The creation of the different Autonomous Communities in Spain took place through a complex procedure from 1979 until 1983. The Basque Country, Catalonia, Galicia and Andalusia were the first ones to adopt their own Statutes of Autonomy (Estatutos de Autonomía). The remaining regions also adopted their own Statutes so that today all the Autonomous Communities enjoy important autonomy and have legislative powers. In addition, Ceuta and Melilla, the two Spanish Autonomous Cities located in Northern Africa, also adopted their own Statutes in 1995.

As of today, there are 17 Autonomous Communities (Comunidades Autonomas), 50 Provinces (Provincias), 8111 Municipalities (Municipios) and two Autonomous Cities. The Canary Islands have the outermost regions status under European Union (EU) primary law.

The right to self-government is enshrined in the Constitution (Article 2). Moreover, the autonomy of the Municipalities, the Provinces and the Autonomous Communities is embedded in Article 137. Pursuant to the Constitution, the Autonomous Communities adopt their own Statutes and hold legislative powers. The Autonomous Communities, the Provinces and the Municipalities run their respective affairs autonomously. The Provinces exist mainly for coordinating purposes. One should note that provincial competences are assumed by the AC in Communities comprising only one province (namely Murcia, La Rioja, Madrid, Asturias and Cantabria). Moreover, Basque provinces are a category of their own because of the constitutional and statutory provisions, having quasi-legislative, fiscal and executive competences of a very broad scope.

As of today, all Autonomous Communities enjoy the same degree of political autonomy and the differences between the exercise of their powers is rather low (mainly some specific cultural and linguistic powers, civil legislation and some specific provisions on police and public security, immigration, etc.) The only exception is the specific financial system of the Basque Country and Navarra.

According to the powers constitutionally guaranteed to the State, the Statutes of Autonomy define the institutions and powers of each Autonomous Community. They must be approved via a procedure thanks to which the regional assembly and the national parliament reach an agreement. As a result, the powers of the Communities may increase or decrease without changing the Constitution – provided that they are adopted within the confines of the constitutional framework.

Nevertheless, the procedure to reform the Statutes is almost as rigid as the reform of the Constitution and must seek an agreement between the national and regional parliaments.

The Constitution contains a general warrant of the local autonomy, but the allocation of local powers is regulated by the law. The 1985 Law regulating the basis of the local government system (Ley reguladora de las bases del régimen local) defines the basic institutional framework of local authorities and gives an indication of their powers. However, the local distribution of powers largely depends of every sectoral law (State law or autonomic law) and may differ importantly from an Autonomous Community to another. Besides the powers expressly allocated by the law (mainly administrative powers), local authorities may adopt their own rules provided that they respect State and autonomic laws. They also have a general administrative power on matters which are not allocated to other institutions by the law. Local powers are mainly allocated to Municipalities; second-level local authorities (as Provinces) have essentially delegated powers and a general power to cooperate with municipalities.

The Autonomous Communities can participate in European Union (EU) decision-making through the Spanish delegation. Such participation is developed internally through the different sectoral conferences and, since 1997 directly in the committee system which oversees the delegated acts implemented by the European Commission (ex-comitology). Furthermore, since 9 December 2004 the Autonomous Communities and the Autonomous Cities may participate in some of the Council of the EU meetings and working groups.

Autonomous Communities

As a general rule, the Autonomous Community powers extend to all matters not allocated to the State by the Constitution, as well as the legislative development and implementation of the basic legislation and State legislation.

They may assume competences in the following fields:

  • Organisation of regional government institutions;
  • Changes in municipal boundaries;
  • Public order;
  • Planning, urbanism and housing;
  • Public works of regional interest;
  • Transports (Regional railway and road networks; Regional transport; ports and airports not engaged in commercial activities);
  • Agriculture and forestry;
  • Environment (protection);
  • Water management;
  • Inland fisheries, hunting and aquaculture;
  • Festivals;
  • Promotion of economic development within the frame of the national policy;
  • Craftwork;
  • Culture (museums, libraries and music conservatories of regional interest; cultural heritage; promotion of culture and of the regional language when relevant);
  • Promotion of regional tourism;
  • Promotion of sports and leisure activities;
  • Social assistance;
  • Health and hygiene;
  • Development and implementation of state basis legislation on such matters as general regulation of economic activity, education, public health or environment;
  • Execution of state legislation on matters such as labour legislation, administration of justice or intellectual and industrial property.


Provinces are responsible for:

  • Competences in fields of supra-municipal interest;
  • Technical, legal, and economic assistance to Municipalities with less than 5.000 inhabitants;
  • Provision of public services of supra-municipal character;
  • Cooperation in the promotion of economic and social development and in planning of the provincial territory;
  • Implementation of capital expenditure projects outside the municipal territorial boundaries (including secondary road networks, some hospitals etc.);
  • Any delegated competence.

The actual provincial competences, which are generally defined as securing coordination and provision of municipal services, largely depend on the Provinces’ financial resources, municipal decisions, as well as on historical development. Therefore, there are tremendous differences between the Provinces.


Municipalities must exercise competence in the field of:

  • Local public utilities;
  • Local public networks (waste and water supply, public lighting)
  • Local public road maintenance;
  • Municipal police;
  • Any delegated competence;
  • Any other executive and administrative activities which are not allocated to other institutions by the law.

Competences exercised in the conditions defined by State and Regional laws:

  • ​Public safety;
  • Traffic management;
  • Civil protection, fire prevention and extinction;
  • Management of parks and garden;
  • Urban policies;
  • Cultural heritage;
  • Protection of the environment;
  • Fairs and related activities;
  • Protection of public health;
  • Participation in the management of first healthcare;
  • Cemeteries and funeral services;
  • Social services, promotion of social reinsertion;
  • Cultural activities;
  • Cultural or sport facilities;
  • Tourism;
  • Participation in the design of education programmes and facilities.

Municipalities with more than 5.000 inhabitants are responsible in any case for:

  • Markets and public parks;
  • Libraries;
  • Waste treatment.

Municipalities with more than 20.000 inhabitants are responsible in any case for:

  • Civil protection;
  • Social service allowances;
  • Fire fighting services;
  • Sports facilities.

Municipalities with more than 50.000 inhabitants are responsible in any case for:

  • Environmental protection;
  • Urban public transport.

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