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Political recentralisation in Spain through the coronavirus crisis

Written by on 7 mai 2020

Spain has been one of the worst affected countries in Europe by the coronavirus crisis. For some experts one of the reasons for this is a preoccupation over the political implications of the crisis. Attempts to recentralise and limit the power of Spain’s autonomous communities have been striking, and today we speak to Dominic Keown, a Professor of Spanish and Catalan studies at the University of Cambridge. Professor Keown sees the best example of this recentralization in the domain of healthcare. 

“Just look at the way that the briefs on coronavirus are being presented. First of all, you have the withdrawal of devolved powers in terms of public health. Responsibility for public health was that of the Catalan government, the Basque government and all of the autonomous communities. This has now all been subsumed and is controlled directly from Madrid, and this is not how the Constitution should work, because it should be devolved to those autonomous communities. So, a major aspect of recentralisation is taking place in public health.”

When put into a European context, this is even more noticeable.

“If you look at other European countries which are decentralised, and I am thinking in particular of Germany, but especially the United Kingdom, the same thing happens in the United Kingdom – Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are responsible for the National Health Service within their own jurisdiction, and in the UK there has been absolutely no recentralisation. If you look at the press briefings every day, you will see that Nicola Sturgeon, the First Minister of Scotland reports on the Scottish situation and the First Minister of Wales does the same. They stand before their respective national flags, the Scottish Saltire or the Welsh Dragon, with no Union flag at all there, and the labelling is about the national health in Scotland. The Scottish government has been in complete control of the health system while this crisis has been happening, and it has handled it very well. It has handled it much better than the central government, which has been inept as the Spanish government, certainly in terms of lack of preparation.  

And whilst in the UK, autonomy has been maintained in the context of lockdown enforcement, Professor Keown has observed Spain’s approach to have fluctuated somewhat counterintuitively. 

“Wales and Scotland will decide when lockdown happens and how it will happen. This is not the UK government which will decide this. If you contrast that with Spain, what you still have in Spain is the central government, who even came out with this ridiculous notion that the virus doesn’t respect territories – they are all in this together, they are all united as Spaniards. For some reason they have just reversed that, and said that provinces now will decide when lockdown happens and the measures each province is going to take. This is a blatant contradiction – first of all, you cannot centralise and say that the virus recognises no territories and everything will be governed from Madrid and then give the decision to the promises. And for me, it is not adhering to the constitution, because if you are going to devolve powers of public health again, this should go to the autonomous communities, not to the provinces. It strikes me that is a very esoteric type of game being played.”

What is even more worrying for Professor Keown is that it is not the politicians that have been the symbols of the fight against the virus, but the Spanish military. 

“We have mentioned how in Scotland and Wales it is the First Minister of both of those countries, but in Spain they are using the army. Military figures. First of all you have to ask yourself why that is happening, and why Spain is the only country that is doing this. This is a civilian problem, this is public health. This certainly isn’t a military issue.”

And Professor Keown believes that this is something that the Spanish government has been able to exploit for its own political gain. 

“By installing military personnel, the government is disappearing from the frontlines here. They are not being seen as responsible for the dreadful situation. They are responsible for it in the lack of planning. Curiously, now that figures are improving, the military are being withdrawn, and now the politicians are returning. It could be read as a very clever political game – firstly, you are not there when the worst news is to be given out. When the improving news is given out you suddenly reappear. Second of all, you are not losing any points in this because you are showing that you identify completely with the national and unitarian ideals of Spain, which of course appeals to the wider Spanish electorate.

A political game that will surely continue well beyond the coronavirus crisis. 


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