Spain’s Autonomous Communities Have More Powers than the Scottish Parliament – Letter from Scotland Jan 9, 2022

We are taking advantage of our status as digital nomads to base ourselves in Gran Canaria for most of January. I started off by correcting people who said ‘enjoy your holiday’ by replying that I would be hunched over my laptop much of the time, as usual. But I guess it depends what you mean by holiday – it is lovely to get a change of scene and some sunshine.

The island is still quieter than usual due to the pandemic but it is reopening. The harbour near where we are based is full of yachts and this weekend the bars and restaurants were busy with an international crowd. In the cool of the evening, many of those seated outside wear those gorgeous, slightly scratchy wool jumpers that one fears to wash – the Scandis are back in town.

The Canaries is the southernmost area of the EU and is a sort of European version of Florida. The archipelago is great for cycling, hiking, birdwatching, it is a historic fueling point for seafarers, and in winter the temperatures tend to be in the 70s. Hence it is popular with what in the US are called snowbirds – retired people or digi-mads like us from northern Europe who head south in winter.

The Canaries are, of course, a part of Spain. It seems interesting to me that this is still the case. The distance between the capital Las Palmas and Madrid is 1,800km – but the islands are only about 100km from the coast of Africa.  The Canaries have a dark past of colonial conquest by the Castilians. Indeed, slavery was first introduced here. However, there seems little demand for independence now. A violent group whose members set off a bomb in a florists’ shop in the 1970s attracted little support.

Why is this? There are some explanations. EU membership contributes to the region’s prosperity. European tourism is a major part of the economy, and the islands’ agricultural produce is also exported back to the mainland. But it is also largely self-governing as an autonomous community within Spain. In Scotland, the issue of devo max is being discussed again, as a potential way to break the stalemate over a new independence referendum. The Sunday Times today reported that Labour will embrace it; Gordon Brown is at work on a constitutional convention.

The Canaries’ Parliament seems worth looking at in this context. It has significantly greater powers than Holyrood. After the despotic rule of General Franco, Spain introduced a reformed constitution and is now the most decentralized country in Europe. The Canaries will be celebrating its 40th birthday as an autonomous community this year. It has strong fiscal autonomy; it has its own President and Parliament. The Canaries’  Parliament also appoints members directly to Spain’s Upper House.

Spain’s equivalent of the House of Lords is the Senado. With just 266 members it is about one-third of the size of the UK body. While most senators are directly elected, a proportion is appointed by the autonomous Parliaments of each region. In the Spanish constitution, the Senado has the final say in disputes but it has only once used this – when, in 2017, it voted to remove the elected Government of Catalonia.

Clearly, the Spanish state has its share of nationalist movements to negotiate with. One of the strongest has been the Basques – the Basque area now has more fiscal autonomy than other parts of Spain. It operates on a federal model where taxes are essentially collected by the regional authority and part is handed over to the central Government for defence and so on.

The idea is that Spain’s regions work together to agree a position on issues at EU level. Issues like immigration are also dealt with centrally. The Canaries, for example, are one of the biggest receivers of boat migrants from Africa, with 23,000 arriving in 2020. There are ongoing negotiations with African countries by the Spanish government to reduce the traffic, and they lobby for funds from the EU to respond.

According to Wikipedia “This current level of fiscal decentralisation (in Spain) has been regarded by economists such as Thomas Piketty as troublesome since, in his view, it “challenges the very idea of solidarity within the country and comes down to playing the regions against each other, which is particularly problematic when the issue is one of income tax as this is supposed to enable the reduction of inequalities between the richest and the poorest, over and above regional or professional identities”.[47] “

But it is not a given that specific regions are doomed to be less economically successful. Political and fiscal autonomy can make a difference. In regard to Scotland, the Scottish economy is clearly being damaged currently by the economic effects of Brexit, a policy imposed by Westminster. Only about a third of Scots who voted in the 2016 referendum wanted to leave the EU. Yet the latest figures show that the Scottish economy – which was among the strongest in the UK in terms of exports – is one of the hardest hit. Scotland can do nothing about this under current arrangements. It has also been unable to diverge very far from the UK Government’s Covid measures, specifically citing a lack of the fiscal autonomy it would need to offer economic support.

In contrast, FT columnist Martin Wolf recently analysed the Baque country’s successful recovery from its post-industrial slump to become one of the most economically vibrant areas of Europe. He wrote: “How was this done and what can we learn from it? There would seem to have been two necessary conditions – the desire to succeed and the freedom to do so.” Close cooperation between public and private sectors has been key. “The shared aim motivating it all has been one of balanced social and economic development.” A strategy developed in the 1990s revolved around clusters, improving efficiency, fostering non-R&D-based diversification and promoting internationalisation. Later this developed into a sustained focus on innovation and science-driven industrial diversification.

Wolf concludes that for areas like Scotland, the freedom of the people who live in the country to make decisions is key not just because they are closer to what is happening on the ground but also because “It is a way to foster the needed boldness.”

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