The Concept of Historic Nationality

In the Spanish Constitution of 1978 and Beyond


The concept of historic nationality or simply nationality is a repeatedly used term in Spanish politics that designates those Autonomous Communities with a collective, linguistic or cultural identity different from the rest of Spain.

It has been a particular bone of contention with respect to the relations between the Basques and Catalans and the rest of Spain, although Galicia can also claim to be a historic nation because of its separate language and the fact that it had its own Statute of Autonomy during the Second Republic.

Prior to the passing of the Spanish Constitution in 1978, Andalucía also put its claim forward, held a referendum (in which the YES fell short of an outright victory) but managed to take the fast track to creating its own Autonomous Community.

The map below shows how confusing the situation was in 1978 as the Constitution was about to be approved and the first Autonomous Communities were about to come into existence.

 * Dark Green shows the Historic Nationalities with a Statute of Autonomy during the Second Republic.
 * Green shows the Historic Nationalities without a Statute of Autonomy during the Second Republic.
 * Light Blue shows Historic Communities.
 * Pale Beige shows the other Autonomous Communities





The "Nationalities" in the 1978 Constitution

"Nation" and "Nationality"

During the debate in the Congress of Deputies, the majority of proponents argued that constitutionally the concept "nationality" was a synonym of "nation"

"The concept nation cannot be coined at will; a linguistic, ethnic or administrative particularity is not enough; only the sum of a great compact territory, with a common cultural tradition and universal projection; an economic viability; a global political organisation, tested over centuries of history, only this constitutes a nation. Now is not the moment to argue over the undeniable fact the nation and nationality are the same." Manuel Fraga

"But, concentrating now on the topic of "nationalities", I have to say that we didn't participate in the catastrophe with which the amendment we are fighting against is focused and in the intelligent intervention that Mr Silva has made in order to defend his position. First, we said in the Commission, and we affirm it again here, that the term "nationality" is a synonym of nations, and for that reason we have spoken of Spain as a nation of nations." Gregorio Peces-Barba

"Nation of nations is a new concept. It is said that it is a concept that doesn't feature in other States or that doesn't feature in other realities, or perhaps it does; but the fact is, gentlemen, that yesterday it was said that we have to innovate. And it is necessary; in the pocesses of pure historic assimilation it's not a question of knowing whether others have resolved their own problems one way or another. What we're trying to do is to find our own solutions to our own problems. Ignoring the fact that the problem of the nationalities has kept the democratic stability of the Spanish institutions on tenterhooks for centuries is a grave mistake." Miquel Roca

"Consequently, Spain is defined as a nation of nations, and this term isn't foreign to our political and theoretical reflections as some historians have shown. I'm referring to the Catalan senator, who has written a suggestive article on the topic, saying that neither is it strange in political or sociologcal terms." Jordi Solé Tura

However, the ruling by the Spanish Constitutional Court on the Statute of Autonomy of Catalonia determined that the concept nation and nationality are not synonymous and that the Spanish Constitution of 1978 only allows the existence of the Spanish nation.

"The nation that is important here is exclusively the nation in the juridico-constitutional sense. And in this specific sense the Constitution does not recognise anything other than the Spanish nation, the mention of which begins the preamble, its foundation is laid in the Constitution (art. 2 CE) and with which sovereignty is expressly qualified when exercised by the Spanish people as its only recognised holder (art. 1.2), it has been manifested as a constituent will in te positive precepts of the Spanish Constitution [...]. In the context of the democratic State established by the Constitution, it is obvious that, as we have reiterated, we can fit as many ideas as people want to defend without recurring to the infraction of the procedures established by the Legal System for the formation of the general will expressed in the laws (for all, STC 48/2003, March 12th). And in particular we can fit the defence of ideological concepts that, based on a certain understanding of social, cultural and political reality, aim to give a particular collective the condition of national community, including as a principle from that which one can get the configuration of a constitutionally legitimate will in order to, mediating the opportune and inexcusable reform of the Constitution, translate this understanding into a legal reality. However, whilst this has not happened, the rules of the Legal System cannot ignore or induce any mistake in the point of the "indissoluble unity of the Spanish nation" proclaimed in art. 2 CE, because in no way can they claim for themselves any other legitimacy than that which results from the Constitution proclaimed by the will of this Nation, nor can they, under the protection of a polysemy, which is completely irrelevant in a juridico-constitutional context, which for this Court is the only one that it must attend, refer the term "nation" to another subject that is not the holder of the sovereignty."

As this kind of language is difficult to translate, here is the original text in Spanish.

"La nación que aquí importa es única y exclusivamente la nación en sentido jurídico-constitucional. Y en ese específico sentido la Constitución no conoce otra que la Nación española, con cuya mención arranca su preámbulo, en la que la Constitución se fundamenta (art. 2 CE) y con la que se cualifica expresamente la soberanía que, ejercida por el pueblo español como su único titular reconocido (art. 1.2), se ha manifestado como voluntad constituyente en los preceptos positivos de la Constitución Española [...]. En el contexto del Estado democrático instaurado por la Constitución, es obvio que, como tenemos reiterado, caben cuantas ideas quieran defenderse sin recurrir a la infracción de los procedimientos instaurados por el Ordenamiento para la formación de la voluntad general expresada en las leyes (por todas, STC 48/2003, de 12 de marzo). Y cabe, en particular, la defensa de concepciones ideológicas que, basadas en un determinado entendimiento de la realidad social, cultural y política, pretendan para una determinada colectividad la condición de comunidad nacional, incluso como principio desde el que procurar la conformación de una voluntad constitucionalmente legitimada para, mediando la oportuna e inexcusable reforma de la Constitución, traducir ese entendimiento en una realidad jurídica. En tanto, sin embargo, ello no ocurra, las normas del Ordenamiento no pueden desconocer ni inducir al equívoco en punto a la «indisoluble unidad de la Nación española» proclamada en el art. 2 CE, pues en ningún caso pueden reclamar para sí otra legitimidad que la que resulta de la Constitución proclamada por la voluntad de esa Nación, ni pueden tampoco, al amparo de una polisemia por completo irrelevante en el contexto jurídico-constitucional que para este Tribunal es el único que debe atender, referir el término «nación» a otro sujeto que no sea el pueblo titular de la soberanía."

  • Sentencia 31/2010, de 28 de junio de 2010. Recurso de inconstitucionalidad 8045-2006. Interpuesto por noventa y nueve Diputados del Grupo Parlamentario Popular del Congreso en relación con diversos preceptos de la Ley Orgánica 6/2006, de 19 de julio, de reforma del Estatuto de Autonomía de Cataluña


One can define the meaning of nationality as a preexisting social reality, which reinforces the peculiar historico-cultural character of certain territories with a deeply-rooted idiosyncrasy, in what have been described as differentiating characteristics, compared with those of other regions. What is certain is that the self-identification as a nationality rather than a region carries a political relevance, which doesn't necessarily concede legal privileges and this means that it isn't an adequate criteria for possible organisational and competencial differences or ways of participating in decisions of the State because the concept of nationality is subordinate to the concept of nation and therefore lacks legal authority for a claim to sovereignty.

Constitutional Law

The 1978 Spanish Constitution recognises the existence of regions and nationalities, and grants them autonomy without establishing administrative differences between them.

"The Constitution is based on the indissoluble unity of the Spanish nation, common and indivisible homeland to all Spaniards, and recognises and guarantees the right to autonomy of the nationalities and regions that comprise it and solidarity between all of them."
1978 Spanish Constitution - Titulo Preliminar

Despite certain ideological points of view, historic nationalities cannot be considered the same as historic Autonomous Communities, which were those that obtained their autonomy through article 151 of the 1978 Spanish Constitution ("the quick way") as the had already started the process of constitution during the Second Republic. Catalonia, the Basque Country, Galicia and Andalucia used the quick route laid out in the Constitution and became Autonomous Communities with a high level of competences. The rest of the Autonomous Communities, apart from Navarre, which took a special route owing to its foral status, were constituted using the procedure laid out in article 143 of the Constitution ("the slow route"), which gave them a limit of 5 years to reform their statutes and broaden their level of competences.

"The territories that in the past had voted in favour of Statute of Autonomy projects and, at the time of the publicaton of the Constitution, have provisional regimes of autonomy, can proceed immediately according to the way anticipated in part  of article 148, when it is agreed, by absolute majority, by their pre-autonomic governing bodies and communicated to the government. The Statute project will elaborated in agreement with what is established in article 11, number 2, and called by the pre-autonomic governing body."
1978 Spanish Constitution - Segunda Disposición Transitoria

Article 151 of the Spanish Constitution allows access to autonomy to those regions that had voted in favour of a Statute of Autonomy in the past and at the time of the publication of the Constitution already had pre-autonomic regimes.

In the case of Aragón in 1936 and the Comunidad Valenciana in 1937, regional governments were established in a "revolutionary" context during the Civil War but there was no consensus as to whether these could be considered legal precedents. The case of Aragón is a special one. The Congreso pro Autonomía de Aragón (similar to the one organised by Gaspar Torrente in Barcelona in 1921, which led to the approval of the Bases del Estatuto de Autonomía) was organised and a commission was elected in Caspe, which had the job of drafting the Statute of Autonomy. The draft was completed in June 1936 but the Civil War broke out when it was about to be debated in the Congress of Deputies.

These nationalities had no choice but to abide by article 149 of the Constitution but had their political and administrative competences assigned immediately, whilst the rest of the communities had to wait a period of 5 years after their Statute of Autonomy had been passed. This waiting period was avoided in the Canary Islands and Valencia by laws based on article 150 of the Spanish Constitution, which was considered by many of dubious constitutionality.

It gave rise to the so-called "quick" and "slow" Autonomies or Statutes, referring to articles 151 and 143. In the case of the Comunidad Valenciana, although it acceded to its autonomy via article 143, or the slow route, it reached the same level of of autonomy as the historic communities in less than a year so to all intents and purposes acceeded  by the quick route.

The Extension of the Concept of "Nationality"

With the new round of Statute reforms, which began with the Ibarretxe Plan in 2003, the concept of nationality became based on historico-cultural reasons rather than legal ones, given that Aragón, the Canary Islands and the Balearic Islands all included the recognition of their nationality in their projected Statute reforms, despite not have had autonomy during the Second Republic. In 2006, the Valencian Statute of Autonomy was reformed, with new competences, and in it the Comunidad Valenciana was declared a historic nationality in the first article.

Other Autonomous Communities haven't achieved the same level of competences as the historic nationalities previously mentioned, although there are various groups and political parties in other communities that have demanded to be defined as nationalities wth the conseuent increase in competences. This is the case of Asturias and Castile, where activists would like to combine the communities of Castilla-La Mancha, Castilla y León, Cantabria, La Rioja and the Comunidad de Madrid.

Another situation recognised in the Constitution is that regions that are historically different and are treated in the same way as the historic nationalities. Tis is the case of Navarre, which is officially a "Foral Community" like the Basque Country. Both have a greater degree of autonomy than the rest of the Autonomous Communities, because of the historic rights that with their status as foral territories as recognised in the first additional disposition of the Constitution, which also makes them different from any of the other communities.

The Autonomous Communities that include the self-identification as nationality or historic nationality, and consequently are legally recognised as such are Andalucía (1981 y 2007), Aragón (1996 y 2007),12 Islas Baleares (1983 y 2007), Canarias (1996), Cataluña (1979 y 2006), Comunidad Valenciana (2006), Galicia (1981) y País Vasco (1979). On the other hand, Asturias, Cantabria and Castilla y León are recognised in ther Statutes of Autonomy as historic communities.


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