Nationalities and regions of Spain
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politics and government of
Spain is a diverse country integrated by different contrasting regions that show varying economic and social structures, as well as different languages and historical, political and cultural traditions. According to the Spanish current constitution, the Spanish nation is the common and indivisible homeland of all Spaniards, which is integrated by nationalities and regions to which the constitution recognizes and guarantees the right to self-government.
The terms "nationalities" or "historical nationalities" (Spanish and Galician: nacionalidades históricas, Basque: nazionalitate historikoak, Catalan: nacionalitats històriques), though never defined officially, are territories whose inhabitants have a strong historically constituted sense of identity, or more specifically, certain autonomous communities whose Statutes of autonomy—their basic institutional legislation—recognizes their historical and cultural identity.
In Spanish jurisprudence, the term "nationality" appears for the first time in the current constitution, approved in 1978, and after much debate in the Spanish Parliament. Although it was explicitly understood that the term made reference to Galicia, the Basque Country and Catalonia, the constitution does not specify any by name. The term came about as a consensus between the strong centralist position inherited from Franco's regime and the nationalist position mainly from the Basques, Galicians and Catalans.
Once all nationalities and regions acceded to self-government or autonomy and were constituted as autonomous communities, the term was applied, in their respective Statutes of Autonomy, not only to define the three above-mentioned communities, but also Andalusia, the Balearic Islands and the Valencian Community, and more recently Aragon and the Canary Islands. The rest of the autonomous communities (Asturias, Castile and León, Castile-La Mancha, Murcia, La Rioja, Cantabria, Extremadura) are simply defined as regions of Spain, oftentimes as historical regions or as having a "historical regional identity" in their respective Statutes of Autonomy. Navarra and the Community of Madrid are special cases. Navarra is defined as a "chartered community", in the reinstitution of its medieval charters, and the Community of Madrid is defined neither as a nationality nor as a region, but as a community created in the nation's interest as the seat of the capital of the nation.
The formation of Spain can be viewed as an alliance and progressive union of several peninsular kingdoms, and it can be said that the nationalist or regionalist tradition in Spain has its roots in Spanish history. In fact, no serious attempt was made to centralize the administration until the reforms of the eighteenth century. By the beginning of the nineteenth century, though, the Spanish government was heavily centralized and the State did not recognize the nation's regional diversity. It was also, later during this same century, that as Catalonia and the Basque Country became rapidly industrialized and areas where commercial capitalism made swift progress while the rest of the country followed at a much slower pace, nationalistic sentiments began to grow, and it was not unusual that some writers of the time would express their concepts of a Catalan or Basque fatherland or even nationhood. Both nationalist movements had much in common, in that both arose in areas that enjoyed higher levels of prosperity, were the only areas in the country to develop modern industry, and both possessed a linguistic tradition of their own; both the Catalan and the Basque languages began to experience a strong revival, as was the case with the Galician language. Both regions rediscovered their histories—Catalonia rediscovered her prowess as a Mediterranean Medieval empire within the Crown of Aragon, and the Basque Country focused on the mystery of its origins. Both areas had enjoyed some type of medieval charters whereby they had exercised either full autonomy, but not sovereignty, within the Spanish crown, or, in later times, as it was the case solely for the Basque Country and Navarra, they had enjoyed fiscal autonomy. The larger economic development occurring in areas overlapping spatially delimited ethnic communities enhanced the regions' own identity. As nationalistic sentiments grew, sometimes within conservative ideals and afterwards with the left, their demands for self-government also grew, and in some sectors, separatism — outright independence — was preferred.
The appearance of the so-called peripheral nationalism in the aforementioned regions of Spain occurred in a time where Spain itself as a whole first began to look into its own concept of nationhood, and where Spaniards began to study their own nationalism between two competing views, the traditionalist, where religion played a significant role in defining the Spanish nation, intrinsically and traditionally Catholic, and strongly monarchical, and the liberal view where sovereignty resided in the nation — the people, as opposed to the monarch — and where some advocated for a uniform centralized State while others preferred decentralization and even republicanism.
Spain experimented with decentralization during the First Spanish Republic (1873-1874), but social and political chaos — which had started even before the change of regime with a change of monarchical houses — led to its failure. At the beginning of the twentieth century, the two political discourses of Spanish nationalism, the traditional and the liberal, continued to be present and opposing, advocating for different political regimes. However, the appearance of peripheral nationalisms, namely the Basque and Catalan nationalistic movements, produced the unification many Spanish nationalists as a counter-force, and Spanish nationalism became a dialectical struggle between the center and the periphery.
During the final stages of the turno pacífico, a staged pacific alternation of power between liberals and conservatives in the Spanish Parliament, Catalonia was granted a limited form of self-government, and the Commonwealth of Catalonia (Catalan: Mancomunitat de Catalunya) was established in 1913, with its own Regional Assembly. The Assembly drafted a Statute of Autonomy that was, however, rejected by the General Courts (the Spanish Parliament). The Commonwealth of Catalonia was dissolved during the dictatorship of Primo de Rivera in 1923.
In 1931, the Second Spanish Republic was established, and a new liberal constitution allowed the "regions" of Spain to attain self-government, and created the "autonomous region" as a first-order administrative division. Catalonia was the first to approve a Statute of Autonomy, later sanctioned by the Spanish Parliament, and the Generalitat, the Catalan institutions of government that operated since medieval times until the early eighteenth century, was restored. The Basque Country and Galicia followed suit in 1936, but only the Statute of Autonomy of the first was approved before the Spanish Civil War erupted.
After the war, centralism was most forcefully enforced during Franco's regime (1939-1975) as a way to preserve the unity of the Spanish nation. His attempts to fight separatism with heavy-handed but sporadic repression and his oftentimes severe suppression of language and regional identities backfired: the demands for democracy became intertwined with demands for the recognition of a pluralistic vision of the Spanish nationhood. When Franco died, Spain entered into a phase of transition towards democracy, and all democratic groups were forced to face the Catalan, Basque and Galician question. On 11 September 1977, more than one million people marched in the streets of Barcelona (Catalonia) demanding "llibertat, amnistia i estatut d'autonomia", "liberty, amnesty and [a] Statute of Autonomy", the biggest demonstration in post-war Europe. A decree-law was passed that allowed for the creation of pre-autonomías, "pre-autonomies" or provisional regional governments for all regions, the "historical nationalities" included. Catalonia was the first to be so constituted, reviving again the Generalitat. The Basque Country quickly followed suit.
In the 1977 election to the first democratically elected Parliament since the times of the Republic, regional Catalan socialists (Socialists' Party of Catalonia) and Basque nationalists (Basque Nationalist Party) both won significant positions in representing their regions and their aspirations. This newly elected Parliament was entrusted to formulate a new constitution.
"Nationalities" in the constitution of 1978
The demands for the recognition of the distinctiveness of Catalonia, the Basque Country and Galicia, within the Spanish State became one of the most important challenges for the newly elected Parliament. In fact, the writing of the second article, in which the "nationalities and regions" of Spain were recognized, was the most hotly debated in the Parliament. Its acceptance was not smooth: the right vigorously opposed it, while the nationalists and the left firmly objected leaving it out. The natural corollary to debating the term "nationalities" was debating the term "nation". At the end of the spectrum there were those who thought the term "nationalities" was unnecessary, or that there was only one "nation" and "nationality"— Spain — while at the opposite end of the spectrum there were those who advocated for defining Spain as a plurinational State, that is, a State integrated by several nations. In the end, the second article was passed along with the term "nationalities" but firmly stressing the indivisible unity of the Spanish nation. It reads:
The Constitution is based on the indissoluble unity of the Spanish Nation, the common and indivisible homeland of all Spaniards; it recognizes and guarantees the right to self-government of the nationalities and regions of which it is composed and the solidarity among them all
— Second Article of the Spanish Constitution of 1978
The article united two historical trends in Spain: centralism and federalism, and in the words of one of the seven fathers of the Constitution, Jordi Solé Tura it was "[...] an authentic point of encounter between different concepts of the Spanish nation [...] In it, two great notions of Spain merge." It aimed to give an answer to the nationalistic aspirations that had been silenced during the four decades of Franco's dictatorial regime.
The constitution itself did not define the term, despite the diverse meanings and interpretations that its proponents and opponents had — ranging from "an expression of historical and cultural identities [...] in the superior unity of Spain" (Landelino Lavilla, from the Union of the Democratic Centre), "communities with a prominent cultural, historical or political personality" (Rafael Arias-Salgado, from the Union of the Democratic Centre), all the way to making it equivalent to "nation", (Manuel Fraga from the People's Alliance, in stern opposition to the term "nationalities" precisely because of its alleged synonymity with "nation") or defining it as a "nation without a State [...] within the plurinational reality of Spain [...] as a Nation of nations" (Miguel Roca Junyent, from the Unified Socialist Party of Catalonia).
The particular meaning that the term "nationalities" was to acquire in Spanish politics in reference to regions created some confusion with the concept of "nationality" in reference to citizenship, especially when the latter was defined in the 11th article of the constitution. It was suggested that the term "nationality" be changed to "citizenship" in the 11th article, but it was considered that the terms nationality and citizenship are not completely synonymous, as it is common in other European legislations.
The Preamble to the constitution explicitly stated that it is the Nation's will to protect "all Spaniards and the peoples of Spain in the exercise of human rights, their cultures and traditions, languages and institutions". This was a significant move, since for the "historical nationalities" part of their distinctiveness lies on their own regional languages. Furthermore, the nation became openly multilingual, declaring Castilian — that is, Spanish — the official language of the entire country, but declaring that the "other Spanish languages" will also be official in their respective autonomous communities. The third article ends up declaring that the "richness of the distinct linguistic modalities of Spain represent a patrimony which will the object of special respect and protection."
The State of Autonomies
The constitution aimed to devolve self-government to both nationalities and regions, if the latter so desired, which were to be constituted as autonomous communities, yet making an implicit distinction between the two groups in the level of competences that were to be devolved, and in the way they were to attain self-government — the three "historical nationalities" (Catalonia, Galicia and the Basque Country) were granted a simplified "fast-track" process, while the rest of the regions had to follow a specific set of requirements. Thus the process was purposely intended to be asymmetrical in nature. The autonomous communities were to be formed from the existing provinces, a division of the centralizing regime of the early nineteenth century: an autonomous community could be created by a province or group of provinces with common historical, cultural and economical features. Yet, the outcome was not predictable; the constitution created a process for devolution, but it differed from other legislations in two main aspects. First, it did not specify the name or number of the autonomous communities that would integrate the Spanish nation, and secondly, the process was voluntary in nature: the regions themselves had the option of choosing to attain self-government or not. This unique process of territorial administration was called the "State of Autonomies". Though highly decentralized, this system is not a federation, in that there was still ambiguity with regards to the power attributed to the regions, even though they can still negotiate them with the central government.
While the constitution was still being drafted, there was a demonstration in Andalusia, which sought to be recognized as a "nationality" as well, and to be granted self-government also through a rapid process. This opened a phase that was dubbed in Spanish as "café para todos", "coffee for all", which meant that all regions would be "served the same" — that is, that all nationalities and regions would accede to self-government in roughly the same degree, even if at different paces. Catalonia, the Basque Country and Galicia acceded to autonomy via the fast-track route established in the 151st article of the constitution, with all competences granted, because in the past they had approved a Statute by referendum and they had already established a pre-autonomic provisional government. Andalusia was able to take this route after a referendum in 1980. The rest, had the opportunity to accede to autonomy via the slower route established by the 143rd article, with a lower level of competences during a provisional period of five years, after which there was to be a progressive transference of competences, that would roughly equalize all communities. One particular exception was granted to both the Basque Country and Navarre in that their fueros or "medieval charters" that had granted them fiscal autonomy were restored. While Navarre, a province with a Basque-speaking minority, chose not to form part of the soon-to-be formed autonomous community of the Basque Country, it followed a different route of devolution, precisely because of the reinstitution of the medieval charters, and it is nominally known as a "chartered community", as opposed to an "autonomous community". (Both the Basque Country and Navarre are considered "communities of chartered regime", that is, with fiscal autonomy. They collect their own taxes and send a prearranged amount to the central government. The rest of the communities are considered to be of a "common regime"; currently they administer taxes only partially. The taxes collected from "common regime" communities are administered centrally and distributed amongst them all for fiscal equalization).
Current state of affairs
The "autonomic process", that is, the process whereby the nationalities and regions would accede to autonomy was partially concluded in 1983 when 17 autonomous communities covering the entire Spanish territory were created. (It was finally completed with the creation of two autonomous cities in Northern Africa, Ceuta and Melilla). All autonomous communities follow the provincial limits established in the 1833 territorial division of Spain, that is, no province has been partitioned between communities. Moreover, many communities roughly coincide with the pre-provincial historical regions of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, which in turn reflected to some extent some of the historical medieval kingdoms or administrative regions of the past.
On the other hand, some autonomous communities are new creations. For example, autonomy was granted to Cantabria and La Rioja, both of which were historically part of Castile. Despite the lack of historical base for both communities, and the fact that the Spanish government favored their integration in the larger Castile-León, the local population overwhelmingly supported the new entities. In Cantabria, one of the leading intellectual figures in 19th century Spain, Marcelino Menéndez Pelayo, had already rejected a Castilian identity for his region as far back as 1877, while he favored integration with its western neighbor, Asturias:
¡Y quién sabe si antes de mucho, enlazadas hasta oficialmente ambas provincias, rota la ilógica división que a los montañeses nos liga a Castilla, sin que seamos, ni nadie nos llame castellanos, podrá la extensa y riquísima zona cántabro-asturiana formar una entidad tan una y enérgica como la de Cataluña, luz y espejo hoy de todas las gentes ibéricas! 
The province of Madrid, was also separated from New Castile and constituted as an autonomous community, in a way in recognition of its status as the capital of the nation, but also because it was originally excluded from the pre-autonomic agreements that created the community of Castile-La Mancha, to which it naturally belonged. Some peripheral nationalists still complain that the creation of many regions was an attempt to break down their own ‘national unity’ by a sort of gerrymandering thus softening the impact of the distinctiveness of their own nationalities.
As competences were eventually transferred to all communities in roughly the same degree, some nationalists view that there is a vanishing practical distinction between "nationality" and "region", regardless of how the autonomous community defines itself, a dilution that is welcomed by some political parties at the national level. In fact, other communities have chosen to be identified as "nationalities" besides the "historical three" (such as Andalusia, Aragon, the Balearic Islands, the Canary Islands and the Valencian Community). Also, most communities that do not enjoy fiscal autonomy — the "common regime communities"— typically tend to follow Catalonia's lead in their demands for more competences or self-government. This has caused a movement for a further recognition of the distinctiveness of the "historical nationalities" as "nations" resuscitating oftentimes the debate between "nationality" and "nation" or the concept of a "plurinational State". In the Basque Country in 2003, the regional government proposed a plan whereby the autonomous community would become a "free associated State" of Spain, which was later rejected by the Spanish Parliament. In 2006, the Catalan Parliament, in approving a new Statute of Autonomy, chose to define Catalonia, not as a "nationality" but explicitly as a "nation", by a large majority. Similar proposals were made in Andalusia. The Spanish Parliament, which has to eventually ratify all Statutes of Autonomy, removed the article that defined Catalonia as a "nation", but made a reference in the Preamble of the document to the "fact" that the Catalan Parliament had chosen to so define Catalonia, but that the constitution recognizes her "national reality" as a "nationality". Finally, the distinction of two chartered communities with fiscal autonomy has led to discontent in Catalonia, which demands the same privilege and transparency, being one of the main net contributors of fiscal equalization to which only communities of common-regime are subject to — that is, it has a large fiscal deficit — whereas in Galicia and Andalusia, which are among the biggest net beneficiaries of such centrally managed funding, no such demand has been made.
The "nationalities" have also played a key role in national—"State-wide"—politics. In the few occasions where no major party has achieved absolute majority in the Congress of Deputies, there have been agreements with the so-called "nationalist" (i.e. "regionalist" or "peripheral nationalist") parties therein present. (It should be noted that in these occasions, no coalitions for government have been made, but rather a minority government is formed that receives support from the "nationalist" parties to approve the budget and other laws). This has led in some instances to further concessions to the peripheral nationalities.
The new framework of "autonomies" has served in legitimizing the Spanish state even within the "nationalities", more so in Catalonia and Galicia than in the Basque Country. (Legitimacy is still a question amongst some Basque nationalists; the Basque Country was the only community where the Spanish Constitution in 1978 was not approved by the majority of its constituents in the national referendum). In practical terms, the majority of the population has been satisfied with the framework of devolution since the restoration of democracy, even if there are still aspirations for further recognition of the distinctiveness of the nationalities or for the expansion of their self-government. In all three "historical nationalities", there is still a sizable minority, more so in Catalonia than in the Basque Country and Galicia, expressing its voice in one way or another, that proposes for the establishment of a true federal State in Spain or advocate for their right to self-determination and independence.
The economic crisis in Spain that started in 2008, has produced different reactions in the different communities. On one hand, politicians in some communities that are not "nationalities", mostly governed by the centre-right Popular Party, are considering a return of some devolved powers back to the central government. On the other hand, in Catalonia, the strenuous fiscal situation and the severe austerity measures enacted by the regional government have caused a large discomfort in the population, many of which view the "unfairness" of the large fiscal deficit as aggravating the situation. This, in turn, has led many who are not necessarily separatist but who are enraged by the financial deficit to support secession. In recent polls, support for independence has doubled from the mid-20% since the recession started to around 50% by September 2012, even though support for independence drops to the mid-30% if more options are given, with an almost equal percentage opting for the establishment of a true federal system in Spain. This surge in support for independence was evidenced during the celebration of the National Day of Catalonia on 11 September 2012, when about 600,000 - 2 million people marched on the streets of Barcelona rallying for independence; one of the largest demonstrations in Spanish history.
Following the rally, the president of Catalonia, Artur Mas, in a previously scheduled meeting with the prime minister of Spain, Mariano Rajoy, requested and was denied on the basis of its purported unconstitutionality, a change in the taxation system in Catalonia that would have made it similar to that of the two communities of chartered regime. The week after the meeting, Mas called for the dissolution of the Catalan Parliament and for early elections to be held on 25 November 2012. Before its dissolution, the Catalan parliament approved a bill calling for the next legislature to let Catalonia exercise its right of self-determination by holding a "referendum or consultation" during the next four years in which the people would decide on becoming a new independent and sovereign State. The parliamentary decision was approved by a large majority of deputies: 84 voted affirmative, 21 voted negative and 25 abstained. The deputy prime minister of Spain, Soraya Sáenz de Santamaría, declared that the central government would exercise all "legal instruments" — current legislation requires the executive government or the Congress of Deputies to call for or sanction a binding referendum — to block any such attempt. The leaders of the opposition, both in the Catalan Parliament, as well as in the Cortes Generales, and both from the Socialist Party, do not support Catalan secession, but rather propose a change in the constitution that would create a true federal system in Spain, to "better reflect the singularities" of Catalonia and to modify the current taxation system.
- Nationalisms and regionalisms of Spain
- Politics of Spain: The nationality debate
- Political divisions of Spain
- Basque nationalism, Catalan nationalism and Galician nationalism
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