Devolution: Learn from Spanish experience, tread cautiously

by B. R. True

Former Hony. Consul General for Sri Lanka in Madrid, Spain

With the welcome return to peace to Sri Lanka and the government now weighing options for delegating powers to the Northern and Eastern Provinces, it would be worthy indeed to look into the Spanish experience and avoid many of its costly mistakes.

In the case of Sri Lanka, the word devolution (etymologically from the Latin devolvere, or to give back) is a misnomer in itself. It could be construed solely as delegation of powers from the Central Government to the provinces.

Calls for devolution have historically been used by nationalists as a starting point. Devolution will only increase the appetite for more powers. Whether it is the remnants of the LTTE in Sri Lanka, the IRA in Northern Ireland, the ETA in Spain’s Basque Country or the more moderate but equally fierce Scottish, Quebecois or Catalonian nationalists, their final target is independence and their objective as regards devolution is to achieve maximum by force, by democratic means or by a combination of both.

Spain today

In Spain, Catalonian nationalists have found it much more rewarding to support the shaky Central Governments in return for additional power and finances. Basque separatists, seeing the futility of terrorist means, have only recently realised that they could inch towards independence through town council and parliamentarian elections. The question is how to create a long-standing constitutional framework like that of France (with its significant Basque and Breton communities) or Switzerland (with its ethnic and linguistic diversity) and avoid the political as well as economic instability of regimes like Northern Ireland, Belgium or Spain itself.

But, let us take a closer look at Spain. It is easy to argue that when the Fathers of the Nation drew up the current Spanish Constitution in 1978, they had no idea as to how far the devolution process would evolve. Probably, no other country in the world has decentralised state power to the same extent as Spain. In fact, the Basques currently enjoy a greater degree of home rule than any other region in Europe. And the conquests of the Basque and Catalonian Regional Governments make it ever more difficult, if not impossible, to draw up a stable and permanent set of rules.

Indeed, Spain today is a veritable conglomeration of 17 republics and 2 free cities, with the former being the country’s Autonomous Governments and the latter the country’s two enclaves, Ceuta and Melilla, on the Moroccan coast. While Section 2 of the Constitution declares "the indissoluble unity of the Spanish Nation, the common and indivisible motherland of all Spaniards", recognising and guaranteeing "the right to self-government of the nationalities and regions of which it is composed and solidarity between them all", the "right to self-government" has been carried to extremes.

The real king-makers and power-brokers in this game, namely Catalonia and the Basque Country, as well as, albeit to a much lesser degree, Galicia, have historically preserved a distinctive heritage, identity and national fervour, differentiating them from the opposite end of the spectrum, which includes such newly conceived embryos as Murcia, Castile-Leon, La Rioja and Cantabria, with the remaining Communities situated at different levels in between.

Catalonian and Basque nationalists argue that, unlike the other regions, their territories are "nations" and invoke history to support their claim. The Basque Nationalist Party affirms that the conflict dates back to 1836, referring to the Carlist war after which the central Government revoked the Basques’ fiscal privileges (subsequently restored in 1979). Catalonia insists that it has always been a distinct community, descending from the medieval kingdom of Aragon, and having rebelled against Madrid in 1640 and in 1701. But, Catalonian and Basque nationalisms are really creations of the late 19th century. They stem from industrialisation, which made these the richest regions in the country, taking in migrants from elsewhere in Spain. At the time the Spanish state, unlike its French counterpart, lacked the resources to integrate the country. Otherwise Catalonia and the Basque country would have been as content within Spain as Languedoc and Brittany are within France.

Obsession with language

Perhaps, because their historic claim to nationhood is shaky, language has become an obsession for nationalist politicos. The public use of Catalan, Euskera (Basque) and Gallego was banned during the 35 years of Franco’s dictatorship. The 1978 Constitution restored the official status of these languages alongside Spanish in their respective territories. In Catalonia, where Catalan and Spanish are more or less mutually comprehensible, the stated policy of the Regional Government under both the nationalists and Socialists is one of fostering "bilingualism". In practice, though, primary and secondary schooling is conducted in Catalan, with Spanish being taught only two to three hours a week as a foreign language. A Spaniard living in Catalonia but not speaking Catalan has almost no chance of teaching at a university, being employed as a judge or holding any responsible position in the Regional Administration. Plays and films in Spanish, which all Catalonians speak and understand, are refused public subsidies and 1.5 million euros are spent on dubbing films into Catalan. This is not so, however, with Euskera, which is not rooted in any other family of languages. The Basque Government allows schools to choose between three alternative curriculums, one in Euskera, another in Spanish and the third, half and half. But, then again, only schools in poor immigrant areas now offer the Spanish curriculum. Despite these efforts, Basque and Catalan are far from universally spoken in their respective territories: only around half of the Catalonians habitually use Catalan and less than 25% of Basques speak Euskera. Nevertheless, nationalist pressure has recently forced the Senate to allow regional representatives to address the chamber in their regional languages, thus compelling the State to incur unnecessary expense on employing interpreters, while the Constitution states that "Castilian is the official Spanish language of the State. All Spaniards have the duty to know it and the right to use it. The other Spanish languages shall also be official in their respective Autonomous Communities".

Power brokers

Each time either of the two major power-brokers exacts a little more authority (and money) from the central Government in exchange for parliamentary support, the remaining Autonomous Communities, not to be belittled, cry out Café para todos!—Coffee for all! This has reduced the capacity of the state coffers to less than 18% where public spending is concerned, with the regional governments managing more than 40% of the taxpayers’ money, the city and town councils 13%, and the social-security system the rest. The majority of the regional governments are now responsible for schools, universities, health, social services, culture, urban and rural development, coastal areas and, in some places, such as Catalonia and the Basque Country, policing, substituting the National Police. This would have been fine, indeed, if the State administration had been pruned down proportionately while guaranteeing unified criteria in such areas as education. However, the gaps widen inexorably as the regional governments continue to demand and obtain more and more autonomy. Overspending by regional politicos (134,000 million euros) has now resulted in 35% of Spain’s 8.5% overall deficit for 2011, with the Central Government left with limited means to force to Autonomous Communities to exercise control over them.

Staggering cost of devolution

The burden of all of this on taxpayers is tremendous with overlapping at every level: Ministries, Regional Departments, Agencies, you name it, all manned and staffed by public servants. Spanish Senators and Deputies who receive over 3000 Euros each a month, tax-free plus expenses and bonuses for attending committees, iPads, free transportation, etc. Regional parliamentarians, numbering 1,206, are entitled to similar pay cheques cum fringe benefits, including Platinum VISA cards for dubious expenditures. The Autonomous Governments also account for 4,000 political appointees and advisors. With no ceiling on the wages that their respective Administrations can approve for them, the President of Catalonia, for example, receives 169,446 euros per annum, the Mayor of Barcelona, 151,270 euros, the Mayor of Madrid, 115,985 euros, the Speaker of Parliament, 193,984 Euros etc.

The devolved Autonomous Governments have also squandered millions of euros on fostering "institutional prestige" and owing to ostentation. Royal palaces and other historical buildings have been reconverted at an exorbitant cost into Presidential residences and autonomous Parliament and Departmental seats. Fourteen regional Governments have publicly financed television stations with 10,199 employees and 1,540 million euros in debt. Catalonia, the Basque Country, Galicia and Andalusia, among others, maintain 189 representative offices or pseudo-embassies abroad at an estimated cost of 500 million euros per year. Just for the record, Spain has more official cars (an estimated 40,000) than any other European country!

The Central Government’s ability to carry out economic reforms is greatly hampered by decentralisation. As regional governments acquire more and more powers of regulation, businesses and corporations face higher compliance costs. In a country with five million unemployed, jobseekers are forced to search through 17 different official websites for a woefully few vacancies available due to the present crisis.

But this is only part of the cost of devolution. Still remaining as defunct institutions and resting places for mediocre party members, politicians in transit and superfluous bureaucrats are the former Provincial Councils, Governor’s Offices (now renamed Offices of the Delegates and Vice-Delegates of the Central Government) and Island Councils.

It would have been much easier for all concerned if Spain had adopted federalism in 1978. That would have set clear rules and aligned responsibilities for taxing and spending and overall control. The Senate could have become a place where the regions were formally represented and could settle their differences, somewhat akin to Germany’s Bundesrat.

Sri Lankan legislators would do well in taking into account the Spanish experience when considering devolution of powers.

animated gif
Processing Request
Please Wait...