Spain’s regional Administrations, the cancer that devours us

Published in Expansión

Since 1978, Spain is politically divided into 17 regions called “Autonomous Communities”, each enjoying an enormous degree of independence: they have their own legislative body, government and judiciary, decide on regional taxation, control the public health and education systems and some even have their own police forces. All this makes Spain one of the most decentralized countries in the world. Well, either Spain buries this system or this system will bury Spain. Unfortunately, such is the extreme we have reached with the unfortunate experiment set in motion by the 1978 Constitution.

The Autonomous Communities were not, as some politicians today cynically defend, a demand of the Spanish people to bring the Administration closer to the citizen, but a botched invention (halfway between the unitary State and the federal one, in which entities that were originally separate decide to get together in a certain way, such as the US, Germany or Switzerland) imposed by the political class in spite of supposing a clear historical involution that returned us to times of division overcome centuries ago. The motives to do such a partition were varied. The first was to soothe the Catalan and Basque nationalists, who, despite representing a minority, were amazingly granted the status of hegemonic representatives of their respective peoples. At the same time, willing to conceal the concessions to the nationalists, the fathers of our constitution took the wrong decision of granting all regions with the same degree of autonomy, what is usually called in Spain “coffee for all”. The second, more frivolous, reason was to aesthetically move away from the idea of a united Spain, which had been a key element of Franco’s regime. Finally, they wanted to create a bureaucratic apparatus that would feed the newly created political parties and build burrows where they could lick their wounds whenever they lost the general elections. The intelligent and impartial philosopher Julián Marías already perceived it at that time: “It is not clear if the political parties have been made for the country or the country for the political parties”.

The lack of interest of Spaniards in the Autonomous Communities was evident in the low turnover registered in the referendums that ratified the Statutes of Autonomy (the regions’ “constitutions”): in the regions that were supposed to have been clamoring for autonomy for centuries (yet another myth), Catalonia and the Basque Country, the turnover was only 59.7% and 58.9%, respectively (in the last general elections in Spain, the turnover was ca. 70%); in Andalusia only 53.5% voted at the time; and in Galicia the 1980 referendum on the Statute of Autonomy only attracted 28% of the citizens (you read well: the abstention was 72%). With these data, the political class of the time decided not to ask the people any more (just in case) and to impose the other autonomic statutes by law, which they did through the 80s.

The confusion of the political class in 1978 regarding the past and the meaning of Spain was made obvious in the draft of the Spanish Constitution proposed by the Constitutional Commission in January 1978. Although it may seem incredible, the text omitted the word “nation” applied to Spain (one of the oldest nations in the world!) but, nevertheless, it already submissively collected the ambiguous term of “regional nationalities”, the danger of which was warned to us by brilliant minds such as Marias himself (who called the term “unacceptable”), Fernández de la Mora or Federico Silva, at that time accused of being prophets of doom.

What have been the harmful consequences of the Autonomous Communities’ system? Firstly, it has exacerbated the nationalism of the usual suspects in Catalonia and the Basque Country, who in their logic sought to be different, just the opposite of the homogeneity of the “coffee for all” system (they just wanted coffee for themselves!), and on the other hand, they have artificially created a nationalist feeling in regions where such feeling was previously residual or simply non-existent. In my beloved Galicia (Spain’s NW region), where 30 or 40 years ago both Galician and Castilian languages were spoken indistinctly and naturally (Galician more in rural areas), right-wing opportunists in the regional government in the last decades have taken out of the hat a weird light nationalism in order to stay in power even beginning to use the Galician language as a divisive tool, exactly as Catalonian extreme nationalists (politicians, unlike Meat Loaf’s “I would anything for love, but I won’t do that”, do literally whatever it takes to remain in power).

It is logical that many regions have been behaving as if they were independent countries. How could this not happen if the Autonomies were endowed with executive, legislative and judicial power and with their own “national” flag, anthems, heroes and “national” days (invented on the spot out of the blue, sometimes in a completely grotesque manner)? Secondly, the system has handed over the Education system to the ambitious local politicians. As a consequence of this, in some regions a generation has been brainwashed since kindergarten in a spirit of confrontation, in a fanatical intolerance of others, making identity a reason for rejection, and in an obsessive hatred of Spain, with a distorted, provincial and childish vision of History. Thirdly, the Autonomous Communities have meant an enormous waste of public money, an unprecedented bureaucratic metastasis plagued with duplicate institutions, civil servants and regulations, and a de facto rupture of market unity. Bordering autonomies having completely different regulations with a total disregard of commonsensical economies of scale (half of the Autonomies have a population of less than one million, but each has different rules, different public health and education systems each with its own different IT network, different administrative procedures, and so on and so forth). In addition, regional savings banks (Cajas de Ahorro) were transformed into centers of regional power and managed in many cases with political criteria bringing the whole of the Spanish financial system to the verge of bankruptcy in the 2008 crisis (it finally had to be rescued with EU’s support in yet another whimsical blunder of our political class paid for by the taxpayer). Fourthly, the Autonomous Communities have had much less political alternation than Spain as a whole, which has created a rarefied undemocratic atmosphere and the birth of long-term political regimes, which are at the root of the greatest corruption scandals in our history (all having taken place since 1978). This lack of alternation has been particularly acute in the Basque Country and Catalonia (where nationalist parties believe they are the owners of the territory), but also in other regions: in southern Andalusia the Socialist Party has governed almost 40 years uninterruptedly and 30 years in Castilla La Mancha and Extremadura, while the Popular Party has governed Galicia and Castilla-León for 30 years and Madrid’s region for 24 years in a row. Finally, the system has failed to produce any economic convergence between “poor” and “rich” regions: in Andalusia, one of the poorest regions in Spain, the income gap vs the Spanish average is today identical to that which existed in united Spain in 1978.

It is easy to draw these conclusions after 40 years of failed experiment. Philosopher Julián Marías had much more merit when he warned it back in 1974 in a truly prophetic article: “The regional structure of Spain (…) cannot be homogeneous. To create a series of analogous units (…) with the temptation to become tiny “States” that mimetically reproduce national structures would only lead to three consequences: 1) an immense squandering of public money; 2) the multiplication of one of the greatest plagues of our time, which is bureaucracy; 3) the shortsighted entrenchment of each region in itself.

My intuition tells me that most Spaniards feel as emotionally detached to the Autonomous Communities’ system as they were in 1978, which contrasts sharply with the enthusiasm with which the political class defends it (because it lives off it – imagine 17 different bureaucracies and political posts to be filled!). A few weeks ago a national newspaper conducted an online survey asking its readers whether they were for or against the Autonomous Communities’ system. Even with cautious approach needed with many online surveys, it is noteworthy that out of the 70,000 respondents, 86% replied that “the country would do much better if there were only one government”.

I end as I began: either Spain buries the Autonomous Communities or the Autonomous Communities will bury Spain, breaking our nation (a process that history shows to be often violent) and financially bankrupting it. We face a problem in which the national interest clashes head-on with the selfish interest of the power junkies of our political parties whose payroll literally lives off such a flawed system. Any recentralization effort that brings us closer to this objective is to be welcomed, because our country can no longer afford this whim of its political class. Let us reject pessimism (“there is no way we can change the system now”). We are at a historic crossroads where our survival is at stake. We can do it. We have to.


Fernando del Pino Calvo-Sotelo

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