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The International Writers Magazine: On Spain and Democracy

The Constitution - Spain
• James Skinner
We all know about the pillars of democracy. It is the drafting and approval of a constitution based on freedom and human rights and the establishment of a state of law that is governed by a non-dictatorial political system.


The approval of all this is through the free electoral ballot box offered periodically to the citizens and all backed by a sound and independent judicial system. May sound utopic but that is basically what Winston Churchill said in so many words, ‘democracy has its flaws but it’s the best we’ve got!’

However, the Magna Carter of all democracies that is the starting block for all this complicated system of governing differs for each country that has or tries to implement it. It can result in degrees of success or failure depending on the political ‘flavour of the month’ that is usually spread across a period of time. There is no one fit for all.

The most successful no doubt is the Constitution of the United States of America. Without going into details the original draft of 7 articles was adopted in September, 1787 and finally approved 2 years later. There have been several changes known as amendments during the two hundred years of its history that tend to keep up with the changing world but the basic ‘foundations’ are still there and remain unchanged. This cannot be said for many other countries throughout the world.

Many in Latin America for instance, although setting off on the same foot and during similar historical timeframes of independence from the colonial powers of Europe also designed solid constitutions only to have successive governments abuse, mutilate or redesign the basic document. The continent has suffered from numerous dictatorships that scrapped it altogether only to be reinstated again should a freely elected government return to power.

Other parts of the world have just discovered the importance of a democratic system of government through the introduction of a proper constitution. This can be said for many areas of Africa and the Middle East not to mention some countries in the Far East. Without pinpointing any one in particular, suffice to say that the success, failure and ‘back to basics’ of most constitutions is going on all the time throughout the world.

Before moving on to Spain’s particular Magna Carter a brief mention of what could have been the corner stone for a more efficient European Union is worth a mention. The first bash at some sort of uniform method of control was set forth in the infamous Maastricht Treaty in February, 1991 that came into force in November, 1993. Among other economic legal parameters the idea was to harmonize many of the EU countries areas such as foreign policy, defense, emigration, and, of course the introduction of a European Common Currency. We all know how the Euro finally came about! The idea was a sort of template for a future European Constitution.

More than a decade later, in October of 2004 - with the Euro in full swing in ‘some’ of the member states - the EU decided to have another go at designing a formal European Constitution known as the TCE. The EU, by the way had now grown from 12 to 25 states. This was, once again to turn into a complete fiasco. The idea was to prepare the Europeans for a continental referendum by presenting them with a constitutional draft that had to be approved by every country in the EU. Instead of a simple format that could have been mirror imaged from the original XVIII century USA document what they produced was a mumbo jumbo half-baked set of articles that most Europeans did not understand. Although the treaty was signed by all 25 members, when it went to the polls in 2005, the Dutch and French voters rejected it. The idea was scrapped. However, this eventually led on to yet another attempt at unifying the unruly European Union.

Enter the Treaty of Lisbon.

On December 13th, 2007 a treaty was signed in Lisbon, Portugal by all states that virtually amended the previous ones, including the failed Maastricht Treaty and what was probably the most important move with the creation – at last – of a permanent President for the European Council as well as a High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security. The administration of the European Union finally woke up to the fact that it had been lacking all along in some sort of cohesive leadership. A constitution is still required to consolidate this conglomerate of nations into a proper legal and economic system if it is to establish itself as a prominent player in today’s ever changing world.

Let’s revert to Spain and briefly analyze where this country stands as far as its particular constitution and democracy is concerned.

When Spain exiled King Alfonso XIII in April 1931, the recently elected government drafted a new constitution based on republican policies. In other words, Spain had ceased to be a Monarch State and turned instead into what was known as the II Republic. This lasted up until the end of the Spanish Civil War in 1939. The country then became a dictatorship under the iron rule of Generalissimo Franco and did not revert back to democracy until his death in 1975. My previous month’s essay on the death of Prime Minister Adolfo Suarez briefly explains how Spain returned to democracy with a new constitution approved by referendum in 1982.

So what about this new and actual constitution that is in full force today and how it is beginning to show signs of ‘old age’?

Although I have mentioned it in many of my previous essays what has been a cornerstone for Spain’s consolidated democracy is now beginning to show signs of age especially since the beginning of the economic crisis. To start with and because the country had emerged after 40 years of dictatorship the new constitution set out to improve the standard of living of all Spaniards beyond all expectations and in every possible area of freedom. It included articles on politics, example: formation of parties; labor, example: trade unions; expression, example: media, strike action and demonstrations and above all a set of rights such as free education, free medical service, decent dwelling and many other niceties that are entrenched in a modern democratic state. It spelt out the corner stone of a Welfare State similar to that of other European nations. The founding members made one mistake. The whole document was buried in solid concrete, bound and gagged never to be altered under any circumstances. This did not mean that the country could not adapt and modernize its legal system as time went by and political changes took place with the need for new laws being implemented whenever necessary and depending on the politics of the day. A new state of law existed but any unusual or abnormal change would have to go through the specially set up Constitutional Court just in case the sacrosanct document was being violated.  

Apart from the social and other articles the constitution established a division of the country into autonomous regions with their own parliament governing a whole division of provinces that in turn governed thousands of town councils. This caused a great deal of duplication in public administration with the knock-on effect on the overall economy. No problem whilst the bonanza years were in progress with millions upon millions of European funds pouring into the country. Along came the economic crisis and all this duplication of money spending has come to light and is now unsustainable. Ah, but how to change it without altering the basic constitution, that is one of the 64K questions!

Now on to the next issue in the Magna Carta that is on the cards at the moment and is causing a real problem for the present government: the move by Catalonia for full independence.

Referring to the above explanation of the geopolitical distribution of Spain, the break-away of any region is completely against the constitution.  This has been blasted across the front page of every newspaper in Spain and on the continent for months but what is not explained is what would happen if Scotland obtains its independence from Great Britain and sets a precedent on separatism within the European Union. What is going on the UK is, ironically perfectly legal within British law but it would be a complete contrast to Spanish law when it comes to Catalonia’s bid for ‘freedom’.

Artur Mas, the actual President of Catalonia knows this! He is now playing for time and the following is the reason why.

If he goes ahead and as he has done, set an actual date for the ‘consultation’ - the 9th of November - he knows that the Spanish government, because of the constitution will have to pass this autonomous decision to the Constitutional Court to ‘prove’ that it is illegal. As everyone knows, the time taken by this court to decide will overrun the above mentioned date and the Catalans will get away with their voting. See the twist?  Sounds like a ‘Catch 22’ situation of damn if you do damned if you don’t yet it is a simple example of how the Spanish Constitution is so tight that it can get itself into a fix and may slowly throttle its own survival if it doesn’t opt for change.

There are murmurings already amongst certain intellectual and other circles that the time has come for a complete overhaul of the Spanish Constitution.

To end this rather complex analysis on a more positive note, suffice to say that the economy in general continues to improve. There are still mayor hurdles ahead and the future European Parliamentary elections could act as a barometer to test the mood of the Spanish people to see whether they appreciate the reforms that are taking place by the present conservative government. Apart from the separatist mayhem of the regions there could be a light at the end of the tunnel after all.’                  

© James G. Skinner. May 2013.
*The Wishing Shelf Silver Medalist Winner for his novel The Goa File 2014

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