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.