Devolution in Spain

Is it possible to go too far with devolution? In 2017, the world was watching as this question was answered during a time of crisis in Spain. Here was a country considered the most devolved in Europe, comprised entirely of autonomous regions, many with their own parliaments and presidents. The system had seemed to function well for over 40 years, but if you were from Barcelona or somewhere else in Catalonia, at a certain point, it seemed that belonging to Spain was no longer necessary. Over 90% of Catalan voters agreed, and Catalonia declared its independence. Read on to find out how this ended.

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Table of contents

    Causes of Devolution in Spain

    Like several other European countries (e.g., Italy and Belgium), the modern nation-state of Spain evolved through a complex series of steps involving continent-level politics, alliances, feuds between different royal families, an overseas colonial empire (now gone), and a long-term struggle to create unity out of cultural and particularly linguistic diversity. Periods of dictatorship in Spain typically involved suppression of autonomy, while periods of democracy allowed the expression of regional culture.

    Devolution in Spain Map StudySmarterFig. 1 - Spain's 17 autonomous communities are comprised of the 50 labeled provinces. Galicia (1), Asturias (2), Cantabria (3), Castile and León (4), Basque Country (5), La Rioja (6), Navarre (7), Aragon (8), Catalonia (9), Madrid (10), Extremadura (11), Castilla-La Mancha (12), Valencian Community (13), Balearic Islands (14), Murcia (15), Andalusia (16), Canary Islands (17)

    Spain's 17 autonomous communities, which are at the core of Spanish devolution, comprised of single provinces or groups of provinces, are a product of the 1978 constitution that followed the Franco dictatorship. But the roots of autonomy are much deeper. Three ethnic nations and regions, Basque Country, Catalonia, and Galicia, have a history of separatism due to the distinctiveness of their languages and other unique aspects of culture and history.

    Basque Country is the territory of the Basque people, whose language, Euzkadi, has no relationship to any other living language. As for the Catalans, and by extension Valencia and the Balearic Islands, who also speak Catalan (also called Valencian), their tongue is a Romance language that is related to, but distinct from, Spanish. Catalonia has in the past been independent. Galicia, bordering Portugal, is home to a language similar to Portuguese.

    The history of these three ethnic nations and their feelings of being largely or completely separate from the Castilian Spanish identity suggested to leaders of post-Franco democratic Spain that, after having been repressed for generations, these nations might turn to separatism in an effort to secede. The new government realized it was necessary to decentralize, and not only to benefit these three areas with "historical regional identity." It would necessary to decentralize elsewhere, for fairness' sake.

    Results of Devolution in Spain

    Spain's young democracy, with its parliament in Madrid, was based on a newly-written constitution that created the most decentralized and devolved political system in Europe. Fifty provinces were comprised of thousands (now 8,131) of municipalities, many of which are centuries old.

    Under the new rules, provinces could, by themselves or as contiguous groups, be "fast-tracked" to full devolution as autonomous communities if they already had claims as "historic nationalities." This was meant for Basque Country, Galicia, and Catalonia, but Andalusia also demanded fast-tracking as well. The rest followed the "slow track" of five years during which time they could petition the central government for devolved powers.

    The 17 autonomous communities (autonomias) that ultimately resulted have asymmetrical powers. This means that some have more control over their affairs (as compared to the central government) than others. Typical powers are a parliament and president of their own, much greater fiscal authority than in most federal systems, particularly in Catalonia, and control over education, language, courts, and so forth.

    Some rules of the game, which is called the State of Autonomies:

    • Autonomous communities had to be one or more provinces with shared history, culture, and economy

    • Provinces forming autonomias had to be adjacent

    • Could have unicameral or bicameral legislatures (all chose the former)

    • Asymmetrical, but had the right to move toward symmetry

    • Spanish parliament could also designate autonomous communities

    • Autonomous communities couldn't form blocs with each other

    For 40 years, as the economy grew and the system seemed to be working well, up until the economic crash and severe recession that began in 2008. Indeed, perhaps it had begun to work TOO well, an issue seen in Devolution in Sudan and elsewhere. What does this mean? People began to identify more with their autonomous regions than with Spain itself, even if these regions hadn't been the subject of too much or any nationalism in the past. This phenomenon has been called peripheral nationalism.

    All along, some had been dissatisfied with being part of Spain to the point of deploying violence. Terrorism is discussed below in reference to Basque Country, but it also happened in Catalonia, to stimulate a response from the state. In Catalonia, the group Terra Lliure ("Free Land") was active from 1978 to 1995. The state responded with repression, which, as the extremists had intended, caused public sentiment to turn against the state.

    Devolution in Spain Example

    Basque Country was wracked by Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (ETA) terrorist attacks for decades. As with other European terrorism of the late 20th century, attacks were strategically carried out to cause the state to come down hard on Basques. Was Basque Country really autonomous if the national police and military were constantly about, restricting Basques' civil liberties in the search for ETA agents and sympathizers?

    Basque Country seemed to be moving toward secession, but a planned 2008 referendum on potential separation from Spain was blocked by the Spanish government. Things settled down and the issue hasn't emerged substantially since then. It might cautiously be said that devolution has worked for Basque Country: the Basque nation in the majority feels it is more productive to remain a highly autonomous part of Spain rather than try to go it on its own.

    Devolution in Spain and the Case of Catalonia

    When you think of ethnic separatist regions, marginalized and isolated border areas might come to mind. Catalonia is the opposite: with Barcelona as the capital, it is the most economically vibrant part of Spain. The sentiment in recent years has been that the rest of Spain is holding Catalonia back. Why remain part of a country that benefits from the economic productivity of its autonomous regions; why not keep all the taxes and other benefits for yourself?

    Devolution in Spain Referendum map StudySmarterFig. 2 - Catalonia municipalities that voted for secession from Spain in 2017 are in dark green; those that voted to adhere to the government of Catalonia's decision in light green; those that voted against secession in red

    So far, the Catalan story has had a peaceful but, from the point of view of independence-minded Catalans, distressing course. As we mentioned above, the severe economic crisis of the late 2000s pushed the majority of Catalans in the direction of secession. Arturo Mas, President of Catalonia, led a referendum on Catalan self-determination in November 2014, in which around 40% of eligible Catalans voted. Over 80% of these voted for Catalonia to become a state and for that state to become independent from Spain. The Spanish government made good on its threat to prosecute the would-be independence leaders and in other ways signaled it would never allow Catalan secession.

    Catalan Crisis

    Spain's repression of the pro-independence movement only made it grow more popular. In 2017, 92% of over two million Catalan voters checked the "yes" box in a second referendum with this question: "Do you want Catalonia to become an independent state in the form of a republic?" The Catalan government under President Carles Puigdemont accused the Spanish police and national guard of violence as the central government endeavored to close polling booths. Over 700,000 would-be voters were blocked from voting, referendum organizers claimed.

    Political Impact of Devolution in Spain

    Catalonia declared its independence on October 27, 2017. In an equally dramatic move, the Spanish government simultaneously removed Catalonia's autonomy and imposed direct rule. In this, Spain showed its power as a unitary state capable of bringing down the full force of the central government on what it considered a "rogue" movement.

    Devolution in Spain Graffiti StudySmarterFig. 3 - Protest posters and graffiti urging secession of Catalonia

    The Spanish government promptly suspended Catalan's parliament and the would-be independence leaders fled into exile. Thousands who remained were arrested. Puigdemont has been arrested and released a few times in Europe, but as of 2022 has not been extradited to Spain for trial.

    Spain allowed elections to be held in Catalonia in December 2017, and pro-independence parties won a slight majority. Catalonia's autonomy was restored in June 2018. While pro-independence sentiment remains strong, the restored government is faced with the reality that the Spanish parliament will never allow secession short of being forced to in a war (and there is no active armed separatist movement).

    The Message of Catalonia

    What does this mean for Catalonia, for Spain, and for European separatist movements (of which there are several) and the countries in which they are located?

    In Catalonia, a hard lesson was learned: as the Basque Country had already learned, the Spanish government is dead serious about stopping any attempt to allow devolution to turn into disintegration. Spain's national government still has a monopoly on the use of force and it did not hesitate to show that force to keep Spain whole. In doing this, Spain was following its constitutional law. This means any further moves toward separatism in Spain would logically be unrealistic under the current 1978 constitution.

    AP Human Geography emphasizes comparisons between the devolutionary strategies of different countries. We recommend reading up on Devolution in Sudan, Devolution in Canada, Devolution in Belgium, and examples from the USSR and Yugoslavia as well.

    For Europe in general, the Catalan crisis demonstrates the risks of devolution when autonomous regions no longer see a need to remain in the "mother country" and also demonstrated how far constitutional republics are willing to go to keep countries whole. These are lessons studied by pro-unity as well as pro-autonomy/separatism/secession movements in countries such as Italy, Belgium, and the UK.

    Devolution in Spain - Key takeaways

    • Spain has the most devolved political structure in Europe, with the entire country divided into 17 autonomous regions.
    • The most devolved regions are Catalonia, Basque Country, and Galicia.
    • Basque Country has tried and failed to hold a referendum on potential secession from Spain it was blocked by the Spanish government.
    • Catalonia held independence referendums in 2014 and 2017, with ultimately over 90% of voters wishing to secede from Spain; the Catalan government declared independence but this was nullified, and the Spanish government imposed direct rule and removed autonomy for several months.
    • Spain's response to independence movements has signaled to Spain and Europe that only autonomy as allowed by the Constitution is permissible, but secession never will be.


    1. Fig. 1 Spain regions ( by Mael564 licensed by CC BY-SA 4.0 (
    2. Fig. 2 Catalonia referendum ( by Xfigpower ( licensed by CC BY-SA 4.0 (
    3. Fig. 3 Posters ( by Cassowary's Archive ( licensed by CC BY-SA 2.0 (
    Frequently Asked Questions about Devolution in Spain

    Does Spain have devolution?

    Yes, Spain is the most devolved country in Europe.

    When did devolution happen in Spain?

    Devolution in Spain happened beginning in 1978.

    How is the country of Spain divided?

    Spain is divided into 50 provinces and over 8,000 municipalities, and the provinces alone or in groups are located in 17 autonomous regions.

    What is the purpose of devolution?

    The purpose of devolution is to allow regions certain powers to govern themselves and alleviate pressures to secede.

    What caused the War of Devolution?

    This 17th-century war was a conflict between Spain and France over ownership of the Netherlands, and is unrelated to current concerns about devolution in Spain.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    The following 4 regions were considered to have "historic nationalities" and were put on the fast track to devolution in Spain:

    These three European countries have watched Catalonia closely because they also have strong separatist movements:

    The following percentages were pro-independence in 2014 (a) and 2017 (b) Catalan referendums:

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