The Duck of Minerva

The re-compositing of states

19 June 2006

A significant majority of Catalans voted for greater autonomy today. The Financial Times reports on the diffusion of devolutionary rhetoric in Spain:

Spanish regions began clamouring for sweeping new powers on Monday after Catalonia approved a new self-government charter in a referendum on Sunday.

The wealthy region of Catalonia’s quest for more autonomy has led to a rash of copy-cat legislation throughout Spain. Valencia, Galicia, the Balearic Islands and Andalusia – regions that account for more than one-third of Spain’s population – want to take over responsibility for more public services and are demanding more tax transfers to do so.

Like Catalonia, they want to be recognised as “historic nationalities”, “national realities” or simply “nations” with distinct cultural and ethnic identities.

Smaller regions with fewer claims to nationhood fear they will lose financially in the scramble for more local power. Regional governments have more than doubled their share of public spending to more than 40 per cent of the total as the central government devolved responsibility for housing, education and heathcare during the past 10 years.

The trend-spotters over at Coming Anarchy will, I’m sure, soon argue that these developments provide further evidence of a coming wave of micro-states. Meanwhile, Edward of a A Fistful of Euros suggests that the sky is not, in fact, falling on the Spanish state.

On the ’national question’ the wording is important, as is the fact that it appears in the preamble and not in the actual body of the text. The wording is framed in this way to offer some recognition to the fact that many Catalans feel themselves to belong to a nation (just like the Welsh and the Scottish do), but to do so without giving explicit nation status to Catalonia (this is likely to be a question which simply isn’t going to go away). In this sense the text is perfectly compatible with the Spanish constitution which refers to the existence of three ’historic nationalities’ (the Basque, the Galician, and the Catalan ones) without exactly clarifying what this expression actually means. In this sense the precise meaning has traditionally been left to interpretative decisions by the Spanish Constitutional Court.

On the taxes issue it should be borne in mind that some 33% of national income taxes are already retained in Catalonia (this was decided by the PP government of Aznar when it needed support in the Madrid parliament from the Catalan nationalist party CiU) and this figure will now be increased to 50%.

But before you run away with the idea that all this money will be something extra, it is worth pointing out that what the money is to be spent on is determined by the additional devolved responsibilities which also come with the statute, like more control of logistical infrastructure, train services and highways etc, and the administration of work permits for immigrants.

It is worth noting at this point that the original Basque statute effectively gives the Basque government 100% control over income taxes collected in their community and that Zapatero has already said he will offer other Spanish regions the same tax arrangement that Catalonia has just obtained. So in many ways, instead of representing a first step to break-up, all of this could be seen as a step on the road to a less centralised, more federal Spain, and one which offers complete recognition to it’s national minorities.

I think the comparison with Wales and Scotland is fairly apt–not necessarily in terms of the specific bargains but because it highlights the degree to which many European states are returning to their roots. As I wrote in a recent book chapter:

Thus, historians now generally refer to early modern European polities as “composite states”: composed of numerous subordinate political communities linked to central authorities through distinctive contracts specifying rights and obligations. Subordinate political communities thus often had their own social organizations, identities, languages, and institutions. Local actors jealously guarded whatever autonomy they had. Subjects expected rulers to uphold these contracts; to guarantee what they perceived as “customary” rights and immunities in matters of taxation and local control….

In more concrete terms, European integration aims at the formation of a large, composite political community. Disagreements in Europe over the relative scope of central power and local control are not likely to be resolved in the immediate future, particularly as European expansion leads to greater heterogeneity within a united Europe. At the same time, pressures for devolution within European states show no signs of abating, in no small part because, in states such as Britain and Spain, national consolidation never overcame the essentially agglomerative basis of state formation.

Indeed, there’s a fundamental irony here. Historians put forward the notion of “composite states” as a way of differentiating early modern European polities from modern nation-states. But the harder we look for actual nation-states, the more the concept seems to slip away. Almost all of the advanced-indutrialized states are composite political communities; almost none of the great state-building projects of the 19th and 20th centuries completely overcame the stubborn persistence of local heterogeneity.

The world, in this respect, seems to be headed not towards some sort of “neo-medievalism,” but towards a reconfiguration of forms of political organization that scholars once viewed as ephemeral: as little more than waystations between the medieval and the modern.

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