political powers within their respective relevant spheres of democratic decision making. At the other extreme, the strategy initiated by the political voice of Basque democratic nationalism does not guarantee many potential points of agreement by going down a road which allows us to continue moving forward together without recognising any of the differences which go beyond the purely cultural or linguistic.


           The fundamental question proposed here to reflect and debate upon is whether we are facing a consolidated State, the form of which has yet to be “closed”, “stabilized”, “completed” or “culminated” by the introduction of a number of modifications and/or innovations which will lay the foundations for an improved functioning of the Autonomic State, or whether we are at the end of the first and important positive stage of political decentralisation which, once consolidated, will allow us to take on the constitutional challenge, or better still the historical challenge, of accommodating each and every one of the different nations which make up the Spanish State.  


           In the first part of the pages to come, the idea developed is that Spain is at the close of an important stage of development as an autonomous model based on political decentralisation which from the very beginning involved the constitutional recognition of existing asymmetries but today corresponds to a uniformising model given that the two majority parties followed only one of the various lines drawn up by Constitution. A brief summary of the most important realizations and insufficiencies of the Autonomic State will be given, especially regarding those questions which most interest the “territorial” sciences. This first part will also highlight the need to improve those aspects which (the discussion about whether the Spanish case is a federal model, of federal inspiration or a strongly decentralised regional model aside) are essential to guarantee the full use of the political power awarded in the Constitution and in the respective Autonomous Statutes to each “relevant community”, Held (1997).


The second part reflects upon the limits of the Autonomic State. It maintains that the complexity of the Spanish case, if comparisons were required, is more similar to the Belgian case than the German or Austrian models. It emphasizes the present extraordinary difficulty in, and necessity to, advance in the making of a new generation of Political Agreements of State which allow for political recognition of the plurinational reality, which are more in tune with our own history and which are adapted to the current Spanish context and within the framework of a Europe in the making which awards ever growing political protagonism to regional and local realities. It is the only great question running through the history of Spain which remains as yet unresolved in a satisfactory way since the beginning of the transition and which continues to generate basic tensions in Spanish society with the risk of provoking serious clashes and, often, political and social bones of contention.


1. The process of political decentralisation. Realisations and insufficiencies.


1.1. Nations and regions. Asymmetry and political uniformisation. Only one of the various possible interpretations of the Constitution of 1978 has been made. Suffice to say that at the time there were other possibilities. The constitutional text finally approved by consensus, contains deliberate ambiguities as well as historical progresses, renunciations and grey areas because the times demanded them. And why in reference to Title VIII, dedicated to model the future structure of the State, it is said that the Constitution of 1978 prefigures both an open and indefinite process (Aparicio, 1999, 36-39). It was the Autonomous Agreements in 1981 and 1992, reached between UCD-PSOE and PP-PSOE (Aja, 1999), that have progressively consolidated the distribution of political power that if in its early days was asymmetrical, today it is, once again, uniformising (Requejo, 1999, 325). And it is precisely this question, related to the reference in the constitutional text regarding nationalities and regions and the recognition of Historical Rights, which has once again become of great political importance. Twenty years on, the historical nationalities, which throughout the entire period have supported the transfer of more powers to all the regions, until finally reaching the almost comparable levels of competence of today, demand with ever increasing intensity, although in very different ways, the right to be different.


            The extraordinary complexity of the present political situation lies in that, if at the beginning of the process recognising plurinationality was plagued with enormous difficulties, today these are, if such a thing is possible, even greater. On the one hand, there exists on the part of the Autonomous Communities who have followed the procedure set out in Article 143 of the Spanish Constitution, a logical desire to practise the same level of competence as those who followed that of Article 151 and the Second Transitory Disposition of the Constitutional text both of which from the outset afforded a greater level of political autonomy to the so-called historical nationalities (Catalonia, the Basque Country and Galicia, those which had obtained a statute of automony during the Second Republic). On the other hand, there is the renewed protagonism of the intention of the historical nationalities to begin a second phase which involves the treatment of the differential facts regarding the basis of the political recognition of asymmetries. In this phase, the intention would not be to obtain concessions or recognition of given generic differential facts, an unnecessary task since these are already contained in the Constitution, but to face the necessity of tackling what has been deemed convenient to call "fitting" or "full and stable, that is, recognised as well as comfortable and articulate accommodation of the minority national identities of the State" (Requejo, 1999, 330). From the Spanish left, proposals of a federal nature are being proposed, with and without recognition of a certain degree of asymmetry, as a means of moving forward in the construction of an Autonomic State, having understood that the model to aspire to which the Constitution of 1978 prefigures is a federal one. Finally, from conservative Spanish nationalism, whether it be right or left, there exists the desire to "close" or "culminate" the present model, blocking any possibility of moving forward in the recognition of plurinationality, making other interpretations of the constitutional text which go beyond generic recognition of mere cultural differences impossible. The following are the distinct political expressions to refer to the same State: the Spanish nation, a plural or pluricultural nation, a Federal State or a plurinational State. One seems to get the impression that the Constitution of 1978 is still accepted by almost everyone as a common meeting point, but it being the point of arrival for some and the point of departure for others. 


            In any case, what is to be emphasized here is that in the present debate very different questions are being mixed together which it would be convenient not to confuse in the political debate because, as is clearly stated in the second article of the Spanish Constitution, some are at a region level and others are at a nation level. Some of the more obvious dysfunctions to be considered, are exclusively related to the coordination and functioning of any strongly decentralized state; the others, also to be dealt with below, are connected to specific unresolved questions which prevent the State of Autonomies from fully identifying with those basic characteristics which define the European federal states; finally, the regulation of plurinationality would constitute the third level, which is not related in any way with the two anterior levels, despite the fact that there does occasionally prevail mistaken or misleading opinions interested in identifying federalism with nationalism or in recognising regional but not national status.


            At the first level, many questions related to the efficient running of the Autonomic State are still to be resolved. All too frequently, the State tends to be identified with central government, when in reality autonomous governments and local administration are also State. Too much inertia attached to the central administration still remains, installed in outmoded frameworks which do not yet fully comprehend the profound process of transformation of the Nation-State which has handed much sovereignty upwards (to the European Union) as well as downwards (to the autonomous parliaments, governments and municipalities) and which still refuses to lay the bases for efficient running and delve more deeply into the decentralization process, still unfinished and particularly insufficient in the area of local administration, which would make the principle of subsidiarity and the “nearing” Europe more effective (Romero, 2000).


            At the second level, are those questions which prevent us from identifying ourselves with a federal state.  The mere consideration here of some of the most important of these (the financing system, the inexistence of requests for coordination and political decision making between the different executive levels, the representation of the Autonomous Communities in the European decision-making organisms, the lack of mechanisms which would allow autonomous parliaments to decide on the structure, functions and composition of constitutional bodies such as the Constitutional Court...), gives an idea, despite the advances of historical proportions already achieved, of the ground still to be covered in the process of full articulation of political power of a “composed-state” (as defined by the Constitutional Court) such as the Spanish one.


1.2. Political autonomy and financing.  It has been said that the system of financing is one of the key issues in the construction of an Autonomic State and a necessary precondition for the full practice of self-government. However, the system of financing set up in its day and revised all too frequently has not been the most adequate. The formidable process of political decentralization has not been coupled with autonomous financing in a general sense in the Autonomous Communities, an essential precondition for providing true meaning to the practice of political autonomy.  


            In the mid nineties, the group of experts given the task of analysing this question declared that "...the root of the problems suffered by the present system of autonomous financing lies in the inappropriateness of this system with regard the structure of the state set out in the Constitution of 1978, an inappropriateness which has been developing ever since. The decisions of decentralised spending are out of keeping with a centralised financing structure and, above all, lead to recurring financial disequilibriums which are ultimately a burden on the budget of the central administration" (Monasterio et al., 1994, vol. II, pag.299). 


            Without having to repeat here the considerations of this group of experts, which incidentally are shared, it can be confirmed that the financing model of the Autonomic State has made it evident for over more than twenty years, with more clarity than in other areas, the great difficulty present in trying to achieve a better “fit” which, in accordance with the Constitution, would give full meaning to the real apportioning of political power carried out in Spain: political autonomy, financial autonomy and sufficiency, full fiscal co-responsibility, solidarity, equity and coordination. 


            As is known, this process of political decentralisation has granted the Autonomous Communities, at different rates, an important capacity and autonomy in the development of economic, social and territorial cohesion policies. Above all, it has awarded them great historical protagonism in the construction process of the Welfare State. And it is in relation to the public social policies that some of the most important problems present over the last twenty years and highlighted in this study can be detected.  


            The functions and services transferred to the Autonomous Communities in terms of welfare are essentially comparable, if we focus on their political capacity, however, they are not as yet comparable if we refer to the resources that each regional government is able to set aside to fulfil the statutory and constitutional obligation to provide the same services and the same quality to all citizens, irrespective of their place of residence.  


            The process of the transfer of political power from the central administration to the Autonomous Communities implicitly contained from the start an unequal financing per inhabitant, the consequences of which are still present today. The procedure initially used to calculate the financing of the services transferred was based on the principle of the effective cost of the transferred matter. In accordance with this, each autonomous community would receive from the Ministry of Finance a sum equivalent to the effective cost that Central Government said it would apportion to that territory to guarantee the transferred service. Subsequently, it has been shown that the unitary State did not set aside exactly the same resources per inhabitant per region and, as a consequence, when calculating the effective cost of the services to go ahead with their transfer, some Autonomous Communities received more poorly financed services than others (Pérez, 1997). As the fundamental nucleus of the transfers was made up of the transfers in health and education, each Autonomous Community had to initially confront the situation under unequal conditions. The later revisions of the financing model, in 1992 and 1996, did not resolve this important question. Neither has it been dealt with in the recent agreement of 2001, despite its noticeable advances from the equity perspective.


            The clear initial asymmetry in the financing of autonomous social policy peaks considerably if the statutory communities of Navarre and the Basque Country are included in the comparison, given that they have at their disposal a financing per inhabitant very much superior to the rest to guarantee the same public services. This position of advantage, that none of the different financing agreements of 1992, 1996 or 2001 have resolved, should not be attributed to the fact that these communities have a different system of financing recognised in the Spanish Constitution, different from the common system governing the other regions, but to the fact that the sum bilaterally negotiated between these communities and central government allows them to have access to more resources than those communities under the common system for financing identical matters.     


            This is the politically relevant element, which has never been seriously faced up to until now, and which explains why other autonomous parliaments and governments denounce situations of comparative (dis)advantage, even demanding bilateral fiscal pacts or equivalent financing per inhabitant. It also explains why some Autonomous Communities, as for example, Catalonia and the Valencian Community, despite their greater relative economic ability to compensate the inherited structural deficit, are still among the communities which spend the least amount per inhabitant on basic services such as education (Romero; Garcés, 2001). Although the process of transfers agreed between the two majority parties in 1992 has just been recently completed, the financing per inhabitant in the Autonomous Communities still remains appreciably different.


            Undeniable advances have indeed come about as well as an acceptable functioning of basic aspects such as solidarity. Contrary to what is occasionally argued or used as political argument, the system has not operated in favour of the richest communities. However, twenty years after the beginning of the first transfers, the system, applied with a greater or lesser degree of consensus, has shown up elements which highlight shortcomings and grey areas. Among them, the following stand out: a) the total dependency which the Autonomous Communities have had on central government to cover the financing of the transferred functions; b) the system has not incorporated financing autonomy or fiscal co-responsibility, a circumstance which distances us from other European experiences of a federal nature; c) the Autonomous Communities have only enjoyed autonomy in spending (which has on occasion meant a lack of control of the level of debt), without being held responsible for the raising of income through taxation or facing up to the advantages and the costs of their own political decisions before their respective electorate; d) the different administrations of central government have shown a notable mistrust and resistance to making the process of fiscal decentralisation a reality; e) a somewhat restrictive and, on certain occasions, unclear attitude on the part of the central administration when calculating the real value of the effective cost of the services transferred to the Autonomous Communities; f) various legislative or regulation initiatives of basic legislation, which correspond to central administration, have not always been accompanied by the finance necessary for the Autonomous Communities to correctly develop and apply them correctly; g) excessive use of the mechanism of bilateral political agreements and compromises which, either by means of pacts or by including territorial investment settlements in the respective annexes of the General Budget Laws, has meant additional distribution of resources without the necessary transparency, irrespective of the real needs of the territories and almost always derived from the need to form parliamentary majorities; h) the absence of coordination mechanisms as well as efficient, reliable and complete information for the different administrations, capable of facing up to such fundamental questions as the deficit and falling into debt; finally, local administration, the third pillar of the State, has until now remained outside the entire process.


Many of these questions, repeatedly brought to our attention over recent years, have served to reclaim the need to establish a system of financing which, based on consensus, will deal with many of the shortcomings felt but in an atmosphere of greater institutional trust and loyalty between the different administrations of the State. The recent agreement on autonomous financing, passed by consensus between central government and all the Autonomous Communities under the common financing system, is an attempt to provide greater stability despite having already been relativized by one or other of the historical nationalities.


This agreement, the result of the new distribution of recourses between central government and the Autonomous Communities, incorporates a number of politically important advances in matters widely protested by the representatives of autonomous governments and other experts. Two features in particular stand out: on the one hand, the degree of financial responsibility and autonomy has been increased, and on the other, general health care has been incorporated into the financing system. Nevertheless, despite the level of political consensus reached, a circumstance which must be positively valued as it confers more stability on the  Spanish Autonomic State, insufficiencies still remain which affect the principles of financial and tax autonomy and financial coordination and equality between the Autonomous Communities under the common financing system and those under the statutory system. Neither has progress been made in the establishment of clear and negotiated mechanisms for the territorial distribution of central government investment. Finally, any reference to or compromise towards medium-run convergence of public spending per inhabitant in the Autonomous Communities to that of the Statutory Communities has been sorely missed.


1.3. Territorial policy and institutional coordination mechanisms. The Autonomic State has very serious problems in terms of institutional coordination. As mentioned in the Sixth Periodical Report of the European Union (European Union, 1999), Spain lacks institutional mechanisms capable of developing public policy which would involve or affect all four levels of the administration (European, central, regional and local) or any combination of these. This lack is often a more serious obstacle than the budget availability itself.


This organisational weakness, a consequence of the extraordinary fragmentation of the institutional make up, is particularly noticeable in the area of territorial policy, the only related aspect included in this paper, although it is also evident in many other areas (agriculture, education, universities, research, social services, immigration...). Many of the inexplicable duplicities (ministries which have had all their functions transferred continue to increase the number of civil servants they employ), the even more inexplicable shortcomings (such as the question of the protection and promotion on behalf of central government of all the languages and cultures of Spain) and the all too frequently regenerated political tensions have for some time now been demanding an adequate adaptation of the institutional make up, of the distribution of political power in its totality, based on a new form of pact and constitutional loyalty as well as on the new reality of the Autonomic State which has practically finished the process of transfers laid out in the political agreements reached between the PP and the PSOE in 1992.


At the state level, their still remains widespread resistance on the part of central government towards the participation of autonomous and local governments (which are also the State) in decision-making which affects the whole, as well as a vested interest in continuing to monopolize relations with the European Union. Concerning the relationship between regional government and local administration, there is a worrying lack of coordination in territorial policy at the regional and metropolitan level, a coordination which would allow us to overcome the present situation in which there are as many territorial strategies as there are municipalities, but a lack of which negatively affects the sustainability of the territories. In particular, there is a significant absence of a culture of cooperation and a distinct lack of institutional devices fundamental in the case of Spain. With regard to aspects such as territorial policy, in such times as the European Union is promoting a Territorial Strategy favouring improved territorial government, countries like Spain should be seriously revising and up-dating these matters.


For example, the deficient application of European agri-environmental measures in Spain, a deficiency far beyond the social and cultural context which can in part explain it, has clearly shown that much of the budgetary resources given to Spain for the development of agri-environmental programmes contained in Regulation 2078/92 have stopped operating due to a lack of institutional devices and adequate coordination (European Commission, 1998).


The design of large infrastructures is too often laid out without the necessary degree of knowledge, participation and consensus. The development and final approval of the National Hydraulic Plan is a perfect example of how having parliamentary majorities may be a necessary but it is certainly not a sufficient condition for making decisions of a very complex nature and of territorial impact in a state with such a complex structure. Any initiative of such characteristics requires and demands the existence of formal political decision-making spheres the likes of which Spain still lacks. Not having them, we run the risk of being able to make democratic decisions at different levels, each protected by its own legitimacy, but which are partial or even contradictory decisions in the sphere of territorial policy.


Prior to taking political decisions of such importance, there should exist, as there exists in other federal countries such as Germany, Austria and Belgium, the formal instance for reaching political agreements of consensus which involve the joint responsibility of the relevant administrations of territorial policy. In the case of Spain, such a decision involves several ministries, three hydrographic confederations, five regional governments, various county councils and dozens of municipalities, and all of them have some degree of power in territorial planning.


The complete lack of institutional mechanisms allowing us to form binding political compromises orientated towards coordinating and rationalising territorial strategies means that we are witnessing in Spain the rapid escalation of disparate, divergent and even on occasion unsustainable medium-run growth strategies and territorial models. The existence of inertia, inequalities and the overlapping of functions among the different administrations is so noticeable that the transfer proposal suggested by the National Hydraulic Plan, and approved by the Spanish parliament, could in fact be more harmful in the medium-run than the current situation it attempts to resolve. The reason for this is that there are no previous guarantees of coordination consolidated in decisions which have compromised all those involved.


There is broad agreement on emphasising the need for external contributions of water to the southeastern geographical region of Spain to provide a solution to the substantial structural deficit existing in that area. It is a territory which comprises a geographical unit consisting of three hydrographical basins, three confederations -whose boundaries do not coincide with those of the autonomous governments also affected- and three regional governments between whom there is no coordination whatsoever in terms of their territorial policies, nor between these and the territorial directives sent out by central government.


Similar agreement exists on emphasising that the present situation is the result of allowing the cooperation or the complicity of the relevant public administrations to passively develop over decades, a productive model the short-term effectiveness of which no one questions, but which has completely destabilized the system as a whole and makes it unsustainable in the medium-run.


Given the objective need for these outside contributions to resolve this structural problem, to which everyone has contributed but which no one will take political responsibility for, guarantees (which the NHP cannot offer) and compromises should be made by the regional governments who will receive the surpluses from the Ebro. Guarantees and compromises that they are going to begin or finalize concrete plans and programmes to limit –and in some areas eventually eliminate- irrigation.


At the other extreme, in the supply basin, the anachronistic forecasts contained in the NHP, which are in turn due to the acceptance of an agreement approved by the Aragon parliament to increase the irrigation surface area by almost half a million hectares, bear little resemblance to the post-productive framework set out in the Agenda 2000 or to what is set down in the Community Water Directives.


These central questions should not be resolved by means of bilateral negotiations as these are often a source of political antagonism and tension. In the face of the shortage of institutional decision-making mechanisms, it is foreseeable that in this case different, or at best juxtaposed, territorial strategies will develop, ultimately having a negative effect on the system as a whole.


1.4. The Constitutional Court and the construction of the Autonomic State. The Constitutional Court has played a fundamental role in the construction process of the Autonomic State. In face of the volume of notices given and the study of certain sentences, it is evident that the profound process of political decentralisation in such a short space of time has not been and will continue not to be an easy process. Standing out, above all, is the difficulty the different central governments have had in understanding the depth of the political process and consequently in fully accepting the political role that the constitutional bloc confers on the Autonomous Communities. Central administration’s tendency to centralize, not exempt of events which have highlighted a telling degree of institutional mistrust, has been constant in the complex transition process from the unitary state to the “composed-state”.  


Given the backlog accumulated by the Court, the most recent sentences refer to regulations that came into force in the eighties and early nineties, some of which had already been appealed against prior to ruling. And although in many cases it has sanctioned the basic essence of certain regulations and their congruousness with the constitutional text, it has repeatedly expressed the unconstitutional nature, either total or partial, of laws, regulations and ministerial orders, in the belief that central government was clearly incurring on the powers granted exclusively to the Autonomous Communities in their respective Statues of Autonomy.     


In its role as demarcator of functions, here referring to those matters related to territorial policy only, the Constitutional Court has upheld that the constitutional duty of central government to establish basic legislation for all should be understood to mean establishing a legislative common denominator. Nevertheless, this legislation cannot reach such a level of detail that it hinders the legislative development reserved for the Autonomous Communities, running the risk of invading the functions that their respective Statutes award in each case. 


The persistence of central government throughout these years has been striking reflected in its reiteration of the same arguments and its citing the very articles of the Spanish Constitution to approve regulations which extend its functions and in serving notices of unconstitutionality against autonomous regulations. And this despite the abundance of the jurisprudence of the Constitutional Court and the fact that central government is fully aware that this organ usually reaffirms its juridical foundations by referring to the decisions of previous rulings. A brief reprisal of the themes which have occupied constitutional jurisdiction in recent years (see Tormos, 2000; Carrillo, 2000; Carrillo, Mieres, 2000) gives a clearer idea of the important role played by this constitutional body in the complex process of function demarcation.


The transition from a unitary state to a strongly politically decentralized state has been dominated by a number of characteristics which can be summarized as the excessive centralising vocation shown by central government in the formation of regulations, and in its desire to flood the sphere of functions that the Spanish Constitution grants the State, trying to prevent the Autonomous Communities from fully exercising their constitutional and statutory functions. The jurisprudence of the Constitutional Court, so fundamental throughout these years, has mirrored best of all the existing political tensions when having to provide an interpretation of the Constitution and the Statutes from the perspective of institutional loyalty, the development of cooperation and coordination between administrations and giving full meaning to the Autonomic State which the Constitution prefigures and the respective Statutes of Autonomy have explicitly stated.


 From a study of the sentnces, it can be deduced that the Constitutional Court has undergone a clear evolution, showing, in general, appreciable autonomous sensibility. Their remain, however, deficiencies in the mechanism for appointing members to the High Court in order to fully adapt it to the reality of the Autonomic State and the very spirit of the Constitution. The recent agreement on the partial renovation of its members, result of a bilateral pact between the majority parties of the Spanish parliament, deviates from these previsions and constitutes an objective step backwards in the process of the recognition of nationalities and regions and their participation in the election of institutional organs which, as in the case of the Constitutional Court, affects with its decisions the political autonomy of the regional governments.


1.5. Intergovernmental relations, public policy and the articulation of the State.  There is wide agreement regarding some of the most important shortcomings related to this particular group of problems: a) intergovernmental relations are not institutionalised; b) repeated bilateral agreements between central government and certain regional governments have been a constant source of conflict which almost without exception end up in the Constitutional Court; c) there is deficient regulation of cooperation agreements between central government and regional governments; d) the precarious functioning of the Conferences between central government ministers and regional ministers do not correspond to a “federal” model; and e) neither have the horizontal Sectorial Conferences (made up only of representatives of the autonomous executives) nor  Conferences of the president of central government and the regional presidents, fundamental in the political culture of a number of federal states, been successful (Aja, 1999; VVAA, 2000). Providing sectorial conferences with political content, facilitating –instead of blocking- cooperation between the Autonomous Communities, without the need for the presence of the representatives of central government, and inaugurating the celebration of Presidential Conferences to deal with the more important decisions of State, are unavoidable if we are to grant full political significance to the principles of political autonomy, coordination, cooperation and efficiency. These are common practice in other states which have similar levels of decentralization policy and, in the case of Spain, their development would be more in keeping with the very spirit of the constitution.


A clear example of this is the connection between the inexistence of formal spheres of coordination and the difficulty shown in reaching basic consensus over questions which affect economic and social cohesion and territorial equilibrium. Definitively, to give priority to the meaning of the state over partisan electoral strategies. In the light of the numerous examples where the “federal” culture fails and institutional devices are lacking  – such as the approval of the two previous models of financing to the present one, the development and approval of the National Hydraulic Plan or the route chosen to begin the latest reform of the basic legislation of education at the university and non-university levels-, it may be possible to conclude that the Spanish Autonomic State is experiencing a certain stagnation in its development, generating uncertainties, when not generating unnecessary confrontations, which on occasion originate in the display of political styles and talents impregnated with a “jacobin” vision of the State, more appropriate of an extinct unitary State than  the actual Autonomic one.


The political irrelevance of the Senate in the articulation of the Autonomic State deserves a mention apart. Far from being a distant and abstract question, this is in fact a crucial one. As has been recently highlighted, the present Senate has been and continues to be the great error of the Constitution. In accordance with little known information, the initial project of the writing of the constitutional text foresaw the creation of a Senate of a federal nature, but the final text driven forward by the UCD bore no relation to the initial desire of many political formations (Solé Tura, 2000).


Almost no one would deny the need for its reform, precisely so that it may be transformed from an anachronistic institution into the institutional site of the participation of the Autonomous Communities – the Chamber of territorial representation to quote the Constitution-, adapting its functions to the process of transference of political power which the Communities have received over recent decades. To stop its transformation would be to commit an historical error which would only contribute to further delaying an inevitable reform which sooner or later will have to be taken on if we are to comply with the constitutional mandate.


Pascual Maragall recently put forward some of the main functions which the Senate might claim to control such as the first and principle voice in matters related to the State of the Autonomies: a) to ensure the participation of the autonomous presidents; b) the election of senators by the autonomous parliaments; c) the possibility of the elected senators being mayors; d) the possibility of the autonomous governments being able to include points for debate in the proceedings of the day; e) the common institutional site for multilateral dialogue between Central Government and the Autonomous Communities; f) chamber of dialogue between the Autonomous Communities themselves in order to create horizontal cooperation; g) institutional sphere for channelling the participation of the Communities in the European Union; h) privileged setting for the recognition of the plurilinguistic reality of Spain, normalising the use of the different official languages; i) parliamentary seat  of first reading for certain legislative initiatives (Autonomous Statute reform laws, laws of article 150 of the Constitution, law of the Interterritorial Compensation Fund, covenants and agreements of cooperation among the Autonomous Communities and the organic law foreseen in article 157.3 of the Constitution;  j) forum of the first debate of the legislative initiatives of the autonomous Parliaments; k) seat which houses a permanent parliamentary commission charged with the debate and tracking of the financing of the territorial organisations of State; and finally, the institutional sphere in which to create a territorial-economic affairs Office allowing access to all the information on economic flows, this being elaborated from a territorial base (Maragall, 2001).


 Entrenching oneself in the fact that the undelayable reform of the Senate would require a previous, though precise, reform of the Constitution is not reason enough if the degree of consensus necessary to undertake such a reform of the Senate exists. As the European example well demonstrates, constitutional reform is not synonymous with institutional instability. Neither is keeping it intact guarantee of the opposite. Germany, the classic model of cooperative symmetric federalism, has reformed its constitution as often as required over the last fifty years, to adapt it to the demands brought about by changes in context. For example, the reform of December 1992 introduced, amongst other things, a guarantee of the participation of the Länder in the formation of German political will in European decision-making organs (Sánchez Ruiz, 1997, 34-35). Belgium has undergone four important constitutional reforms since 1970; the last one, the most radical and conflictive, that of 1993, meant the transformation from a unitary state to an asymmetrical federal state, incorporating wide acknowledgement of the plurinational, pluricultural and plurilingual reality of the Belgian State (Pons, 1999, 61-84; Delperée, 1999, 85-95; Lejeune, 1999, 217-231). Italy has not as yet brought to an end any reform to its Constitution but neither has it enjoyed greater political stability as a result (Ruggeri, 1999, 169-205).


1.6.The formation of political will and representation in Europe.  Spain is the only strongly decentralised State in the European Union which has as yet to resolve the mode of representation at the sub state level in the Community decision-making organs. The creation of stable mechanisms of representation of the autonomous governments is an undelayable task, and Spain should follow the example of countries such as Germany, Austria, Belgium and Great Britain, who surpass the present democratic deficit in relation to this matter. It must be remembered that this question is not included in the Constitution, as Spain did not form part of the European Community at the time of its approval. The debate has already arisen in the Spanish Parliament on various occasions but no advances on the subject have been made. During the last debate, held in September 2000, the contrary position of the present parliamentary majority stood out in stark contrast to the flexible and integrating position held by the others including the Basque and Catalan nationalist parties. The latter suggested that a representative of the autonomous governments could be part, with full rights and in rotating turn, of the Spanish delegation before the Council of Ministers of the European Union in those matters which affect their own competence.


Within the present community institutional framework, the Conference for European Affairs does not resolve the situationa satisfactorily and consequently cannot aspire to becoming the instrument of formation of State political will in its ascending phase. On the other hand, the present situation and the community tendency to favour the regional level in the development and instrumentation of future European territorial policy beg a reappraisal of the deficient mechanisms of regional representation in community decisions-making spheres, which cannot be compensated for by non-decision making forums such as the Region Committee, nor by the growing presence of the Autonomous Communities in the Commission Committees.


1.7. Political autonomy and the principle of subsidiarity.


           A distinctive feature of the present Autonomic State is that its third pillar, the local sphere, has not been given the attention it deserves until now, despite its outstanding role in the area of public policy related to local development and social protection. In one or another field, it has had to assume political responsibility far beyond that which it is obliged to by the present basic legislation.


           The new role of the territories within the global context and the development of the principle of subsidiarity demands growing protagonism of the local sphere. It has forced town councils or metropolitan areas to promote public policies but without them having the necessary functions and resources to do so. The prominence reached over recent years by the departments of economic promotion at the local level –town councils, local associations, county councils– is such that, in many cases, as with cities of a certain size, the volume of non-legally obliged programme management and investment and personnel funding is almost as great as that of the areas which city councils are legally obliged to serve.


           On the other hand, serious social changes such as the appearance of groups living in conditions of extreme poverty or social exclusion, the growing demand for assistance by the elderly without means, the appearance of immigrant populations in agriculturally intensive areas or in the large cities, the existence of the non-benefit receiving unemployed alongside adults and youngsters who have not completed the basic compulsory education level or who are in need of vocational training have forced town councils to promote these matters, as fundamental as they are lacking in the welfare state, at the local level without their being legally obliged to do so.


           Many of these programmes, which to a large extent have been improvised to cover up a historical vaccum as well as new needs, have been created by town halls by economic and social imperative but without being equipped with sufficient external public resources destined to that end. Everyday reality and the social pressure exerted by proximity, coupled with the sensitivity shown by many town halls help to explain why areas of economic promotion and social services have been developed by a public administration lacking both the sufficient power and resources to do so, but who do face the problems daily. In the majority of cases, town councils have destined their own funds raised from other areas of competence in which they are obliged to act by law. Only in some matters do they receive specific financing, either through collaboration agreements with departments within the respective regional government or through financing obtained from the European Union (Romero; Garcés, 2001).


           It seems reasonable to consider the need to establish a redistribution of the functions and resources between the regional and local levels in accordance with the principle of subsidiarity. The agenda of pending questions to be resolved in this field is proportional to the poor degree of attention which it has received until now: a) firstly, a new and more just system of financing for local administration adapted to the present reality; b) to make progress in the creation of municipal cooperation formulas which, showing sufficient willingness, can improve the measure of problems by reducing the present excessive degree of institutional minifundism; c) going ahead with transferring to local administrations those autonomous functions which the local level has demonstrated itself to be more efficient in; d) to reconsider and, where necessary, modify the functions which up until now have come under the jurisdiction of county councils, avoiding excessive overlapping with areas under autonomous management and securing greater efficiency in the area of cooperation and intermunicipal services; e) to favour the voluntary creation of instances of supramunicipal cooperation and advancement; and f) the promotion from central government of a financing law for metropolitan areas which would help to solve one of the most serious problems faced by the “real cities”. In short, and definitively, to undertake the next phase of transference of political power from the central and autonomous spheres to the local area with the aim of gradually achieving a public spending distribution of approximately 40 % (central government), 30 % (autonomous communities), 30 % (local administration).


2.     Recognition of plurinationality. The limits of the Autonomic State.


Even if all the questions related to the full development of the Autonomic State were resolved, satisfactorily culminating the process of political decentralisation derived of the Autonomous Agreements of 1992, and resolving the serious inequalities in the functioning of the egalitarian process of decentralisation as well as overcoming the jealousies, inertia, moods and styles more appropriate of the old unitary State than the Autonomic State, the constitutional and political challenge of the recognition of plurinationality would still remain. Meaning that, far beyond mere concessions and recognition of determinate “differential facts”, the plural and incomplete Spain would have to take on what Kymlicka would call the accommodation of national cultures within the context of a majority social culture (Kymlicka, 1999). That is, the recognition of a plurinational State rather than the existence of a plural nation.


It serves no purpose to ignore or try to combat from reactive positions this fundamental question which affects coexistence and future common politics. Contrary to what has been believed to be true for more than a century by those (from liberals to marxists) who have decreed the end of nationalisms, the historical fact is that these have resisted, not only in Spain and under the most adverse of conditions. It serves no purpose to try to explain them away as something “irrational”, “prepolitical”, “anachronistic” or “out-dated” because it would lead no where. At the beginning of the XXI century, the facts, for better or for worse, show that nationalisms cannot be likened to a pathology but that they represent the legitimate political expression of the right to be different. Globalisation has not diluted nationalist sentiments as many predicted but is witnessing the resurgence of nationalist identity (Castells, 1998). Individual choice nourished by the will to be, by the need for self-identity on linguistic, cultural, historical and, on occasion, territorial grounds has in many cases in Europe strengthened its political voice. For this reason, nationalisms will continue to be a persistent feature of the political landscape in countries in the European Union such as the United Kingdom, Belgium or Spain. And consequently, the political obligation to abandon positions of rejection remains alongside the need to follow initiatives which help build on a solid base, at this third level mentioned at the beginning of this paper, and under a common project, the accommodation of the different peoples of Spain.


This level of problems is, by far, the most difficult and complex and it will not be an easy task finding common ground between the different positions. Moreover, the difficulty is probably greater now than it was at the beginning of the process. In an excellent work, Torres Vela synthesises the present difficulty in finding a stable setting for the national reality of Spain twenty years on. The thesis being defended is that the Constitution of 1978, conceived as an open model, was in the end the result of a minimum compromise built around three movements: the nationalist movement (mainly the CiU and PNV), the federalist one (the PSOE, the PCE and a section of the UCD, basically Christian-democrat) and the merely decentralising one (the AP and the majority of the UCD). The double aim was to integrate the historical nationalities and lay the foundations of a strongly decentralised state which became the basis of a new regionalism which it has guaranteed. The new Autonomic State rested on a Constitution which initially recognised the implicit asymmetry among nationalities and regions (article 2 of the Spanish Constitution), but also allowed for a symmetric Autonomic State. And this second reading of the Constitution, initially followed by Andalusia and later set out in the Autonomous Agreements of the PSOE-PP in 1992, has achieved an extremely wide, generalized and homogenous process of political decentralisation, but “it has not managed to integrate in any stable manner a number of nationalities which are not satisfied with the present form of the State, (...) finding themselves in a present where the question of the territorial articulation of political power has yet to be resolved...”(Torres Vela, 1997: 9-10; vid. also Fossas, 1999:275-301).


We have gone from implicit asymmetry to homogenising decentralisation. And although one might think that the autonomous model has limitations and frustrated expectations in terms of the political recognition of plurinationality, it is from the present scenario, and not from the scenario which could have been but never was, that we need to begin. That is to say, and here lies the main difficulty of the present political situation, that the process of decentralisation having been almost completed and political autonomy consolidated, any attempt whatsoever to recognise the “special statute” of the historical nationalities would spark off feelings of offence, political tension and immediate demands for comparative treatment by the regions. And as has been made known by diverse sensibilities, today it would be “morally unjustifiable” to deny some territories the degree of self-determination which others can have (Torres Vela, 1997:11). The reason is that also in the regions “ there is a deep rooted feeling of identity which they do not want to give up. And it was never considered an essential prerequisite that identities were consolidated at a given date in the distant past. Definitively, what I would like for myself, I have to accept that others will also want. This begs, however, the counterargument that the fact that everyone wants it, is not reason enough for not giving it to me...”(Roca, 1999: 39)


The proposals leading from the recognition of diversity, this being understood to mean the right to the recognition of the differences related to language, culture and civil rights only, is not recognition enough for the peripheral democratic nationalisms. Neither is the federalist symmetric model a satisfactory model for their aspirations. They demand the need to look for a clear improvement in self-government and the recognition of the plurinational, pluricultural and plurilingual reality of the State (vid. Sessions Diary of the Spanish Parliament, 25 April 2000). A treatment of the differences which, once completed, would mean recognition of the asymmetries in the political field, as in other cases such as Belgium or Canada, and which could be seen to be synonymous with “special statute”.


The problem is, as it always was, of an exclusively political nature and it is in this sphere that, as on previous occasions, compromises and basic consensus must be found. It is of little help in this case to study the experiences of other countries as each has its own history, political culture and context making experiences difficult to export. The uniqueness of the Autonomic State is the best sample. And the great political challenge of the Spanish case lies in finding stable and satisfactory mechanisms of recognition of plurinationality without running the risk of sending the whole system into crisis.


Definitively, we are dealing with the old dilemma between equality and asymmetry at the heart of plurinational states. And on this point, it does not appear likely that in Spain political progress can be made on the basis of plural federalism (Requejo, 1999: 330-339). Neither does it seem advisable to follow proposals based on a perhaps possible but contrived political interpretation of the Constitution (Herrero de Miñón, 1998: 24 y 45).


Although comparisons are not of any great use, the Canadian example may help us to understand the insurmountable difficulties which arise when trying to acknowledge the “special statute” of a differentiated community while respecting the principle of equality, without deconstructing the basic structure and it being accepted by all. Some of the elements which form part of the long political debate in this country and which have been emphasised by specialists ought to be remembered, despite the distances: a) “...The history of Canada, notes Milne, shows the struggle and gradual triumph of the principle of equality in the face of the distinct forms of asymmetry in Canadian life. If this is so, all future constitutional designers will have to think very carefully before toying with this option...” (Milne, 1999:71); b) during the ratification process of the Lake Meech Agreement, which included the acknowledgement of Quebec as a “distinct society”, the political tensions surrounding equality and asymmetry ended up blocking the political process (Milne, op.cit.: 86); c) “...the special statute, claims this author, always occupies an ambiguous constitutional zone, constantly pushed towards the ultimate political objective of independence. Thus, the defenders of the special statute cannot promise the stability of a country with this option (Milne, op.cit.: 71, 86, 87); d) Stéphane Dion goes even further: strongly asymmetric federalism is possible, he points out, but is not a road which countries frequently go down. With regards Canada, he considers this to be an unlikely scenario and, in this specific case, undesirable given that (...) “...extreme asymmetry would be no more than the predecessor to separation...” (Dion, 1999: 197-210). Woehrling warns of identical difficulties in making the principle of equality and differences in statute and treatment compatible (Woehrling, 1999:139). On the other hand, the asymmetries introduced into the Belgian federal system, “the result of a pragmatism which resolves problems” (Pas; Van Niewenhove, 1999: 270), seems not to have provoked, for the time being, insurmountable tensions, although it has provoked serious difficulties.


Some final considerations.


 The need to undertake a new reading of the so-called constitutional bloc on the basis of a new generation of Political Agreements of State is being demanded from diverse spheres. This seems to be the most adequate road to take to overcome the present situation. It does not seem reasonable to close or block any possibility of dialogue sheltering oneself in the parliamentary majorities of the General Courts or to try to overcome the situation by legislative initiatives which do not enjoy the necessary degree of consensus. Any agreed proposal to move forward in the construction of the State should be carried out with integrating vocation, steering clear of reasoning based on political indifference or excluding attitudes.


What is needed, in my opinion, is a new pact of State which will not repeat the mistakes of the past. By pact of State one should not understand yet another new agreement between the two parties with majority representation in the Spanish Parliament given that probably part of the institutional breakdowns which have plagued the State model over the last twenty years have been the result of what many consider to be an important political error: the exclusion of peripheral nationalisms from important political decisions which have resulted in the development of only one of the possible paths of title VIII of the Constitution. By pact of State one should understand an agreement, necessarily of an embracing nature, which incorporates the political voice of democratic nationalisms and which tackles the discussion of the model of the State with its eyes set on the future rather than the past, whether this be near or far, and bearing in mind the new European framework. An agreement which uses as a means of search for basic consensus, pragmatism, institutional and constitutional loyalty and the will to gradually move forward in solving the problems we face and based on at least the same degree of institutional consensus as that reached at the beginning of the process. Not going down this road would mean contemplating other possible scenarios which are not considered desirable from the point of view of this text.


What might the elements be around which a new Pact of State could be built which would better fulfil autonomy? If the political will existed, it would not be an impossible task to incorporate substantial improvements at the three levels of problems referred to throughout this work. With the exception of the reform of the Senate, almost none of the possible solutions would require reform of the current constitutional framework, which is also considered to be a difficult task by the nationalist parties themselves (CiU, 1999), but simply a more flexible and pro autonomous reading of it. The vast majority of the constituent elements of a new political agreement would require the maximum exploration of the possibilities which are offered by the Constitution and the Statutes of Autonomy and, were it the case, an alternative development of the constitutional precepts. The following does not pretend to be an exhaustive only a possible list of suggestions which could be included in a future political agenda: 1) reform of the Senate transforming it into that which article 69.1 of the Constitution establishes: a territorial chamber; 2) improvement of the financing model in order to guarantee the principle of equity; 3) revision of the distribution of functions among the three public administrations, increasing the present level of functions of the local level and consequently guaranteeing a redistribution of public spending; 4) the creation of Presidential Conferences and Sectorial Conferences with the same degree of institutional relevance and political decision-making as they enjoy in other countries of the European Union; 5) reflect the plural nature of the State in all institutions, national and international, which represent it, especially in the cultural and educational spheres; 6) regulate the presence of the Autonomous Communities in the decision-making organs of the European Union in connection with those questions which come under their jurisdiction; 7) regulate the formulation of Agreements as well as other forms of horizontal cooperation among European regions; 8) deepen the acknowledgement of the principle of diversity by exploring new possibilities based on article 2, articles 149.1 and 150.1 and 150.2, those which refer to cultural differential dimensions; 9) culminating the process of transference provided by the respective Statutes of Autonomy should also be considered an undelayable task; 10) beginning a new phase of reform of the Statutes of Autonomy with the aim of increasing the autonomy of the Autonomous Communities, exploring new possibilities (without excluding a priori differential developments) and creating new figures such as those which have been recently suggested (the use of the regional languages by the State administration and the Judiciary; the introduction of symbolic elements; deconcentration of the General Council of the Judiciary; creating functions related to justice administration, judicial, registrar and notary demarcations; the taking up of tax management; activating the functions inherent in the ordinary representation of the State by the President of the Autonomous Community; the introduction of a historical rights clause...) (CiU, 1999).


The historical dimension of the track beaten to the present is unquestionable, as commented in the opening pages of this paper, but the suggestions proposed here equally give an indication of the measure of the work still to be done in continuing the construction of a state composed such as the Spanish one in a political process which by necessity must be and remain open. 





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(*) Juan Romero is Professor in Human Geography at the University of Valencia. At present he lectures in Political Geography. He has been a Member of the Spanish Parliament in the III and VI Legislatures, General Technical Secretary of the Ministry of Education and Science between 1984 and 1986 and Education and Science regional Minister and Spokesperson for the Valencian Government between 1993 and 1995.