It is common in Spain to say that the Autonomous communities have the highest level of autonomy among the European Union: they have a lot of power in the areas of taxes, laws, etc.

I also heard about the Länder in German being very autonomous.

Having said that, how can such affirmations be done? Which patterns are used to sort this autonomy? Is there any index on this topic?

Finally, and based on hypothetical answers that may come, would my initial sentences be true regarding Spain and Germany?

  • 1
    It might be helpful to spell out why the current answer hasn't been deemed adequate. Sep 27, 2017 at 9:20
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    @DenisdeBernardy I suppose it's lacking comparision. Education is also transferred to the autonomous communities in Spain, and they can set part of the curricula... but not everything. Now, a primary school in Germany could opt to not teaching german language? Because a primary school in Catalonia cannot opt out spanish language courses.
    – Rekesoft
    Sep 27, 2017 at 10:39
  • @DenisdeBernardy you are right and Rekesoft explains it well in his comment: cbeleites's answer is very good, but it just explains the state of the art in Germany. I am interested in seeing some kind of key competencies: education, health service, internationalization, police, commercial treaties with other regions, etc. and how they compare one to each other depending on regions. I assume the basic regions to compare can be the Länder in Germany, Autonomous communities in Spain and Swiss Cantons.
    – fedorqui
    Sep 27, 2017 at 12:00
  • @Rekesoft: "Could a primary school in Germany opt to not teaching German?" Right now, I doubt that any of the 16 Länder allows that. But you'd have to check the school law for each Land separately. However, the Länder have tried hard to make the educational rules more similar in the last decades. I think this is somewhat similar to the countries in the EU trying to get their professional and university education comparable to make moving easier. Anyways, when I did my final exam in school (Abitur) marks in German language did not need to enter, just a certain no of languages at certain level. Sep 28, 2017 at 19:24
  • ... However, that was criticised (as was the fact that one could pass this exam with very little maths) while other Länder had German and maths compulsory. There is a zone between privately run schools adhering very closely to the state (Land) school curricula (and depending on the Land hand out the same final certificates) and schools that do not have that approval but are still approved as providing school in the sense of compulsory schooling law. Sep 28, 2017 at 19:41

2 Answers 2


Here's my view from the German perspective. I have no idea whatsoever about Spain, so maybe you'd need to discuss the points I give as examples for Spain in your own answer.

  • One point where the Länder are autonomous is education. Schools and universities are owned by the respective Land, and the curricula are set by the Land as well (they have a conference on that where all Länder try to agree on the rough guidelines, though). I put this first because it is a frequently told rumour that they will stick to this and not switch to more central and comparable curricula because this is the only field left where the Länder actually do have power to decide.

  • Each Land has its own constitution. The Länder would exist if the federal republic would decide to dissolve itself. However, there is a law that says "federal law breaks Länder-law", so the laws of the Länder can only refine federal law, or regulate things that are not regulated by federal law (e.g. education).

  • The responsibilities of Länder and federal republic are stated in the Grundgesetz ("federal constitution"). The basic rule is that the federal republik can only have responsibility (and legislative power) for topics that are assigned to the federal republik by the Grundgesetz.

    • There is a list of topics for which the federal republik is responsible and makes the laws,
    • a list of topics for which the federal republic may make laws - if not, the Länder handle these individually, and finally
    • a list of topics where the Länder can make laws that change/refine federal law.

    That is, the Länder grant power to the federal republic AFAIK, the construction for the autonomous regions in Spain (and Italy) is the opposite: there, the state (= Spain, Italy) transfers certain rights to the regions.

Now, if we look at power:

  • Most of the police belongs to the Länder, the army is federal.

  • There are taxes owned by the federal republic (100 * 10⁹ €), taxes owned by the Länder and communal taxes (together 70 * 10⁹ €), and "mixed taxes" (425 * 10⁹ €) (2012 numbers, source: federal statistics office). Of the mixed taxes, slightly less than half is federal, a bit less goes to the Länder, and a small part is communal.
    All in all, all Länder together have a bit less money than the federal republic.

  • I am offering a bounty on this question to any answer that may provide some kind of cross-country comparisons. Your answer is very thorough, but I looking for something that compares through countries. Thanks for your time!
    – fedorqui
    Sep 27, 2017 at 13:52
  • by comparision, Lands are fare more autonomous than the most autonomous part of spain, Basque Country. Well explained, +1.
    – CptEric
    Sep 27, 2017 at 14:56

I'm not aware of any index for the comparison of autonomy within EU regions. There are studies such as Europe's Working Regional Autonomies - A Comparative Analysis by Thomas Benedikter. See also The working autonomies in Europe and The World's Working Regional Autonomies.

Notice that there is a difference between Regionalism (see also Unitary States) and Federalism. I don't think it would be fair to compare Germany (a federation much like the European Union) to a Unitary State such as Spain (and by consequence its administrative regions). In fact you'll probably never see the German regions ever being considered in any list of autonomous administrations.

That being said Benedikter has used criteria such as legislative, financial, executive powers, political representation among others to make the comparison. The Spanish communities are indeed very autonomous by European standards (and likely by World). They are not, however, the regions with highest level of autonomy. Quoting Benedikter:

Considering the whole range of these ten autonomy systems in Europe under the above listed criteria it is possible to form a first ranking focusing on the real depth and extent of self-governance. Of course this evaluation scheme is a very rough and provisional, but it should just help us to understand that, due to political, historical and social background, autonomy systems have developed differently and are a flexible means to solve different problems.

He considers:

The Ålands Islands detain the most complete and far reaching autonomy. Under the Act of Self-Government of 1991 the Ålanders enjoy legislative and executive powers in nearly all political sectors which matter for the peoples on the islands.

As for the specific case of Spanish regions:

Also the Spanish autonomous communities, and in particular the autonomy systems of the historical "nationalities" of the Basques, the Catalonians and the Galicians, can be qualified as comprehensive autonomies with legislative and executive powers in nearly all internally relevant political affairs and a government which is responsible only to the regional autonomous parliament. They have not only budgetary autonomy, but clear-cut powers of taxation, shared with the central state. Spain's autonomous communities have their own civil and administrative judiciary, but the Basque Country and Catalonia have even their own police force. The Spanish autonomous communities are also vested with a competence normally reserved only to federated member states of a federalist union, the power to elaborate their own autonomy statutes. The amount of autonomous powers of a region in Spain is in a high degree up to the region itself which, within the constitutional framework, can freely regulate its own autonomy. Hence, Spain's regional autonomies are continuously extended and improved. However the autonomy statutes have to be approved with simple majority by the central parliament of Madrid.

So your quote:

... the Autonomous communities have the highest level of autonomy among the European Union

Is perhaps an exaggeration but not far from the truth. Also notice that there are differences in between different regions of Spain.

  • This is a very thorough answer which also provides juicy resources that I will enjoy reading. Thanks a lot! By the way, in Spain they call "café para todos" (coffee for everyone) to some political decisions made to the end of the 70s. Those allowed all regions to have extensive powers to get what the historical nations had been granted (Catalonia, Basque country and Galicia)
    – fedorqui
    Oct 3, 2017 at 13:47
  • @fedorqui As I was writing this answer It came to mind that didn't really know why did Spain move towards Devolution (the technical name for its class of system) instead of Federalism. But by reading the Federalism article more carefully there is a clear chapter about Proposed Federalism, with a few paragraphs for the specific case for Spain. The article claims the some parties (Podemos, Izquierda Unida, Partido Socialista Obrero Español) do promote some form of Federalism for Spain.
    – armatita
    Oct 3, 2017 at 15:07
  • Most of it comes from the Spanish transition to democracy after 40 years of fascist dictatorship. Prior to the dictatorship, some nationalist regions aimed for more sovereignity and this, partly, lead to the Civil war and then Franco in the power with a very centralist government. So in 1975-1978, while writing the Constitution, there was both a fear and a pressure not to decentralize the power to keep the army "calm". Time passed and more power was given to regions after big demonstrations, but a coup d'état stopped the trend.
    – fedorqui
    Oct 3, 2017 at 15:35
  • (...) However, as time passed, democracy stabilised and wealth increased, more and more power was given to regions. However, nowadays there are more or less three blocks: parties aiming to recentralize or at least freeze (PP, Ciudadanos), parties aiming for some kind of Federalism (the ones you mentioned, although PSOE is a bit ambiguous and has different opinions throughout regions) and then independentists. All agree in that Constitution should be changed, but there is no consensous at all about what should be the result.
    – fedorqui
    Oct 3, 2017 at 15:39

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