Spain Is a Collection of Glued Regions. Or Maybe Not So Glued.

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Catalans commemorate as their national day a 1714 defeat at the end of the War of the Spanish Succession, when Barcelona was captured by the troops of Philip V, the first Bourbon monarch of Spain. Philip cracked down on Catalans and destroyed part of Barcelona.

“Later on, nation-building initiatives in Spain have been designed and implemented not only to keep the country together as one nation, but also to consolidate a hierarchical system of government thought to ensure that both Madrid and Castilian language and cultural values would play a prominent and almost exclusive role in shaping the country,” said Elisa Martí-López, a history professor at Northwestern University.

How has Spain’s modern Constitution enshrined the idea of autonomy?

When a new Constitution came into force in 1978, three years after the death of the dictator Gen. Francisco Franco, its framers sought to recognize the portions of the country with distinct cultural heritage.

But they also affirmed that there would be no sovereignty but that of the Spanish nation.

Even before the Constitution was enshrined, Catalonia got back some of the autonomy it lost in the civil war of the 1930s, as part of a political deal brokered by politicians in Madrid to ensure that Catalans would embrace Spain’s political structure.

In fact, Adolfo Suárez, who became Spain’s conservative prime minister, restored the Generalitat, the regional government of Catalonia, as the only institution of the Spanish Second Republic of the 1930s to be reinstated after Franco’s dictatorship.

In 1981, Spain’s main parties agreed to divide the country into 19 regions, including two city enclaves in northern Africa, Ceuta and Melilla. By 1995, each region had drawn up its own statute of autonomy.

“The Constitution was seen as an instrument of transition and peace that in the first years could also create greater social linkage and economic development,” said Miguel Herrero de Miñón, one of the seven founding fathers of the 1978 Constitution.”

“Other concepts were then added later,” he added. “The most disastrous of them was to generalize the map of the regions.”

In October, Spain’s two main parties — Mr. Rajoy’s Popular Party and the Socialists — agreed to form a commission to prepare a constitutional reform. Their decision was in large part an attempt to defuse the Catalan crisis.

But the commission will take six months to prepare its preliminary report, and there is no guarantee that politicians will reach consensus over what to change, in particular when it comes to the sensitive issue of regional power.

“Politicians are discussing things they don’t understand,” said Mr. Herrero de Miñón, citing suggestions by some politicians that Spain needed a federal system. “Almost no Spanish politician knows the difference between a confederation and a federation.”

What rights do the autonomous regions have?

Each autonomous region has its own elected Parliament whose lawmakers elect a government to run the region.

The regions have control over a range of services, the most important being health care and education. Some of the regions have more autonomy, notably Catalonia and the Basque Country, which have their own police forces.

Two regions — the Basque Country and Navarra — also have independent fiscal systems, something that Catalonia demanded in 2012 but that Mr. Rajoy’s government refused. (At the time, Spain was struggling with a banking bailout.)

Two regions collect their own taxes; the other 15 are part of a Spanish tax redistribution system that transfers funds to poorer regions from richer ones, like Catalonia.

Why is there strong resentment in Catalonia toward the central government?

There are historic and cultural reasons for the tensions, but a turning point came in 2010, when Spain’s Constitutional Court rejected part of a statute of autonomy that had been agreed to in 2006 and approved in a Catalan referendum and by lawmakers in the Catalan and Spanish Parliaments.

The Catalan resentment is aimed at the governing party of Mr. Rajoy because it had campaigned against a Catalan statute that had been promoted by the Socialists, its main rival party in Spain.

Will new regional elections help resolve the crisis?

There is no guarantee that new Catalan elections will defuse the constitutional showdown, let alone change the political landscape in the region.

Mr. Rajoy set Dec. 21 as the date for early elections. But the level of participation depends partly on whether separatist politicians will take part.

A newly chosen Parliament could present new risks to Mr. Rajoy’s government in Madrid, particularly if another independence coalition were re-elected and controlled the Catalan Parliament.

“While we ultimately expect separatist parties to recognize and agree to take part in the election, this is a close call,” Federico Santi, an analyst at the Eurasia Group, a political risk consultancy in Washington, wrote in an emailed advisory to clients. “Moreover, there is a real risk that even if elections are held, separatist parties could again win an even stronger majority in the regional Parliament.”

Could Catalonia thrive as an independent republic?

It would be extremely complicated without any agreement with the central government in Madrid and the European Union’s institutions.

While Catalonia is relatively rich — it has 16 percent of Spain’s population but represents 19 percent of Spain’s economic output and 25 percent of its exports — the conflict with Madrid has persuaded more than 1,600 companies to move their legal headquarters from Catalonia since the start of this month.

Setting up an independent republic hinges in part on whether Catalonia would assume its share of Spain’s debt.

Catalonia would have to establish its own defense and border security, central bank, taxation system and many other institutions and services currently provided by Madrid.

And Catalonia presumably would want to retain the rights and privileges that come with European Union membership — which the regional government has so far failed to guarantee.

European Union officials have been wary about meddling in a dispute over sovereignty in one of the bloc’s most important member states, and have mostly dismissed the Oct. 27 Catalan declaration of independence.

Donald Tusk, president of the European Council, said in a Twitter post after Catalonia’s Parliament voted for independence that, for the European Union, “Nothing changes. Spain remains our only interlocutor.”

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