In a day not too distant from now, tourists saturating the beaches of the Balearics, if they were inclined to (which they probably wouldn’t be), may stop and stare at a sign. This would carry the legend - ‘Property of the Govern de les Illes Balears’.
Beaches are someone’s property, and in Spain they belong to the state. This is a benign, philanthropic property-owning, as the state safeguards the beaches in the name of the citizens. It is every Spaniard’s constitutional birthright to have free, unfettered access to any beach - except where a) interminable and incomprehensible legal processes deny this (e.g. Cala Castell in Pollensa); b) an arm of the state (the military) has bagged a beach for strategic reasons, such as Cap Pinar in Alcudia; or c) Covid capacity regulations require a queuing system and an app to admit Spaniards and others to a one-time unspoiled terrain.
As beachgoers nowadays lounge on their sunloungers and certain ladies and gentlemen seek to avoid the attention of local law enforcement in vending, respectively, massages and sunglasses of dubious provenance, it is hard to imagine a time when the beaches were left unmolested. Human occupation on any scale, save for invading forces, is a recent phenomenon in the history of coasts.
No one would therefore ever have considered that it would be necessary to manage beaches. They most certainly do now, and it is the dream of politicians in the Balearics to be able to do so and to plant the sign (albeit metaphorically) proclaiming beach ownership. Beach and coast management, it has been long argued, should be local.
Yes, town halls have a good deal of responsibility for beach management, but this is at a functional level; it is not strategic, it is not political in the sense of policy-making. Decisions are taken, legislation is passed higher up the political food chain than the plenary sessions of the ‘ayuntamientos’. Somewhere in Madrid, a city with no beaches, is the ‘Demarcacion de Costas’, another arm of the state, referred to simply and often with a good deal of trepidation as the Costas.
The Costas Authority has its regional delegations, but the power ultimately resides a long way away. Madrid decides, Madrid manages. But this may not be the case for much longer.
Lurking within the multi-layered organisational structure of the Balearic government is a body known as the Institut d’Estudis Autonòmics. A literal translation of this - autonomic studies - wouldn’t really make sense, as autonomic is associated with the nervous system. Autonomous studies is more accurate.
While the work of this institute may fray the nerves of certain political groups in opposition which are not minded to pursue ever more autonomy, for the current government the institute calms nerves and offers hope.
It has produced a report which says that there is sufficient room for an expansion of Balearic powers without the need to reform the statute of autonomy, which guides what responsibilities the Balearic government has or doesn’t have. Beaches and the coast are a responsibility the government should already have, the report concludes.
Why does the regional government want powers for the beaches? An example of the justification for this comes from the response to the impact of storms. The Costas Authority takes forever, while the storms are part and parcel of a wider issue - management in the face of climate change.
There is sense in having this local management, but the framing of any new powers would have to be nailed down and made absolutely clear, and where the coast is concerned, there would remain one very major aspect for potential disagreement. The Balearic government could never actually put that sign on a beach. It would be an impossibility. The beaches are Spanish territory; they can’t be anyone else’s.
The pandemic, the report says, has highlighted the need for greater local intervention. But it acknowledges that this is within the framework of ‘co-governance’ with the state. And look where that’s got the regional government - in court, precisely because powers haven’t been clarified.
The expansion of the Cabrera National Park has followed a similar route, as Madrid and Palma have seen each other in court over who has responsibilities. On other matters, we have grown accustomed to their being referred to the Constitutional Court because the state claims invasion of powers (the Balearic anti-bullfighting legislation has been a case in point).
Another big thing for the Balearic government is the management of the airports. This has been a big thing for politicians from the right as well as from the left - the Partido Popular’s Jaume Matas was an advocate when he was president.
As with the beaches, there is sense to this, especially if it can mean some control over the number of people on the islands at any given time. But could it ever be more than co-management with the state and a hoped-for influence over decisions?
Balearic politicians dream of having these further powers, but might they end up becoming a nightmare of legal tussle, with the courts the ultimate arbiters?