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A broken taboo

, by Alistair Spearing

As Catalonia and Spain continue their soul-searching, few words come up as often as federalismo. Often wrongly described as a federalist country by outsiders, Spain is in fact caught in a limbo, halfway between centralisation and decentralisation. Faced with an existential crisis, can it make the quantum leap to full-blown federalism?


Spanish politics have been subjected to both centrifugal and centripetal forces throughout the history of the country. In the early 18th century, there were echoes of Louis XIV’s centralisation when his grandson Philip V abolished the ancient charters of Spain’s self-administering kingdoms at the end of the War of the Spanish Succession (with the notable exception of Navarre and the rest of the Basque region, which had supported him during the war). The quasi-federal Habsburgian model gave way to a highly centralised system which, despite a few hiccups, would go on to dominate the political landscape until 1978.

The regions’ struggle to restore their charters played an important role in the Carlist Wars, which swept through Spain in the mid-19th century, but it was not until the advent of the Second Republic in 1931 that the political balance shifted back towards something resembling federalism. The new system recognised the right of all regions to autonomy, a right which was exercised by Catalonia and the Basque Country, with several more regions engaged in negotiations when the Spanish Civil War broke out.

The four decades of Francoist dictatorship which followed saw a return to strict centralisation. Therefore, it was not surprising to see a rebound effect when Spain started its transition to democracy in the late 1970s and the hitherto-repressed regions sought to reassert themselves. The post-Francoist constitution aimed to devolve significant powers to regional governments. However, this decentralisation was meant to be asymmetrical in that the three “historical nationalities” (Catalonia, the Basque Country and Galicia) were supposed to receive more powers. This sparked a backlash in the other regions, several of which also wanted to gain nationality status and obtain devolved powers through the fast-track process. Demonstrations and political pressure resulted in the decision to devolve the same powers to all regions, albeit at different paces. This arrangement, which is fairly decentralised but fails to clearly and unambiguously define which powers are devolved to the regions and which are reserved to the central government, has since been known as café para todos, or “coffee for all”: everyone wanted the same, so everyone would be served the same.

While café para todos did work at the beginning, its shortcomings have been magnified as the democratic institutions born from the Transition grew. A further problem has been the spreading of confusion regarding what true federalism is —too many still believe it would involve the irrevocable Balkanisation and fracture of Spain, a widespread fear among the political class. An ironic example of this is the Union, Progress and Democracy party’s ongoing campaign to prune the competences of the regions, strengthen the central government and erase all references to the nationalities of Spain from the constitution... all the while hiding behind a facade of support for federalism. Given that even so-called “pro-federalism” parties are actually working to achieve the exact opposite, it is quite obvious that the main barrier to federalism in Spain is a gross and widespread misconception of what it stands for.

A few top politicians have come out in favour of federalism, such as the leader of the opposition, Alfredo Pérez Rubalcaba, and the general secretary of the Catalanist Convergence and Union party, Josep Antoni Duran i Lleida. Nevertheless, until now they have failed to flesh out their proposals and provide the electorate with a clear idea of their concept of federalism. Bereft of any substance, their federalist call to arms rings quite hollow.

However, federalism still enjoys sizeable support. A poll in late 2012 found that it was the preferred option for 1 in 5 Spaniards. A similar level of support exists in Catalonia, where federalism was the leading choice as recently as March 2012. It is particularly noteworthy that support for federalism in Catalonia has since waned in synch with the hardening of the Spanish government’s position, suggesting that a relative majority of Catalans would gladly take the federalist option but do not trust Madrid’s willingness to put it on the table. Abroad, an editorial in the Financial Times of September 12 called for “asymmetric federalism” for Spain, warning of the dangers of failing to “resolve [the] constitutional quandary before it becomes a crisis”.

And yet these silver linings are no reason for defenders of the federalist cause to rest on their laurels, blissfully oblivious to the gathering clouds. On the contrary, urgent action is required. At present, federalism in Spain is little more than smoke and mirrors, an empty buzzword brought up every now and then for political effect. More of this will never be enough to win over the Spanish populace. It is time for federalists to put some meat on the bone of their proposals. Time to put some substance into their ideas. Time to spell out how federalism works and what it entails. And the clock is ticking.

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  • On 12 October 2013 at 21:18, by Jofre Rocabert Replying to: A broken taboo

    Thank you for the contribution Alistair. While the historical summary of the article is accurate , it contains some important unaccuracies in the second part that I believe void the value of the article. I will list them for the sake of space. 1. The original assimetric idea of the devolution during the democratic transition was made to acomodate catalan and basque demands, but more than everyone wanting the same, the political elites deemed dangerous to give special power to historical reasons and so generalized the model. As Paul Preston puts it: “we are not going to be less than them” was the matra for that change. 2. Josep Antoni Duran i Lleida is not the leader of Convergence and Union, but only the leder of the center-right christian democrats “Unio”. These two parties form a federation that runs together to elections, but while “unio” says to be pro confederation, the other party has turned into openly pro independence, which generates a lot of pressure. Actually, the leader of Unio has a very conflictual relationship with the pro independence majority in parliament. 3. Which is the poll? You should mention it because it sound to me very difficult that this was the case. Federalism is a very marginalized option in the political discourse at the moment. The catalan party that openly defends it is in a deep crisis and losing seats at avery election.

    Anyways, debate and reflection on the situation are always welcomed. Thanks!

  • On 12 October 2013 at 22:04, by Don Macario Replying to: A broken taboo

    En primer lugar, otorgarle mis congratulaciones por su afinado conocimiento de la historia de España, sin duda, mucho mayor que el de la gran mayoría de los españoles; y sí, digo la gran mayoría.

    Me he sentido alagado, francamente, al ver que un foráneo procedente seguramente de la sagrada trinidad europea, Gran Bretaña, Francia o Alemania, muestre interés sobre esta extremidad envilecida de Europa.

    El artículo sin embargo, rebosa un pro-federalismo que no es adecuado para España, la que a mi juicio, requiere y necesita un régimen especial alejado del estándar federalista. Como español me dispongo a darle mis razones.

    El federalismo en España jamás funcionaría, debido a la asimetría en cuánto a las situaciones de hecho previas de cada región, siendo dudoso en algunas, su mera condición nominal de “región”, mientras que en otras selectas, de forma inversa, se vislumbran ciertos caracteres de pseudonación.

    La asimetría como punto de partida hace imposible un federalismo, pero realmente es el carácter español el que de verdad lo hace imposible. Usted, amigo europeo, conoce bien los presupuestos y los hechos, pero no sabe de la pasta de la que está hecha la gente en España, una pasta ciertamente “cainista”, envidiosa, y muy particularista. Es la configuración del carácter medio débil y menos álgido; o sea, inferior, de la masa española, lo que imposibilita el fin federal.

    En esta vieja nación, el otorgamiento de competencias a las regiones sería aprovechado por estas para sí de forma particularista, queriendo ensancharse de tal manera que vieran al vecino por encima de sus hombros, y de los muros protectores erejidos con su miedo y rencor, porque hay una total carencia de valores y de confianza, de algidez y de brillantez en este país. Siempre han escaseado las perspectivas lúcidas y visionareas, con valor para alterar las situaciones previas, para mejorar la situación general, sabiendo otorgar en ocasiones sacrificios necesarios para ello. Esos sacrificios que solo las personas con honor y honestidad saben que deben entregar, y lo hacen.

    Esta ausencia de honor y de algidez, ha hecho a la gente española ser envidiosa y desconfiada de toda empresa unionista o homogeinizadora. Y sí, siempre recelosa, de lo que nos unifica, de la superación de las diferencias y del énfasis en lo que compartimos. Ese paso que siempre constituye y constituirá en la historia una nueva situación gloriosa y maravillosa, una nueva etapa de condición superior, por el paso ético previo que se da. Por superar el miedo, el recelo, la envidia, para poner en su lugar los valores de la confraternización, de la confianza, de la altura de miras, en definitiva de lo egregio. Lo que como le digo, falta en la masa social de España.

    España es extraña, pero este carácter que le he presentado, es la razón principal por la que la nación que tanto quiero protagonice una tragedia perenne, que siempre configura nuestro arte en sustancia y espíritu trágico. Le adjunto dos frases al respecto, del intelectual más célebre de España, el filósofo Don José Ortega y Gasset. Sintetizan muy bien lo que le he redactado.

    “La federación puede y debe ser fórmula para unir lo que no está unido, no para articular lo que tiene ya siglos de unión.”

    “Me opongo a una división en dos Españas diferentes, una compuesta por dos o tres regiones ariscas; otra integrada por el resto, más dócil al poder central […] Pues tan pronto como existan un par de regiones estatutarias, asistiremos en toda España a una pululación de demandas parejas, las cuales seguirán el tono de las ya concedidas, que es más o menos, querámoslo o no, nacionalista, enfermo de particularismo.”

    Un saludo, gracias por mostrar interés por España desde el cenit de Europa.

  • On 23 October 2013 at 11:00, by Jorge Replying to: A broken taboo

    “it is quite obvious that the main barrier to federalism in Spain is a gross and widespread misconception of what it stands for” Well, coming from Spain I would not say that your article has a clear conception of what federalism stands for. Are the different nationalists parties of Catalonia and the Bask Country the federalist heroes of Spain? Is the recognition of nations what federalism stands for? In my opinion to federate is to join, to unite; so federalism can never be based on nationalists, it can only be supported by cosmopolitans who give more importance to equality and fraternity than to difference and privilege. I consider myself a convinced Spanish federalist with quite a clear conception of what federalism and cosmopolitanism means. And I feel much closer to the ideas of Union Progreso y Democracia than to the ones exposed in this article. Thank you for opening the debate in any case.

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