Basque separatists inch along, watching Catalonia closely

Will the Basque flag ever make it to the United Nations? Chanzi, CC BY-SA

There was a time when Catalan separatists looked at the Basque country enviously. Its independence movement seemed to have a strength and determination that the Catalans lacked.

Not anymore. The Catalan regional government and parliament have called a referendum on independence for November, two months after the Scottish referendum. It has been rejected by Madrid for being constitutionally illegal, but the Catalan separatists have not backed down. Basque nationalists are far from doing anything similar in the short-term.

Yet the Basque nationalists in general and the pro-independence movement in particular have been notably strengthened since armed separatist group ETA (Euskadi Ta Askatasuna) renounced violence in October 2011.

Almost two-thirds of the members of the parliament of the Basque community are nationalist. The moderate PNV (Basque Nationalist Party) runs the regional government in Vitoria-Gasteiz with 27 out of the 75 members of parliament; and left-wing separatist coalition Bildu has 21 seats.

The new left coalition

The emergence of Bildu as a strong political force in Basque politics is one of the key consequences of the end of ETA’s campaign. In 2012 the left-wing separatist movement, which had been banned from politics since the early 2000s because of its alleged support for ETA, finally achieved a legal political party, Sortu. More importantly, the continuing absence of ETA violence enabled Sortu to become the driving force behind Bildu, a broader pro-independence coalition born after the end of ETA’s armed activity.

The Basque separatist movement is not yet in a position to follow the path opened by the Catalans, though. The Basques are still licking the wounds from their very recent violent past. ETA’s unilateral and definitive abandonment of the armed campaign might be two-and-a-half years old, but issues such as disarmament and prisoners have not been settled yet.

The Spanish government led by Mariano Rajoy has refused any dialogue with ETA, even though it has this year shown a willingness to disarm through a video-taped symbolic act of decommissioning of a few arms, witnessed by international verifiers.

Almost 500 imprisoned members of ETA (and other Basque civil organisations) are serving their sentences in Spanish and French jails, waiting for talks that will deal with their situation. Many regard the Spanish government’s inflexibility and non-dialogue a strategy to maintain a neverending scenario of conflict, thus obstructing a nationalist evolution towards a viable strategy for independence.

Co-sovereignty instead of independence

At the same time the Basque regional government led by the PNV main leader Iñigo Urkullu is clearly showing that it prefers to follow a pragmatic strategy of gradually progressive self-rule, leaving behind the more radical stances of the recent past.

Softly softly: Basque leader Inigo Urkullu with Spanish leader Mariano Rajoy La Moncloa Gobierno, CC BY-SA

This is a change from the late 1990s and early 2000s, when the PNV led by Juan Jose Ibarretxe had been committed to a strategy widely regarded as separatist. The Basque parliament approved a statute recognising the right to self-determination in 2004, but it was rejected by Madrid the following year on the grounds that the Spanish constitution forbade it.

In 2008 the Basque parliament approved a law proposed by Ibarretxe to hold a referendum about a new legal framework, but the Spanish constitutional court prevented it on similar grounds.

In contrast the PNV of today has distanced itself from both the past strategy of Ibarretxe and the current strategy of its counterparts in Catalonia. On Easter Sunday, the annual Basque homeland day, a common occasion for radical claims to nationhood, Urkullu declared that his government’s goal is not independence but a new relationship with the Spanish state based on co-sovereignty and bilateralism.

Bildu aims to move quicker and go further, but the coalition is aware that nationalists' lack of political control elsewhere in the greater Basque country is making separation difficult in the short term.

The Basque divide

The Basque territories are divided into three political bodies: the Basque territories under Spanish sovereignty are separated into two autonomous communities – the Basque community and Navarre. Then there are three small Basque territories under French sovereignty that are part of a bigger administrative region, the Atlantic Pyrenees.

Unlike the nationalist majority in the Basque community, they are minorities in the other territories. Nationalism is gradually growing stronger in Navarre, but not so in the French territories, where such parties usually get no more than 15% of the vote and not all of them support independence in any case. This means that the idea of a Basque independent state that would include the French territories is a utopian objective with no feasible prospect on the horizon.

The prospects for change in Navarre are not so unrealistic. The definitive end of ETA’s campaign, among other factors, has improved the political chances for Basque nationalists. It has become easier for Basque nationalist parties to find allies to team up and replace the region’s long-time ruler, the anti-Basque-nationalist right-wing UPN (the Navarrese People’s Union).

One option open to nationalists in the Basque community would be to sacrifice Navarre and push for independence only for their area. But Bildu have taken the view that a state border dividing Basques is already too much, and a national border would be too high a price to pay.

Instead the short-term strategy is to provoke a change in the Navarre government by forming an alliance with other progressive forces, which might include the Spanish socialists.

In the mid-term, the nationalists hope that such a shift could facilitate persuading a majority to support sharing a political project with the western Basque territories. In the 2011 regional elections, Basque nationalists received 28.7% of the vote in Navarre. Recent polls show that prospects for the 2015 elections are better still.

The chain gang

Meanwhile a collective of grass roots Basque nationalist activists has been organising a non-partisan campaign seeking recognition of the right to self-determination. Fuelled to a great extent by events in Catalonia and Scotland, the so-called Gure Esku Dago (“it’s in our hands”) has been gaining momentum.

In an initiative that echoes last September’s 400km human chain in favour of Catalan independence, Zure Esku Dago intend to form their own human chain on June 8.

The Catalan 400km human chain for independence, CC BY-SA

The object is to connect the 123km between the Basque towns of Durango and Iruñea-Pamplona. The movement is working with no official support from the main nationalist parties but seems to be attracting increasing support.

In sum, the prospects for Basque secession are still in the early stages. The major Spanish political parties have repeatedly showed that they are not prepared to reform the current legal framework to enable secessionist processes similar to the Scottish referendum.

Nationalists will need to be prepared for an uncertain political confrontation in which the rules of the game are clearly unfavourable to them. They know that in Catalonia, this has been countered at least to some extent by control of the regional parliament and a strong social movement pushing for secession.

Much will depend on the nationalists' ability to persuade Navarre to more strongly support their cause. For now they can only look to Scotland and Catalonia and learn from their experiences for when the situation is ripe enough for Basque separatism.

This piece is part of the Breaking Nations series spotlighting independence movements around the world. The other instalments can be found here.