Mireia Grau-Creus is Head of the Research Unit at the Catalan Institute for Self-Government Studies
Marc Sanjaume-Calvet is Lecturer in Political Science at the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya (UOC)
«Loyalty does not mean submission» has recently protested Ximo Puig, the socialist prime minister of the Valencian Autonomous Community. These words were expressed in relation to the passive and subordinate role the autonomous communities have been given in the management of the COVID19 crisis when, at the same time, have been asked to act «in unity» with Central Government initiatives.
In spite of the many headlines his words produced and the strong connotation of indignant surprise they steam, as a matter of facts, what these words are expressing in relation to the autonomous communities is far from being either a surprise or an institutional novelty strictly and only linked to the Covid19 measures. Rather, they actually reveal the structurally centralized features of the Spanish intergovernmental system and, in extension, of the whole territorial institutional system which, for decades, have been perceived and characterized by many as «work in (federal) progress» and, therefore, considered to be as in a “quasi natural” evolution towards a federal kind of system.
In this sense and from this perspective, the subordinate role the autonomous communities have been given in the setting of the Spanish response to the pandemic crisis could difficulty not have been otherwise. Unlike in other countries, centralization was not much an option or a policy-style choice; it is rather at the foundation of any constitutional and legal measure the Spanish Central Government could have taken. Therefore, what the Covid19 crisis has brought about is the clash between the «work in progress» perspectives and the structural pillars of intergovernmental relations, here, then, the indignant surprise.
The Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez announced the declaration of State of alarm on 13th March. The state of alarm is a constitutional measure proposed by the Executive that requires the only approval by absolute majority of the Spanish Lower Chamber (Congreso), no other institutions intervene. Its approval meant the total centralisation of all lockdown measures in the hands of four central Ministers: Health, Defence, Transports and Interior (Home Affairs). Therefore, regional governments were (and still are) constitutionally stripped of their also constitutional powers without a say. The announce of the State of Alarm was made by the Prime Minister alone and had only been communicated to the King and the Speaker of the Congreso. During the afternoon of the same day, Pedro Sánchez called the regional presidents to inform them about it.
Two days later, with the State of Alarm already into force, a first online meeting took place between the Spanish Prime Minister and the premiers of the autonomous communities at the initiative of the former. Apart from its online nature, the celebration of the meeting can be certainly considered as very unusual as premiers meetings, established in 2004, had only been called seven times since, and had not always attended by all premiers. After the March 2020 meeting, the socialist prime minister of the Extremadura, Guillermo Fernández Vara, a relevant senior figure of the party (one of the “territorial barons”), summarised the rationale of the Central Government imposing a centralised “unique commandment” to fight against the virus: “The virus does not know about Statutes of Autonomy (…); 17 scenarios of decision are not acceptable”1.
The current phase of lockdown de-escalation has led to a more fluid relationship between central authorities and the autonomous-community governments; thus, since the first meeting in mid March, there have been ten other meetings. Although the lockdown de-escalation is still under the control of the “unique central commandment”, this commandment has been more open to listen to the proposals made by the autonomous communities. This subtle change of policy-style that took place in the de-escalation phase has little to do with federal perspectives but with a traditional pattern that shapes the working of intergovernmental relations in Spain: lacked of any federal institutional design allowing shared-rule, intergovernmental relations are strongly mediated by and dependent on party politics and parliamentary arithmetic.
First of all, parliamentary arithmetic has forced Pedro Sánchez to accept the autonomous communities to express their proposals on those issues falling under their redevolved powers. Yet, Sánchez is the leader of a minority coalition government (PSOE-Podemos) that was elected with support from Catalan and Basque nationalist parties (ERC and PNV) ruling in their respective autonomous communities. These two parties have been very critical with the lockdown measures but, at the same time, are crucial to sustain a viable parliamentary majority2. Secondly, party politics at state-wide level has strongly emerged to guide intergovernmental relations between Central Government and those autonomous communities ruled by the main state-wide opposition party, the Partido Popular (PP). The Madrid PP prime minister, Mrs. Isabel Díaz-Ayuso, incarnates the clearest example of this: Díaz-Ayuso, very close to the PP leader, Mr. Pablo Casado, is now constantly criticising Central government decisions and pushing for a faster de-escalation. The conservative party, leading the official opposition, has withdrawn its support to governmental measures and abstained in the last vote on the state of alarm in Parliament. Meanwhile the far-right party Vox is calling for social mobilization on the streets to defy the “communist” (sic) state of alarm.
In a nutshell, the Covid19 crisis does not seem to bring any novelty to the Spanish non-quasi-federalism. On the contrary, this crisis seems to be a mirror that perfectly reflects the limits and vitiated dynamics of the Spanish decentralisation that, long before we knew about this virus, was already an ill-equipped territorial model to cope with any serious challenge in a federal way.
The only novelty refers to the sudden realization by some politicians and analysts that the autonomous communities have no possible institutional role in state-wide decision-making processes, that is, there is no possible shared-rule. Let’s hope they finally realize that the absence of shared-rule also defines the narrow limits of self-rule, because, as following Frank Sinatra’s “Love and Marriage” song, we can’t have one without the other.
2 Extensions of the state of alarm require a debate and a parliamentary majority every fifteen days, up to this date it has been prolonged five times. The last time was on 7th May and obtained 178 votes (out of 350 deputies), the governmental coalition could only negotiate supports from the centre-right party Ciudadanos and the Basque nationalists PNV-EAJ while the Catalan nationalists abstained or voted against this measure because of its centralising effects. See: https://app.congreso.es/votacionesWeb/InvocaReport?sesion=20&votacion=9&legislatura=14