Basques watch Cata­lan in­de­pen­dence bid with cau­tion and weigh up risks in­volved

Surge in Span­ish union­ism un­nerves na­tion­al­ists in north­ern re­gion

The Irish Times - - World News - Guy Hedge­coe in the Basque Coun­try

Within a week of the dis­band­ment in early May of the sep­a­ratist ter­ror­ist group Eta, the Basque Coun­try’s par­lia­ment started de­bat­ing pro­pos­als for a re­vi­sion of the re­gion’s re­la­tion­ship with Madrid.

Some of the lan­guage con­tained in those ini­tia­tives echoed the am­bi­tions of an in­de­pen­dent Basque state that Eta once har­boured. The Basque Na­tion­al­ist Party (PNV), which gov­erns the re­gion, de­scribed the Basques as “a peo­ple with their own iden­tity”, who have “a lin­guis­tic, cul­tural and le­gal-in­sti­tu­tional her­itage which has lasted through­out his­tory”.

The PNV’s pro­posal also called for the Span­ish re­gion’s links to the French Basque Coun­try and the neigh­bour­ing re­gion of Navarre to be for­mally ac­knowl­edged, a long-stand­ing claim of pro-in­de­pen­dence Basques. Union­ist forces such as Spain’s gov­ern­ing Pop­u­lar Party (PP) and the So­cial­ist Party baulked at what looked to them like the kind of pro­posal that pro-in­de­pen­dence par­ties pushed through the Cata­lan par­lia­ment, a few hun­dred kilo­me­tres to the east, ahead of their re­cent bid to break away from Spain.

How­ever, as Basques dis­cuss the kind of ter­ri­to­rial model they would like to present to Madrid for even­tual ne­go­ti­a­tion, the Cat­alo­nia fac­tor looks more likely to keep their sep­a­ratist am­bi­tions in check rather than fir­ing them up.

“The idea of self-de­ter­mi­na­tion has not been re­jected al­to­gether, but it’s on standby,” says Gorka Land­aburu, a Basque jour­nal­ist and ed­i­tor of the cur­rent af­fairs pub­li­ca­tion Cam­bio 16. “The Basques aren’t go­ing to copy the Cata­lans.”

Chaotic ref­er­en­dum

Cat­alo­nia’s na­tion­al­ist gov­ern­ment de­fied the courts by stag­ing a chaotic ref­er­en­dum on se­ces­sion last Oc­to­ber, which led to the re­gion’s par­lia­ment declar­ing in­de­pen­dence. The Span­ish gov­ern­ment re­sponded by sack­ing the Cata­lan cab­i­net and in­tro­duc­ing di­rect rule, while the courts have jailed sev­eral in­de­pen­dence lead­ers as oth­ers have fled abroad, in­clud­ing for­mer re­gional pres­i­dent Car­les Puigde­mont.

“The Cata­lan cri­sis has shown us [Basques] that if there is some kind of in­de­pen­dence drive, it will have to hap­pen within the rules of the game,” says Land­aburu. “The Cata­lan cri­sis has been bad for ev­ery­one.”

The PNV, which has gov­erned the Basque Coun­try al­most un­in­ter­rupt­edly since the restora­tion of the re­gion’s par­lia­ment in 1980, has a long se­ces­sion­ist tra­di­tion whose po­lit­i­cal ex­pres­sion tends to wax and wane de­pend­ing on cir­cum­stances. In 2005 the party’s re­gional pres­i­dent, Juan José Ibar­retxe, failed in an au­da­cious bid to per­suade the Span­ish par­lia­ment to give the Basque Coun­try pow­ers that came close to full in­de­pen­dence. But the cur­rent re­gional pres­i­dent, Iñigo Urkullu, is a more cau­tious and prag­matic fig­ure. In the Basque par­lia­ment this month, he ap­peared to en­dorse the idea of a ref­er­en­dum in his re­gion, but not one which of­fers full in­de­pen­dence.

“My aim is to use that con­cept [of self-de­ter­mi­na­tion] to re­in­force and in­crease Basque self-gov­ern­ment,” he said, warn­ing that aim­ing for some­thing more am­bi­tious might cause the re­gion to “lose the op­por­tu­nity we have be­fore us”.

Urkullu’s feel­ings about re­cent de­vel­op­ments in Cat­alo­nia are well doc­u­mented. In the wake of last Oc­to­ber’s ref­er­en­dum he was in fre­quent con­tact with Puigde­mont and urged the


What Cat­alo­nia has demon­strated is that this is a path which can be used and it can be done in a po­lit­i­cal and demo­cratic way

– Ar­naldo Otegi

Cata­lan leader to step back from his uni­lat­eral course and re­turn to the con­sti­tu­tional path by calling elec­tions. Puigde­mont shunned Urkullu’s ad­vice, a de­ci­sion which led to the in­de­pen­dence dec­la­ra­tion and di­rect rule. Since then, Urkullu and his PNV have watched the Cata­lan in­de­pen­dence move­ment with a sym­pa­thetic yet scep­ti­cal eye, while be­ing openly crit­i­cal of the Span­ish gov­ern­ment’s han­dling of the sit­u­a­tion.

The Basque Coun­try has the most au­tonomous pow­ers of any of Spain’s 17 re­gions, con­trol­ling its own ed­u­ca­tion, health­care, po­lice and taxes and with its own lan­guage, euskera. But it is also dis­tinct for an­other rea­son: the ter­ror­ism of Eta, which claimed over 800 lives be­tween 1968 and 2010 and which fi­nally an­nounced its dis­so­lu­tion on May 3rd.

Many ob­servers be­lieve the lin­ger­ing trauma of Eta’s sep­a­ratist vi­o­lence will act to dis­cour­age Basques from pur­su­ing in­de­pen­dence in the near fu­ture. But some na­tion­al­ists claim that nei­ther the legacy of Eta nor de­vel­op­ments in Cat­alo­nia will hin­der the prospect of in­creased Basque sovereignty.

“What Cat­alo­nia has demon­strated is that this is a path which can be used and it can be done in a po­lit­i­cal and demo­cratic way,” Ar­naldo Otegi, leader of the left­ist pro-in­de­pen­dence coali­tion, EH Bildu, told The Ir­ish Times. A for­mer mem­ber of Eta him­self, Otegi has watched the process with ad­mi­ra­tion. How­ever, he points to mis­takes by the in­de­pen­dence move­ment in Cat­alo­nia, sug­gest­ing that he, like Urkullu, sees de­vel­op­ments there as a cau­tion­ary tale.

“It’s true that they’ve had cer­tain prob­lems from which we have to take les­sons,” Otegi says. “First that they haven’t man­aged to get more than 50 per cent pop­u­lar sup­port, which is im­por­tant, although I think there is a ma­jor­ity in favour of in­de­pen­dence.”

He adds: “Sec­ond, they haven’t yet man­aged to get the sup­port of the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity, and the third prob­lem has been who con­trols the ter­ri­tory af­ter a dec­la­ra­tion of in­de­pen­dence.”

Po­lit­i­cal cri­sis

Otegi is hope­ful that the Euro­pean Union will even­tu­ally of­fer sup­port to the Cata­lan se­ces­sion­ist move­ment in or­der to end the po­lit­i­cal cri­sis in one of its big­gest mem­ber economies.

But if, as he says, an in­de­pen­dence drive needs the sup­port of more than half of cit­i­zens, any such project in the Basque Coun­try looks fan­ci­ful.

Only about 17-20 per cent of Basques want in­de­pen­dence, ac­cord­ing to María Sil­vestre, a so­ci­ol­o­gist at Deusto univer­sity, who says that fig­ure has changed lit­tle in re­cent months.

“There hasn’t been a push by Basques to join Cat­alo­nia, but rather a ten­dency to view it from a dis­tance and look at the risks in­volved,” she says.

One of the ef­fects of the Cata­lan cri­sis has been to gen­er­ate a hard­en­ing of at­ti­tudes on the part of union­ists. It’s a phe­nom­e­non which can be seen in the pro­lif­er­a­tion of Span­ish flags hang­ing from apart­ment bal­conies across Spain in re­cent months, but also in the tough rhetoric of par­ties on the right such as the PP and the rel­a­tively new force, Ci­u­dadanos. The lat­ter has even spo­ken out against the Basque re­gion’s unique fi­nan­cial ar­range­ment with Madrid. Led by Al­bert Rivera, Ci­u­dadanos has lit­tle sup­port in the Basque Coun­try. But a re­cent surge in the polls, on the back of the po­lar­i­sa­tion caused by the Cata­lan stand-off, makes it a ma­jor force on a na­tional level.

Basque na­tion­al­ists, Land­aburu says, “are wor­ried that Rivera will be­come prime min­is­ter and in­stead of in­creas­ing re­gional au­ton­omy, will cut it back”. But, as it has shown re­cently with a de­mand for the Span­ish gov­ern­ment to raise na­tional pen­sions, the PNV is adept at both play­ing to its vot­ers in the north and at driv­ing a hard bar­gain with Madrid in ex­change for par­lia­men­tary sup­port. Spain’s na­tional po­lit­i­cal land­scape is as frag­mented as at any time since the demo­cratic tran­si­tion, a sit­u­a­tion the PNV might be able to turn to its ad­van­tage by us­ing its seats in the na­tional par­lia­ment as lever­age.

In the mean­time, Basques seem con­tent to ob­serve events in Cat­alo­nia, rather than em­u­lat­ing them.


Peo­ple hold Cata­lan and Basque flags in the Basque vil­lage of Lazkao last year dur­ing a protest sup­port­ing self-de­ter­mi­na­tion in Cat­alo­nia.

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