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The necessary reform of local administration in Spain

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06 July 2021
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Eurac Research/Fundación Giménez Abad - Josh Calabrese/Unsplash

A large part of the Spanish territory is currently facing an endemic problem of depopulation caused, among other factors, by the demographic hyper-concentration that occurs in very specific and delimited points of its national geography, unfortunately this problem is likely to intensify in the coming years. The economic system currently in force advocates this model insofar as it responds to a utilitarian and economic paradigm in which the criteria of supposed efficiency, cost reduction and accumulation of net benefits, prevails. The territorial map of Spain, currently made up of 17 Autonomous Communities, 50 provinces and more than 8000 municipalities, not only does not correspond to this demographic reality, but it is believed to be dysfunctional in facing this challenge, one of the most pressing of our times and one interdependent with that of global warming.

At the time the Spanish Constitution was drafted, there was no certainty that, beyond Catalonia, the Basque Country, Galicia and perhaps Andalusia, the rest of the historical regions, natural or with a certain identity, would have access to autonomy. From the outset, the Spanish system was unique in the comparative sphere as it left the very territorial structure of the State undefined and to a certain extent, ‘deconstitutionalized’, opening up, by means of the dispositive principle, the possibility for all the provinces that so wished and fulfilled certain requirements, to become Autonomous Communities with legislative capacity and institutions of self-government. Today, more than 40 years after that regulatory experiment, we can see that the autonomous map has not only been extended to the entire national territory, but that it has reached the zenith of its development and urgently needs a comprehensive reform to adapt to the new reality and demands.

The constitutional opening of the autonomous regions and the progressive and controversial construction of this element over more than four decades has, however, led to a certain amount of neglect with specific regard to the other basic element of our territorial structure: the municipality. Indeed, the 1978 Constitution recognizes a pre-existing reality and does not modify it; indeed, it barely even regulates it, since it is based on the survival of the network of municipalities in place at the time of its entry into force. A very extensive network of municipalities that dates back to the first steps of Spanish constitutionalism, back in 1812. The local structure is 19th-century-ish, yes, but it is also determined by an anachronistic conception of territory. For the 1812 constituent and, in general, for the entire 19th century vision, there had to be a municipality for each population center, however small it may have been. This responds more to an identarian naturalism, to the intention of endowing each named nucleus with a supposed political representation, than to a rational-normative reasoning. The latter, which is typical of 20th century constitutionalism, if it had been applied to our municipal structure, would have been more concerned with the effective institutional and financial autonomy of the town councils and not to the same extent, with their number or profusion.

This is why we find ourselves in the 21st century with a constitution that barely addresses the municipal reality, that has not modified the municipal structure at all and that, therefore, does not put an end to so-called inframunicipalism. This phenomenon accounts for the excess of municipalities in Spain, which have not seen a reduction in their number since the 19th century and in fact, have experienced the contrary. Article 140 of the Constitution guarantees the autonomy of municipalities as the most basic territorial units closest to the citizen, but today this autonomy is threatened by two interdependent factors related to this infra-municipalism.

Firstly, the vast majority of Spanish municipalities have a population of less than 6.000 inhabitants, which makes them very weak in administrative, budgetary and financial terms. Autonomy is not just a formal recognition, but must be backed up by material support, which is currently non-existent for many municipalities, which even bureaucratically, do not have the capacity to respond. Secondly, the approval of the draconian laws of stability and budgetary balance, within the framework of institutionalized neoliberalism in and of the EU, has led to the vertical projection of financial demands that stifle the capacity of intermediate bodies, such as the Provincial Councils or the Autonomous Communities, to act counter-cyclically in the territories affected by depopulation.

If the excess of small municipalities is combined with the inability of these municipal structures to create cross-cutting and comprehensive projects that boost socio-economic development, the impossibility of reversing the trend towards the hyper-concentration of population and demographic loss is consolidated by the Public Administrations. What is more, we must bear in mind that it is the municipalities that are closest to the reality and needs of the territory and its citizens, and as such they should be the ones to channel the possible and desired forceful state response to the demographic challenge. These municipalities are also the most democratic, since, unlike the Provincial Councils, their representatives are directly elected by citizens who often have a personal relationship with those elected.

This current administrative incapacity to face the demographic challenge at the municipal level could be overcome by redesigning or rethinking the Spanish territorial structure and the current budgetary and financial regulations. The constitutionally guaranteed municipal autonomy only makes sense if it can go beyond mere formal recognition and find material mechanisms and instruments that give it foundation, support and possibilities of projection over the territory. And one way to bring the formal closer to the material and vice versa, that is, to achieve true municipal autonomy, could be the solution advocated by numerous authors of drastically reducing the number of municipalities and merging them to make them functionally viable and, at the same time, provide them with real and effective autonomy. The merger would not have the objective of reducing costs, but rather, far from the neoliberal paradigm, it could self-impose the goal of achieving effective degrees of autonomy by increasing the power of the new municipalities, their capacity for response, political influence and containment of other administrations and policies. This was the solution adopted in the framework of the social state that emerged after the Second World War in the northern countries (Nordic model) and its close link to this progressive adjectivization of the state also distances it from any neoliberal vision. It is also, let us remember, the model found in some of our neighboring countries, such as Portugal, which has a very small number of municipalities with a great deal of autonomy, or even in some regions of our own country, such as the Galician parish model.

At the same time, and in the meantime, the strengthening of intermediate structures could be explored, such as the integral associations of municipalities, which could not only be endowed with greater powers but also with better democratic representation. The municipalities could become parishes or freguesias, following the Portuguese model, and all of them, by joining together, could gain greater political, administrative, financial and budgetary autonomy within the new framework of the mancomunidad (association of municipalities) or comarca, (districts within the autonomous communities).

Be that as it may, what is certain is that the reform of the local territorial model is a necessary but not sufficient condition to meet the objectives set out in the fight against depopulation. Spain’s neighboring country, Portugal also suffers from a very similar yet perhaps more extreme version of this worrying problem; the depopulation and disintegration of its territory, as all demographic and economic energies are concentrated on its Atlantic side, to the detriment of an abandoned, depopulated and excessively aged hinterland. For this reason, the reform of the local model must be accompanied by a vertical strategy, from all administrations, including the central one, that moves away once and for all from the utilitarian criteria of neoliberal hegemony and also rethinks the restrictions on public investment and the spending rule.

In the context of the global health crisis caused by the coronavirus, we have been able to see, in this sense, that the neoliberal conception of the State, excessively focused on its slimming down by means of the restraints set in place by the principle of budgetary stability and financial sustainability, is not only exhausted, but is detrimental to the preservation of the public good due to, on too many occasions, spurious private interests. The Spanish economic model, favorable to and geared towards the territorial hyper-concentration of all resources, can only be corrected by the State, and not just any State, but by one that rearms from the "social and democratic rule of law" paradigm (art. 1 of the Constitution) to pursue that public good which, as a community, we must achieve, perfect and complete. Hence, in a joint effort, we must focus this renewed concern for the common, the collective and the public, not only on the territorial but also on the local model, and do so not because of the prurience of academics, jurists or economists, but because of the obvious, urgent need to rethink the structuring of our economic and social relations. Something that, as a necessity, involves boosting local, municipal and the closest levels in the face of the madness of urban concentration, and which can contribute to the creation of an economic and social model that is more just, ecological, sustainable and moreover better prepared, to combat the serious threats that affect us today.

Let us reform the local level to strengthen it. Let us give our local councils real autonomy, not just nominal autonomy, by merging them or strengthening supra-municipal structures, but let us do so from and for, an integral perspective that is presided over by the abandonment of all those ideologies that are contrary to the common good and the public interest and which are, therefore, obstacles to the social transformation that the country, Europe and the planet itself are crying out for.

This article was first published on the blog of the Fundación Giménez Abad in Spanish.

Gabriel Moreno González

Gabriel Moreno González is lecturer in Constitutional Law at the University of Extremadura in Spain.

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