Spain Unitary state


History and trends

Spain is a constitutional parliamentary monarchy. Its territorial organisation was significantly overhauled by the adoption of its constitution in 1978. Upon this adoption, the state was reorganised based on a great deal of territorial autonomy.

Since then, Spain has gradually moved towards a high level of decentralisation akin to a federal system. The current situation is a compromise between national unity and regional diversity.

This major concept of territorial autonomy was not perfectly defined by the constitution, which gave the state and new “autonomous communities” the option to determine the structure of this autonomy under the control of the constitutional court which, faced with the difficulty of the task, stated in a decision of 2 February 1981 that: “Autonomy is an indeterminate legal concept that offers a very wide margin of appreciation”.

As a country, Spain emerged from the 15th century dynastic union of two sovereign states, the Crowns of Castile and Aragon, themselves formed throughout the Middle Ages by the union or conquest of initially-distinct political, cultural and linguistic entities, found in the multiple historic nationalities recognised by the current Constitution of the Spanish state, and the absorption of the Kingdom of Granada in 1492 and the Iberian part of the Kingdom of Navarra in 1512. This ensemble became a unitary state in 1715-16 with the dissolution of the two Crowns under the Nueva Planta decrees.

From the 15th to the early 17th centuries, the Spanish Catholic monarchy, which at the time had a massive colonial empire, was a major political and economic power. It had a significant cultural influence throughout Europe during the Spanish Golden Age (16th century-17th century). Spain’s influence subsequently declined, particularly throughout the 19th century and the early 20th century with the loss of its colonies, the rise of nationalism and the growing number of political, economic and social crises which culminated in the Civil War of 1936 to 1939, followed by a long period of the Francoist conservative, military and Catholic national dictatorship from 1939 to 1975.

Following the democratic transition began upon the death of Francisco Franco in 1975 and the cultural movement that came with it, the Movida, Spain became a constitutional monarchy with parliamentary democratic system.

Local level :

There are 8,124 municipalities (2016 figure). Only one thousand of them have over 5,000 inhabitants. The system is very similar to the French one. The mayor (alcalde), chief executive, is elected either by the municipal councillors, or, in some cases, directly by the population. He or she chairs the municipal council.

The mayor is also assisted by a “government committee”. The law allows for the freedom to create optional bodies such as sector councils, personal representatives of the mayor in districts, and municipal district councils (which have a considerable importance in large cities).

A revision of the law of 2 April 1985 on the foundations of the local system, brought about in 1999, introduced significant changes to municipal organisation. The municipal council’s powers of control over the mayor were increased, enabling it to pass a motion of censure. In return, the mayor can ask for a vote of confidence. But these two new provisions are highly controlled, to the extent that they can only be used very restrictively.

Local authorities whose existence is purely optional: authorities smaller than the municipality can be recognised, and even established, by the autonomous community, the comarcas, associations of municipalities created by the autonomous community, “metropolitan zones”, also created by the autonomous community to solve a particular problem in highly concentrated urban sectors. There are four of them; the mancomunidades, voluntary associations of municipalities created to manage services under municipal jurisdiction.

Inter-municipal cooperation is not yet widely developed in Spain, but municipalities are generally very large. Local councils are grouped together into a federation of Spanish local councils.

Inter-municipal cooperation takes place through the comarcas and mancomunidades when these structures are in place. One of the important roles of the provinces is to manage this cooperation. Every year, the municipalities must participate in the drafting of a “provincial cooperation plan for works and services” which will be approved by the provincial deputation.

In some very large conurbations, “consorcios” have been put in place, which are entities bringing together public authorities of various levels and private operators. In the passenger transport sector, this form of integration is recommended by the 1987 framework law.

Autonomous communities, meanwhile, collaborate on very concrete projects, such as determining watersheds for rivers, but these collaborations do not necessarily lead to the creation of ad hoc structures.

The implementation of decentralisation and intra-state entities’ aspirations of autonomy are translated through the desire of autonomous communities to express themselves on a European level. As such, since 1 August 1996, a councillor in charge of relations between autonomous communities and the European Union has been added to Spain’s permanent representation to the EU and, since 1 September 1997, autonomous communities have had direct access to 55 (out of 450) committees or working groups of the European Commission.

Intermediary level:

The 52 provinces are defined by the Constitution as both local authorities with their own legal personality and as a territorial division of the state.

The province is run by the diputación, which is made up of three bodies. Since 1978, the provinces have had less powers than the 17 autonomous communities, which enjoy a rather broad autonomy from central government. Each autonomous community is made up of one or more provinces. Seven autonomous communities are made up of a single province: AsturiasBalearic IslandsCantabriaLa RiojaCommunity of Madrid, the Region of Murcia and Navarra.

Regional level:

There are 17 “autonomous communities” – which represent Spanish regional power – across the country. They are new entities created in 1978, each of which has its own parliament whose legislative activity has the same value as state standards.

The autonomy of these communities is, above all, of a political nature. Although this is not a federal system, autonomous communities are equivalent to a horizontal form of state organisation. Strictly speaking, they are not local authorities; moreover, articles 137 and thereafter of the Spanish Constitution differentiate between autonomous communities and local authorities.