Europe dances the devolution tango


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.

But as economist Josep Verges puts it, "our relations with Madrid have always been a constant battle." In the eyes of most Catalans, the battle is far from won.

For a start, it is Madrid that collects tax revenue in Catalonia, and then pays Barcelona a grant. But for every 100 pesetas the government collects, it gives back only 70.

"We have our autonomy, OK," says Victor Batall, head of a think tank linked to the ruling Convergencia party in Barcelona. "But every time we go to Madrid we have to have our hand out, saying 'Please.'

"Catalonia should collect its own taxes and pay the central government whatever it costs to have central government here, plus some more to show solidarity" with poorer regions of Spain, argues Mr. Verges. "But because Madrid does the collecting, it subsidizes itself."

In the same vein, Joan Vallve, the man who runs the Catalan pension system, says he would "like more political power to decide on pensions, to decentralize them." Too often, Catalan nationalists complain, their government simply ends up administering policies that are decided in Madrid.

But the average Catalans seem happy enough, based on the way they vote. "In local elections, Convergencia [the Catalan nationalist party] always wins, and in national elections the [conservative, nationwide] Popular Party or the Socialist Party always wins," points out Francesc Valls, a political commentator in the Barcelona bureau of El Pais, Spain's largest newspaper. "People distinguish perfectly well - it's a question of management for them."

Juggling dual identities

Autonomy works, adds Verges, because few Catalans feel much conflict between being Catalan and being Spanish - they switch easily between languages and identities.

How well Scotland's fledgling autonomy will work could depend on the same sort of feeling; and at the moment, the question is finely balanced. In a recent poll, 34 percent of Scots said they felt Scottish but not British, while 30 per cent said they felt both Scottish and British.

Though Scotland and England have been united by treaty since 1707, the Scots have always kept many of the particularities that they developed as an independent nation: their legal and judicial systems are their own, and they retained their own politically active church and a distinct education system. Today, the Scottish Parliament can legislate on a range of issues from agriculture to economic development and education to health, housing, and food standards.

Although London has retained its powers over defense, foreign affairs, energy, employment, and financial and economic matters, the Scottish Parliament has quickly "established itself as the central focus of Scottish public life," says Iain MacWhirter, a commentator with the Sunday Herald newspaper in Glasgow.

Since Parliament's first session a year ago, "it has been nonstop, as if someone hit the fast-forward button," Mr. MacWhirter adds, distancing itself from its English counterpart on questions such as a Freedom of Information act, homosexual rights, and university fees.

The trouble is, that the Scottish legislature was not designed to do everything that Scots have quickly come to hope from it. "People expect the Parliament to be the main source of legislation here within 10 years," says MacWhirter. "That's a problem for a Parliament that is not geared up to meet those expectations."

Already the Parliament has flexed its muscles, holding four debates on questions over which the devolution act gives it no control. And in the future, say some Scottish political leaders, Edinburgh and Brussels - the European Union headquarters - between them will be able to legislate for everything. "If you have a nascent government in Brussels, what do we need a third leg like London for?" asks Mr. Reid.

For the time being, with the Labour Party in power in Westminster and in Edinburgh, the constitutional balance is holding. But if Reid's Scottish National Party (SNP) came to power, and called the referendum it has promised on outright independence, the United Kingdom's complicated constitutional fabric could be rent in two.

Moving toward 'a plural state'

Already the constitutional reform that Prime Minister Tony Blair's government launched three years ago is running out of his control, as English regions look with envy at the powers of their Scottish and Welsh neighbors. Though he has always opposed elected regional governments in England, Mr. Blair acknowledged in a recent speech that "the logical conclusion of growing pressure for regional change in England is to create more accountable regional government."

The goal, he argued, was "moving us from a centralized Britain, where power flowed top-down, to a devolved and plural state."

Margo Macdonald, an SNP member of the Scottish Parliament, wants more. "We have the aspirations of a nation, not of a region," she insists. "We could get involved in any number of macram projects with other European regions. What I want is to decide how many battalions we send into Kosovo." As it is, she laments, the powers that the Parliament enjoys are nothing more than "administration with a Tartan border."

But as the past 25 years in Catalonia have shown, autonomy is not a fixed quantity. "The Catalan experience is always developing, constantly under discussion. It's an endless phenomenon," says Mr. Rius.

Likewise in Scotland, argues Reid. "Everyone says that what's happening here is a process, not an event," he insists. "No one in Scotland sees this as a once-and-for-all transfer of powers."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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