Spain’s Devolution and Regional Problems

This sample essay on Devolution In Spain provides important aspects of the issue and arguments for and against as well as the needed facts. Read on this essay’s introduction, body paragraphs, and conclusion.

Of the three states Spain has by far the most difficult regional problem; it has also in place the the most radical of the regionalising projects. Spain’s regional problem has two interrrelated dimensions: that of persuading the two principal unassimilated peripheries – Catalonia and the Basque region – to accept the state, and then drawing on the resources of these regions to support development in the other regions.

These goals are contradictory and it has been a difficult balancing act.

Insofar as it has been successful – and its ultimate success is still in uestion – it is been due in considerable part to the commitment of the Spanish centre and the principal regions to ever wider European and international contacts (Gibbons, 1999, 35). The case of Catalonia is instructive. In the past thirty years, Catalan economic development has gone hand in hand with cultural nationalism, increasing linkages with the EU and with the wider world.

The Catalan language has achieved predominance in public life in the region, in education, and in the communications media. The region’s economic success and Barcelona’s restige as a major European city give the Catalan government a prominence on the European stage and extra clout in negotiations with the centre. Catalonia’s increased external orientation is welcomed, not simply for the economic and cultural benefits it brings, but because it lessens the linkages with the Castillian centre.

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The extent to which Catalan nationalism is now content with its status as a nation-without-a-state (Keating, 1996) or the extent to which it is moving towards greater independence – perhaps, at least initially, within a federal structure – s a matter of some debate among scholars. What is clear, however, is that the increasing political freedom of the region, its increased prosperity and the reinforcement of Catalan identity has not overcome its ambivalence about being part of the Spanish state. One expression of this is resentment of the level of Catalan financial transfers to the central exchequer.

This resentment is all the greater when it compares its fiscal powers with those of the Basque country. The challenge which such a high level of ‘regionalisation’ has posed to the Spanish state, and deolgically to those strands of political opinion which believe in the essential unity of Spain, is considerable. In Catalonia the central state has effectively lost the cultural initiative and the re-establishment of Catalan as the first language has deepened the extent to which it is a ‘place apart’.

At the same time autonomisation has not brought an end to violent Basque separatism. There are conflicts between centre and region about the extent of the regional powers – the Spanish state, for example, has repeatedly challenged Basque industrial policy in he European Court of Justice (Loyer, 1999). There is tension around matters of protocol, for example welcoming of international statesmen, visits abroad, which have seemed to the state to be taking over the proper role of the sovereign state (Basset, 1998).

Finally, there is competition between the regions around the extent of their powers which produces a dynamic towards ever greater ‘autonomisation’ – Catalonia looks for equivalent financial autonomy to the Basque country, and Andalucia will accept no less autonomy than Catalonia, and so on. At the same time the pace of development in the other regions remains slow. Further evidence that devolution becomes more popular with the passage of time is provided by the Spanish experience.

As in Britain in the 1990s, the strong demands for autonomy in some Spanish regions in the late 1970s were not paralleled in the rest of the country, where there was no clear support for devolution. Yet, by 1996, opinion polls suggested that three-quarters of Spaniards felt either that the existing degree of autonomy granted to the regions should be maintained or enhanced. Furthermore, these responses appear to be underpinned by a strong degree of identification with the respective autonomous communities.

In the same opinion poll just over two-thirds of respondents reported either that they identified only with their autonomous community or as much with their autonomous community as they did with Spain. In Spain, a complex sharing of functions between the national, regional and local levels of government has evolved since the late 1970s. Figure 3 shows that central government in Spain has exclusive powers over areas such as defence and macro-economic management but that it shares responsibility for many functions with the autonomous communities, including housing, social welfare and economic development.

Similarly, local government is charged with functions such as land-use planning and community safety while also sharing responsibility with the autonomous communities in a number of areas, such as local transport and sports and leisure facilities. European experience therefore suggests that any decision regarding the powers to be devolved to regions is not simply a one-off re-allocation of functions between tiers of government.

Rather, devolution triggers a dynamic process of bargaining between regional and national government over responsibilities and resources. Aside from the tendency for this to result in regions acquiring more functions, the other clear message to emerge is regional authorities, once established, will push strongly for greater autonomy, particularly in the management of their financial affairs. In Italy the regions lobbied strongly for tax-raising powers from 1983, eventually securing limited powers in this area in 1990.

Similarly, the Spanish autonomous communities have claimed a rising share of income tax revenues, with some regions securing a greater degree of financial autonomy from the centre than others: in Catalonia 32 per cent of public expenditure is now controlled by the regional government, compared to an average of 25 per cent in Spain as a whole. Indeed, of the cases considered at the conference, only the Spanish regions could make any reasonable claim to being significant contributors to regional economic performance since they do at least share significant responsibility for economic development with central government.

However, time-series data on economic performance in Spain suggest that regional economic disparities have only narrowed marginally over the past 15-20 years. Whether this modest decrease in regional disparity can be attributed specifically to the activities of regional governments, rather than, say, to national economic policy or the beneficial impact of Spanish membership of the EU, remains an open question. The staggered emergence of regionalism in the UK does have something of a parallel in the Spanish case.

Following the transition to a democratic regime in the late 1970s, the new Spanish constitution provided for twin-track devolution. Under this framework, regions with strong nationalist claims for devolution were allowed to move quickly towards such arrangements. Thus, Catalonia and the Basque Country introduced regional government in 1979, followed in 1981 by Galicia and, largely on political grounds, Andalusia. The remaining 13 autonomous communities were then introduced in 1982-83.

The principle of a two-speed process of devolution has since been maintained, with subsequent bargaining between central government and individual autonomous communities enabling regional governments in areas such as Catalonia and the Basque Country to take greater control over their own affairs. While the Spanish case suggests that asymmetric devolution is an option for the UK, it leaves open the question of what might happen if the English regions fail to embrace regional government.

Asymmetric devolution would seem to be an appropriate response to the problem that there are different levels of aspiration to self-government. However, experience in Spain also implies that a staggered process of devolution will need to be supported by national co-ordination mechanisms which ensure that regions slow to move towards regional autonomy are not disadvantaged and are encouraged to be part of a consensus on how devolution should proceed.

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Spain’s Devolution and Regional Problems. (2019, Dec 06). Retrieved from

Spain’s Devolution and Regional Problems
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