Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Europe Dances the Devolution Tango

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Europe Dances the Devolution Tango

Article excerpt


PART 1: MAY 22

As Europe's national borders grow less distinct, regions take on new authority.

PART 2: MAY 23

Little-used languages and minority cultures enjoy a revival.

PART 3: MAY 25

Kent, in England, and France's Nord-Pas de Calais find common economic ground.


Where steady, peaceful pressure for autonomy works better than bombs.

When it comes to grabbing headlines, it is the Basques, the Bretons, or the Corsicans who have been most successful. Separatists seeking to bomb their way to independence killed a Basque journalist in Spain this month; others are suspected in a blast that killed a McDonald's employee in Brittany, France in April.

But a more dangerous threat to the European tradition of the nation-state comes from quieter corners of the Continent. In Catalonia, in the northeastern corner of Spain, local leaders have been chipping away for a quarter century at the powers and prerogatives of the central government in Madrid. In Scotland, establishment of a local parliament last year, along with a new local assembly in Wales, set off a chain reaction that threatens to dismember the United Kingdom.

And as Barcelona and Edinburgh shape their visions of the future, they are tossing around ideas that go well beyond standard laments about the plight of "nations without a state" - as both Catalonia and Scotland can plausibly claim to be. "We are talking post- nationalism here," says George Reid, deputy presiding officer of the Scottish parliament and a member of the Scottish National Party, which supports independence. "There is no such thing as an autarchic state anymore in Europe."

"Which way should a people's Europe develop?" wonders aloud Joan Rigol, president of the Catalan parliament. "A Europe of states must be based on common European citizenship."

The 'Catalan model'

As the Scots set out on the road of self-government, they have paid close attention to lessons they might learn from "the Catalan model," as it is known from here to Quebec. For a start, it has been peaceful. Catalan nationalism has never bred the sort of violent militants who fill the ranks of ETA (Basque Homeland and Freedom), the radical Basque separatist group that has declared war on the Spanish state.

"The Catalans are a trading people," explains Manel Rius, a former head of Catalonia's school system. "We will deal with anyone, and we're always ready to negotiate." It has helped, too, he acknowledges, that Catalonia is a prosperous region, with the money to solve problems that might fester elsewhere.

Second, Catalan autonomy - 25 years on - works. The Catalan tongue, which has been banned in public off and on since 1714 (most recently under the Franco dictatorship), is today the language in which every child here learns in school. Spanish is taught as a second language.

The Catalan government runs education and health services. It is setting up the region's own police force - phasing out national police. It controls Barcelona's port, the biggest in the country, and it has the power to raise taxes, although - solicitous of its popularity - it has not done so.

Although the constitutional basics of Catalonia's autonomy are set out in the statute passed after Gen. Francisco Franco's death in 1975, which signaled the restoration of Spanish democracy, the statute does not say it all. Catalans have been able to elaborate on the statute, wringing concessions from the central government, because until the conservative Popular Party won an outright majority in March general elections, governing parties had depended on the support of Catalan members of the national parliament in Madrid for a majority. This allowed the Catalans to set a price for their votes, and to expand their autonomy. …

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