Has Germany defied the law of gravity?

Víctor Torre de Silva. Profesor. Instituto de Empresa

4 May 2006

Spanish governments have long assumed that decentralisation is in the country’s best social and economic interest. Now Germany is devising a new way for redistributing power that may prove far more efficient. Could the German experience serve as an example for Spain?

On 17 December 1903, Orville and Wilbur Wright made the first flight in a plane that they had designed and built themselves. Known as the Kitty Hawk, the aircraft was propelled by an engine made in the brothers’ bicycle shop in Dayton, Ohio. For the first time ever, an object heavier than the weight of air and flown by a pilot had taken off and landed. The event marked the first time an aeroplane had successfully overcome the law of gravity. The Wright brothers´ experience signalled the dawn of modern aviation.

Spain has adhered to its own particular law of gravity for at least 30 years. This law is not the same as that of Isaac Newton’s, though it also is rarely questioned. It states as follows: "Within a single territory, administrative powers always are devolved from the State to regional governments".

The roots of this law are found in history. Spain was a centralised country some 30 years ago, but over the last decades the central government has devolved administrative powers, thus granting greater autonomy to the regional governments. The 1978 constitution left the organisational model so wide open, that legislation enacted over the last few decades has handed down increasingly more administrative power to the regional governments. The situation has caused concern, as evidenced by the reaction to Catalonia’s new so-called Statute of Autonomy, leading many to suggest placing limits on the process of decentralization. What is interesting, though, is that no one seems to question the nature of this trend--almost as if it were an inviolable law of nature.

Given Spain’s unwavering faith in this natural law, a recent story in the press has taken us by surprise: Politicians in the Federal Republic of Germany have agreed to undertake the most far-reaching constitutional reform since 1949. After former Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder’s failed attempt at reform, his successor, Angela Merkel, has won support for a reform programme that is expected to be adopted before summer.

The reform focuses on the territorial organisation of Germany and seeks to reduce the influence of the Bundesrat (the Federal Council made up of representatives from the governments of the 16 federal states). It also increases the powers of the Bundestag (the German Parliament) and the Federal government, while eliminating the rights to participation and veto that were formerly awarded to the länder (the regional governments of the 16 federal states). In exchange, the Lander will exert greater influence over areas such as universities and the environment.

The reform was agreed on by the two majority parties in power (CDU/CSU and SPD) and represents a sweeping redistribution of administrative powers. Most surprising is that this reform is neither a process of devolution--from the Federation to the federal states--nor a process of centralization--from the federal states to the Federation--, but rather a complete redistribution of administrative duties.

If we return to our aeronautical metaphor, the German reform may be as much a discovery for Spain as the first flight by the Wright brothers. The law of gravity can be overcome by genius: Aeroplanes not only glide, carried by wind currents, they can also move upwards, propelled by an engine. The redistribution of power between the State and regional governments does not necessarily involve devolving power. For different political, legal and economic reasons, centralization— or the transfer of power, from the regional governments upward to the state—is now considered acceptable.

The beginning of aviation was riddled with misgivings. However, it opened a whole new public debate on the endless possibilities of the human race. Similarly, the idea that the downward transfer of power from the State to local governments is not sacred also generates concern. Though some of these fears are well founded, the possibility of change also introduces a debate longed ignored by society. What is the reach of influence for each branch of government – be it regional or central? At what level is public policy better implemented? Which administration will be more effective and more efficient at each task? How can we compete better on an international scale? Overcoming taboos and the tendency to resolve issues too quickly may mark the beginning of another exciting story. Remember; despite predictions, neither of the Wright brothers died in an aeroplane crash.

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