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Home » Content » Wild or federal: a constant policy of comparative grievance between regional powers
The writer and journalist Jordi Amat spoke in a recent article, referring to the behavior of the regional leaders in this crisis, of their lack of federal culture. I am afraid the diagnosis is too benevolent. In reality, many of those leaders have entrenched themselves in their respective communities, resisting or even sabotaging the federal logic that would require efficient and responsible management of a national emergency: multi-level cooperation from all administrations, institutional loyalty, constructive and purposeful criticism, discipline in the face of the arbitration decisions.

Lluís Rabell 12/05/2020

MP of Catalan Parliament between 2015 and 2017, leading the parliamentary group of Catalunya-Sí-que-es-Pot

The Covid 19 epidemic is subjecting the State of Autonomies to an extraordinary stress test. And it is not overcoming it with excessive brilliance. Or, better said, the test is highlighting the limits and contradictions of its political architecture: not only that which establishes the legal system, including the Statutes of the different autonomous communities, but also the “adhesions” that have gone on that skeleton, fixed by decades of territorial management. Throughout the last few weeks, tensions with the central government have been constant and accusations of centralism are the daily bread. In the case of the Community of Madrid and Catalonia, any decision has been answered and read as a hostile political maneuver or a national offense. But not only the territories ruled by the PP or inflamed nationalism have been reluctant. The Basque Country has also said that it feels ignored, the barony of Aragon has had its tantrum moments… and even the Valencian Generalitat, which has stood out at all times for its loyalty and efficiency, has been unhappy with the treatment received. The tension has come to jeopardize the extension of the Alarm State, leading Sánchez to speak of co-governance and to announce legislative changes as soon as the epidemic is overcome. The analyst Enric Juliana has described this rarefied atmosphere as typical of a “savage federalism”. The formula has its journalistic grace, but in reality it is an oxymoron: if it is wild, it is not federal.

Precisely, if anything highlights this institutional tension, it is to what extent our system is far from being a federal model. Our autonomous state comes to be the result, hybrid and somewhat counterfeited, of a potential federalist development of the Constitution, counteracted by the latest shocks of the transition. A potential that was palpitating in the recognition of nationalities and regions, and in the consequent need to organize the coexistence of that linguistic and cultural plurality. However, the concrete development of events has generated a model that superimposes the central and radial structure of the State – whose perennial territorial projection are the provinces – compartmentalized autonomies, added by a flood and representing very different realities. The Spanish Senate, due to its mode of election and its operation, is more of a second reading legislative instance than a territorial representation chamber, where communities could pose their problems and exercise a counterweight to the central power. The existing regional areas of consultation – conferences of presidents, meetings of the heads of finance, bilateral commissions … – have been little used or revealed to be little operational. From Madrid, the centralized exercise of power has not only been an inertia, but a deliberate and advantageous practice for some governments. Thus, in the years of austerity, the PP government centrifuged the budget deficit granted by Europe to the communities, thereby inducing cutbacks in the public services that they are in charge of. On the other hand, the advantages of proximity governance were not combined with the active participation of the communities in a shared project in Spain. We had an example of this serious mismatch with the application of article 155 of the Spanish Constitution, after the spooky declaration of independence of Catalonia of 27-O of 2017. That article is a literal copy of a provision of the German federal constitution. And it has all its meaning in a compound State, as a mechanism to promptly call respect for the federal order to a certain territorial administration. In a federal Senate, it is the other States that urge the observance of common rules. In the Spanish case, the 155 was approved by a camera that appeared exploited by the PP government, in dramatic circumstances and without any mechanism to dampen the conflict. The Constitutional Court – which has undergone different stages, more or less progressive or restrictive throughout its long history – cannot resolve, by gathering jurisprudence, what politics and its legislative derivative have failed to adequately deal with.

The absence of devices, instances and federal will has led to the development in the communities of some trends whose danger we see today. The policy of comparative grievance has been a constant on which regional powers have settled, obtaining from it high electoral returns. This framework has also facilitated the radicalization of nationalisms. In the case of Catalonia, the Generalitat has powerful budgetary, institutional, propagandistic and patronage resources to sustain a mass movement … while the limitations of the autonomous model – and the neutralization of a federal project – allow directing fears and social dissatisfactions against Spain. That Spain that yesterday “robbed us” and today “kills us”. Basque nationalism has always known how to take advantage of this regime, skillfully marketing its contributions to state governance in exchange for an advantageous financial situation and strategic investments. The economic agreement is a kind of tax confederality. The confinement has highlighted, however, that the PNV is confederal in times of economic boom … but demanding “federal” aid when production stops in the Basque Country. The epidemic has convulsed that motley panorama. And although the situation demanded solidarity and cooperation, “savages”reactions have emerged among the political leaders – Juliana is right -.

Has Pedro Sánchez abused the powers of the single command granted by the State of Alarm? Has he not been able to listen to or agree on the measures of confinement with the communities? Maybe yes. There are powerful centralist inertias in the state routine. And an extreme situation, which requires quick and energetic decisions, cannot but encourage them. There will be time to analyze the management and communication of the coalition government. It must be said, however, that friction and disagreement were hardly avoidable. With more or less room for consultation, in the midst of such a serious crisis, someone has to make the final decisions, arbitrate and settle. And it is impossible to do it to everyone’s liking. The first steps of the de-escalation clearly show that, without a central direction acting according to a certain criterion, we would be attending a race between communities to see who goes through the stages of de-confinement more quickly. This should not lose sight of the fact that the heterogeneous parliamentary majority on which the government relies allows some autonomous party, such as the PNV, to weigh significantly on the decisions of the central executive in this regard. (And, in that sense, Ximo Puig’s complaints are understandable). But, once again, if those reproaches were fair, they would not reflect in any way a sort of outrageous federalism, but quite the opposite: the lack of federal habits and culture.

T… No. What we have had has been an incessant dialectical guerilla from the Community of Madrid, chaired by the PP, trying to erode Sánchez. And from the Generalitat managing the crisis in a “proces” key and trying to stoke feelings of identity animosity towards Spain. The smarter PNV has been concerned with its “quota” and with being able to call elections in the Basque Country … before the harsh social effects of the economic slowdown are felt. It is the Valencian and Balearic socialists – and the left-wing coalitions with which they govern – who have shown the most clearly federal and responsible attitude towards the need for a joint effort. Insufficiently valued behavior? Maybe. But that attitude points much more to a future of progress – and, at the moment, to the most efficient way of facing what is coming upon us – than the mean and selfish behavior of the nationalist rights or the desire for survival of some territorial caciques. Will there ever be a right or a liberal party to claim federalism? Of course, that would be beneficial for the democratic health of the country. Today, however, the responsibility of claiming the federal perspective and principles rests with the left. Perhaps the times ahead are not favorable to the great consensus that an ambitious constitutional reform would require. Perhaps it is only possible to explore the potential for collaboration, consensus, adequate financing, balance of competences, shared governance … that are feared by the Senate and the autonomous community itself. In any case, those who have worked under the banner of fraternity have not done so in vain. We do not want a country of unredeemed cantons, nor self-absorbed tribes. In Spain, in Europe … the coherent left is unequivocally federalist.

Lluís Rabell




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