Quo vadis Hispania?

Can the Spanish state cope with a crisis that accentuates tension between the center and the periphery?

In 1984 I participated in a seminar asking "What is Spain?" The question was posed as to whether Spain should have a state of federal type. One convincing reason brought against the idea was that the various regions of Spain had widely different levels of political development. This was all too apparent in the short history of the Second Republic, and indeed a comparable situation can be adduced in the case of Italy, where the asymmetrical integration of the south is still an issue.

In Spain the problem goes back a long way. Another useful comparison is that of France. In the 18th century both France and Spain were what was called "monarchies of aggregation," in which territories of diverse ethnicity and legal status had gradually been added to the French royal domain, or to the Crown of castile. In France a clean break with the past came in the Revolution, which abolished historical particularities, and homogenized the old patchwork state into "departments." But in Spain the construction of a uniform state came slowly, and incompletely. Franco's brutal attempt at unification simply left the tensions of regional nationalism more acute than ever.

With the return of democracy, the new regional government system ignored a basic requirement that has been a mark of successful federal systems everywhere: the need for horizontal mechanisms for coordination of the member states - that is, a real Senate elected by regions - and for clear delimitations of the various regions' quasi-state powers with respect to the central state.

From the beginning there were vertical conflicts, and in the space of a few years more appeals concerning conflicting powers had been brought before the Spanish Constitutional Court than in four decades of the German Federal Republic. With the aggravating factors of double administration and the absence of fiscal responsibility, the regional nationalisms posed as the bearers of real regional interests, indulging in the gross overspending that has now come to light in the crisis. As they could not in the past, the regional elites could now hope to play a Basque or Catalan role within Europe, free of the Spanish straitjacket. Meanwhile, the crisis was germinating.

With the return of democracy, the new regional government system ignored a basic requirement

Can the Spanish state cope with a crisis that accentuates tension between the center and the periphery? One precedent lies in the dissolution of the USSR, when an economic plunge played a determinant role. Faced with the collapse of Soviet finances, the member states all acted on the principle of "sauve qui peut," affording the regional elites a chance to affirm themselves as heads of new states.

Mutatis mutandis, something of the sort might happen here. In 1989 the door was thrown open to the birth of new states in Europe, which had been in suspended animation since 1945. The radicalization of the Basque Nationalist Party was a response to this incentive. And now comes the independence referendum in Scotland. The Catalans and Basques think that if the Scots get their independence, they should be next in line. The Basques have the additional argument that, while the Catalans lost their independence in 1707, the Basques kept theirs as late as 1839.

But now the Catalans seem to have taken the lead in independence feeling. After the catastrophic maneuver of Zapatero and Maragall in pushing through a new regional Statute, since vetoed in many points by the Constitutional Court, frustration and resentment have been boiling over in Catalonia, and calls for independence too. The evolution of the crisis will be of great importance, as was apparent in the national government's recent mooting of financial intervention in the regions, to which the Catalan premier responded with a threat of new elections in Catalonia. Catalan opinion now aspires to something resembling the Basque "concert," in which national and regional governments divvy up taxes at their source, before they enter either government's coffers.

Nothing in the Constitution authorizes such a thing. But the economic crisis does create a climate tending toward fragmentation of the state - which a properly planned federal structure might well have prevented.