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Federations Magazine Article
Publication Year:
Spanish regions gain power

In Spain, the contest between the central
government and the country’s 17 regional governments
can become volatile. The debate reached a fever pitch
in mid-2007 with regard to Basque demands for greater
autonomy, when opposition leader Mariano Rajoy of
the Popular Party accused Prime Minister José Luis
Rodríguez Zapatero of having negotiated with Basque ETA terrorists
“behind the backs of the Spanish people and playing
with the structure of the state as if it was a Meccano set.” Yet
according to popular opinion polls in August 2007, Zapatero’s
popularity has actually gone up since the ETA cancelled the
cease-fire on June 6.
No country has moved toward an intergovernmental system
as rapidly as Spain in recent decades. Shortly after the death of
Spanish dictator Francisco Franco in 1975, democracy was
restored and the political system became federal in virtually all
but name, bringing autonomy to regional and local governments,
with powers divided between the central authority and
17 regional governments, called “autonomous communities” in
Spain. The division of jurisdiction has evolved through framework
laws, Spain’s Constitutional Tribunal and day-to-day
intergovernmental relations.
Ambitious subnational leaders have
mainly sought further decentralization and
devolution of powers to autonomous community
and local levels. Besides its 17
autonomous communities, in 2005 Spain
had 50 super-municipal provinces (seven
merged with autonomous communities), 81
county-level entities, 8,107 cities or municipal
corporations, 909 consortia (vertical partnerships between
municipalities, provinces, autonomous communities and the
state), 988 intermunicipal services and about 3,700 sub-municipal
units and government corporations. Many joint bodies
made up of representatives from the central government and
autonomous community bodies have evolved through transfer
of powers and concurrent programming. Spain’s entry into the
European Union in 1986 has affected policy in such areas as
land use, solid waste disposal, coastal zone management,
employment and immigration.
How governments interact
Spanish intergovernmental relations, or IGR , take place at three
• Macro IGR includes political interactions between regional
and national leaders, as well as major issues concerning territorial
division or concurrence of powers.
• Meso IGR refers to less visible but important routines of official-
to-official contact, the negotiation of grants and contracts,
establishing governmental partnerships and so on.
• Micro IGR is the hidden-from-public-view operational level at
which projects are negotiated, regulations and standards are
enforced, contracts are managed, land is zoned and building
permits are issued.
Macro IGR. This form of interaction includes issues of
regional strife, usually involving identity,
powers or financing, which attract attention
outside Spain. As well, regional parties often
negotiate deals in the central parliament
when forming coalition governments.
Political conflict always draws attention, and
these struggles are significant and do define
IGR , to some extent. But broader concerns of
territorial politics come into play.
Framework laws passed by Parliament in Madrid also animate
a dynamic IGR . Most powers are not neatly
compartmentalized, but rather have an impact on two or more
Spanish regions gain power
Autonomous communities and
municipalities take on more
Robert Agranoff is Professor Emeritus in the School of Public and
Environmental Affairs, Indiana University-Bloomington and Senior
Professor, Instituto Universitario Ortega y Gasset, Madrid. He is
completing a book on Spanish intergovernmental relations.
Spanish Prime Minister José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero (r.) helps
José Montilla campaign for president of the region of Catalonia in
October 2006. Montilla was elected.
REUTERS/Gustau Nacarino
OCTOBER | NOVEMBER 2007 Federations
have the population and revenue base to offer the full array of
such required services as water and waste-water handling,
refuse collection, access roads and sanitation. They have three
choices if they do not directly deliver each service: allow the
provincial government to provide the service, form a special
district with nearby municipalities to deliver the services or
arrange a service contract with another municipal government
or a private vendor. Each of these types of arrangement is intergovernmental
in nature and all require autonomous
community approval. Municipalities engage in interactions
with autonomous community education officials on such matters
as sites for new schools.
Intergovernmental dealings occur within the larger frameworks
of meso and macro IGR . This is where government
ultimately works – or doesn’t – in federal systems.
Where governments meet
Four additional mechanisms help hold together the system of
intergovernmental relations:
• Sectoral conferences, or multilateral meetings and issues
forums focused by policy area for autonomous community-
Madrid mutual exchanges and problem-solving.
• Bilateral co-operation commissions, essentially project-oriented
negotiating bodies comprised of first- and second-level
management from state and autonomous community
administrative bodies. These bodies initially negotiated the
levels. One study of about 74 non-defence, foreign
and domestic policies indicated that 17 involved
exclusive central jurisdiction and 19 exclusive autonomous
community authority, with the remaining 38
having a mixed nature. This last group contains most
core policies, including education, health, social services,
income assistance, economic and commercial
development, transportation, local government and
environmental management. The operation of the
education and health systems is shared between
Madrid and the autonomous communities. Local
government is made operational by country-wide
laws affecting elections, financing and basic organization
and services.
Meso IGR. Spain’s extensive interlocking
arrangements – with central framework laws complemented
by further legislation and regulation in
the communities – means that both orders of government
have strong interest in the implementation
process in many areas. Spain’s system of parliamentary
and cabinet government permits much of this
activity to be conducted within the executive
branches by administrators and contacts with their
counterparts are extensive. At the political level of
ministers and heads of government, Spain has less
contact than in such parliamentary federations as
Australia, Canada and India. However, a Council of
Autonomous Community Presidents was recently
formed and it has biannual meetings with the prime
minister; these focus on broad policy design, leaving
other issues primarily to bilateral contacts.
Policy design issues are also important in generating
IGR at the meso level. For example, the rules of
urban planning and zoning are only broadly regulated
by Madrid. Each autonomous community has its own
laws dealing with urban development, permits, construction
and regulations. Each municipality is required to file and
update a 10-year plan for development, approved by the autonomous
community, including exceptions that are allowed. The
same planning and operational processes are applicable to
autonomous community-local affairs in terms of providing
infrastructure, social services, income maintenance, health
services and education. In all these areas, middle-level intergovernmental
i s sues have largely shi f ted f rom
Madrid-autonomous community to autonomous communitylocal
As a result, more of the “action” in a number of these areas
focuses on the autonomous community capitals. Mayors and
their councillors negotiate with regional agencies over matters
such as financing and policy interpretation, review and
approval. Similarly, the main public interest organization for
governmental units, the Spanish Federation of Municipalities
and Provinces, relies more on lobbying by its autonomous
community-level affiliates, along with the autonomous-community-
level advocacy of its non-affiliated counterpart
associations in the Basque Country and in Catalonia.
Micro IGR. This level, not seen by the public, includes the
negotiating of projects, enforcing of standards and management
of contracts. Many small Spanish municipalities do not
OCTOBER | NOVEMBER 2007 Federations
A representative of Batasuna, the illegal Basque independence party, speaks at
a news conference in San Sebastian in September.
REUTERS/Vincent West
ethiopia [from page 16]
administration. Moreover, even if the majority residents of
Addis Ababa are the Amhara, Addis Ababa is the capital, not
only of Ethiopia, but also of Oromia regional state.
Nomads blur demography
The effect of diversity within one region in Ethiopia can be seen
in Gambella regional state, located in southwestern Ethiopia
bordering Sudan. An ethnically heterogeneous regional state
without a dominant ethnic community, Gambella is host to
about 253,000 people from the Anywaas, Nuer, Mezengir, Opio
and Komo, plus settlers from Tigray, Amhara, Oromia and
Southern Regional State. The Nuers constitute the largest
group, 39.7 per cent, while the Anywaa make up 27.4 per cent of
the total population.
Gambella has both settled and nomadic populations, so it is
influenced by the seasonal migration of the nomadic Nuers,
which has an effect on demographic and other aspects, such as
power sharing and conflict over resources. As a regional state
with a porous international border with Sudan, Gambella has
inhabitants in areas where ethnic groups are divided across a
border. There was fighting between different ethnic groups
there in 2003 and 2004, and the situation is still volatile to this
The ethnically-based power-allocation system set by the
federal Constitution has affected the relationship among the
ethno-cultural communities and led to violent conflicts at the
local level as different groups vie for what they see as their
rightful share of power and control over resources. Lessons will
surely be drawn from this unintended result.
Pragmatists support ethnic federalism
Unfortunately, Ethiopia does not benefit from a broad-based
consensus among the political class about the role and brand
of federalism that is right for the country. The political reaction
to the ethno-linguistic federalist arrangement in Ethiopia can
be summarized into three views. First are those who support
ethno-linguistic federalism as a matter of the ethno-linguistic
communities’ human right to self-determination, up to and
including secession. They support federalism even at the cost
of unity. Second are those who see ethno-linguistic federalism
as regrettable but the only way to prevent disintegration. This is
a calculated version of unity: inherently they are opposed to
secession but they support ethno-linguistic federalism as a
necessary means to unity, not for its own inherent merit.
A third view is held by those who are totally opposed to
ethno-linguistic federalism; they want to do away with it and
replace it with either another form of federalism or a unitary
system. It is this author’s position that if this view was to be
implemented it could turn the country into bloody civil war.
Moreover, it could lead ultimately to the disintegration of the
country – the very outcome the holders of this view abhor. In
other words, this position is blind to the essential Ethiopian
reality – which is that only a system that politically and legally
guarantees and explicitly celebrates Ethiopia’s diversity can
achieve durable peace and unity. Ethiopia has the constitutional
framework to accommodate diversity. The task now is to
apply that framework fairly throughout all of the country.
transfer of services “downward” and later dealt with the latest
power transfers in health and education for some regions.
• Joint plans and programs between Madrid and autonomous
community governments, especially in areas of joint or overlapping
competencies, including those related to EU
• Most numerous are bilateral and multilateral collaboration
agreements: contracts linking two or more governments.
More than 5,000 collaboration agreements have been signed
by Madrid and regional governments, as well as countless
others between provincial and municipal governments, and
special units of government.
The building of Spain’s “State of Autonomous Regions”
(Estado de las Autonómias) has depended heavily on these four
types of agreements and commissions.
Fiscal links are also fundamental in a system that is vertically
unbalanced. The latest studies reveal that “own source
taxes” – taxes imposed locally – of autonomous communities
in 2005 amounted to only 0.9 per cent of all revenues. The
autonomous communities receive 50.3 per cent of their revenues
as a fixed share of various taxes levied by the central
government on their behalf. They receive another 46 per cent
in the form of various transfer payments from the central budget
(apart from the special fiscal regime for the Basque and
Navarre autonomous communities).
Municipalities fare somewhat better, inasmuch as direct
and indirect taxes, charges and fees, and other revenue sources
in 2002 amounted to about 65 per cent of local revenues.
Another 13 per cent comes from state transfers, and the remainder
from provincial and autonomous community transfers.
Only a portion of these are unconditional, and the others are
dependent on completion of specific projects.
Forces that drive intergovernmental relations
Several important factors appear to animate IGR dynamics:
• Constitutional and institutional frameworks of the state, particularly
guarantees of autonomy and a share of state revenues,
assure that the levels interact.
• Framework laws in many core policy areas, plus the basic
structure of autonomous community and local governments,
lock in interdependence among levels.
• Europeanization means areas such as employment, immigration,
urban waste, landfills, public procurement, employees’
work time and environmental impact involve a fourth tier of
• Electoral competition, coalition governments and the rotation
of political parties in office have strengthened
autonomous communities and, to some extent, local governments,
and insulated them from top-down control, creating a
“politics of place,” unit by unit of government.
• Spanish political culture feeds on the importance of place and
individualism leading to the tradition of multiple unilateral
contacts to supplement or complement any multilateral
• Following subnational traditions of deep administrative
involvement in intergovernmental relations, administrative
and executive federalism are the prevailing interactive modes.
These reinforce the federalizing nature of Spanish intergovernmental