Spain offers a lesson in how not to deal with devolution

Spain has unfinished business thanks to an ambiguous settlement. Ivan McClellan, CC BY

As the UK heads towards its next phase of devolution, it should look to Spain for an example of how to do it badly. In its attempt to please everyone as it drew up its 1978 constitution, Spain ended up pleasing no one and decades of animosity have followed. The debacle shows that a piecemeal approach may appear to be the easiest option when a deal is being struck but can, in the end, serve to frustrate tensions. It’s a story that should act as a warning to British politicians.

In 1978, Spain was caught in fierce debate about the state of the autonomies. In the end, the constitution that emerged from that debate failed to address the grievances of Catalonia and the Basque Country. It created a dysfunctional and expensive system that serves no one fully.

Rather than a failure of design, the fall-out from the deal was a consequence of a lack of agreement between the negotiating parties. Because they couldn’t reach consensus on important issues, they could only produce ambiguous statements for the document that was supposed to set out the rights of their citizens.

During the redrafting of the constitution in 1977-78, the question of territory was the most contentious. The parties in parliament also strongly disagreed over the shape of the agreement, with the ex-Francoist Allianza Popular refusing to concede legitimacy to the national demands of Catalonia and the Basque Country. The left-wing, meanwhile, was allied with the Catalans and argued for an asymmetrical federation in which the “historical regions” could establish their sovereignty within a federal state.

A wave of terrorist violence by Basque separatist group ETA in 1977 had already served to polarise both political groups and the general public over the demands of the Basque and Catalan nationalists. And when it came to actually putting the constitution together, the committee in charge was sharply divided.

To reach a compromise between separatists and federalists, the constitutional committee forged an ambiguous position on the matter and codified it as section 2 of the constitution, which notes both the “indissoluble unity of the Spanish nation” and the right of its regions to self-governance.

Section two even refers to the “nationalities” governed by the constitution. However, because the constitution makes no distinction between Catalonia, the Basque Country and the other regions of Spain, even though the former have a far stronger sense of national identity, the ambiguity is fuel for separatist arguments.

The final version of the constitution also leaves an open interpretation on the form and powers of Spain’s institutions and the mechanisms to be used to govern Spanish regional autonomies. The committee that was supposed to draft these provisions failed to find agreement and the section of the constitution that was supposed to deal with the issue said nothing about the territorial borders of the different regions or the scope and content of their powers. The committee wasn’t even able to clarify the distinction between the rights of “nationalities” as opposed to those of “regions”.

From these ambiguities emerged a territorial arrangement that sits somewhere between a federal and a unitary state. Ever since 1978, the regions of Spain have competed for power and resources. These arguments play out between regions and with the central state. For example, many Catalans believe they subsidise poorer regions of Spain with their taxes. And even though these regions lack an independent identity, they enjoy about as much autonomy as Catalonia.

Ultimately, the constitutional arrangements in Spain were the result of the right wing’s reluctance to accept the national reality in Catalonia and the Basque Country. It saw their claims as antagonistic to the development of Spain and sought to thwart their claims for instituting a federal system of government. But both movements have continued – and Catalonia is planning its own independence referendum on November 9. It’s clear that deficient institutional solutions to the claims of peripheral nationalism can serve to foster, rather than prevent, the disintegration of existing states.

As the UK enters its own constitutional debates, the various leaders will need to find a territorial system that provides England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales with an asymmetrical federation. Each is to share sovereign powers within the framework of the British state.

Everyone needs to agree on a narrative that puts nations in a co-operative rather than competitive position. They need to all agree on shared interests and identities. Even when nationalism was a powerful force in Europe – such as in the 19th century – some of these movements showed benevolent attitudes to their neighbours and reconciled the defence of national interests and the sharing of sovereignty with other nations and nationalities within the same state.

More recently, in post-war Europe, centrist political elites adapted their national discourses to the supranational institutions created to consolidate peace on the devastated continent. The UK should look to both movements for inspiration as it draws up its future – and to Spain as an example of how not to do it.