Basque Country

The Parallel Paths of the Basque Country and Scotland


The Basques are not a particularly numerous people, totaling only around two and half million in Spain and another 250,000 in France. But millions more in other countries trace their ancestry to the Basque homeland once known as Vasconia. Basques were disproportionally represented in the Spanish colonial enterprise, with large numbers crossing the Atlantic to settle in the Americas. Chile in particular saw massive immigration, with Basques accounting for almost one-third of the Chilean population by the late 1700s. As the Basque intellectual Miguel de Unamuno quipped, “There are at least two things that clearly can be attributed to the Basques: the Society of Jesus and the Republic of Chile.” (Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Jesuits, and Francis Xavier, the society’s best-known missionary, were Basques.) Basques also settled heavily in northern Mexico; at the end of the Spanish colonial period, not coincidentally, much of the region was called “Nueva [New] Vizcaya.”

Basques were even influential in the Philippines, a Spanish colony that received very few Spanish immigrants. Both Miguel López de Legazpi, the conquistador of the archipelago, and Andrés de Urdaneta, the navigator who charted the course between New Spain (Mexico) and the Philippines, were Basques. The oldest and largest business conglomerate in the country, the Ayala Group, was founded by Basque immigrants. Marciano de Borja argues in Basques in the Philippines (University of Nevada Press, 2005) that the economic development of the country depended crucially on Basque talent, capital, and entrepreneurship.

Basque participation in maritime endeavors predates the incorporation of the Basque country into Spain. The Kingdom of Navarre is described in the Wikipedia as having been a thalassocracy, or sea-based state. Adventurers from Navarre gained holdings in the eastern Mediterranean in the late 1300s, and Basque fishermen were exploiting the immense cod fisheries of the Grand Banks off the coast of eastern Canada in the 1400s. By the beginning of the 1500s, the Kingdom of Navarre ran outposts on Newfoundland Island. Basque whalers may have “discovered America” well before Columbus.

Vasconia’s historical position is anomalous: a small country annexed by a much larger neighbor that then became central to the larger state’s global colonial enterprise. One other country shares this distinction: Scotland. Scotland lost its independence in 1707, when it joined England to form the United Kingdom. The merger was not entirely of Scotland’s choosing, as Scottish finances were in ruins after the ill-fated Darien expedition tried to wrest the Isthmus of Panama from Spain and thus found a Scottish empire. Scots were subsequently over-represented in most British colonies, just as Basques were in Spain’s colonies. And central Scotland, like central Vasconia, emerged as a hub of shipbuilding and other industrial activities.

Scotland’s shotgun wedding with England led its intellectuals to reconsider the position of their country. According to Arthur Herman in How the Scots Invented the Modern World, the shock of losing independence contributed to the remarkable outpouring of intellectual activity known as the Scottish Enlightenment. The ideas of such Scottish thinkers as David Hume and Adam Smith, Herman argues, were crucial to the development of modernity. Perhaps something similar occurred with the incorporation of the Basque Country into Spain. Although Unamuno no doubt exaggerated the role of the Basques in the creation of the Jesuit order, he was on to something. For the Jesuits too contributed crucially to the making of the modern world, bridging the intellectual spheres of Europe and East Asia and introducing Confucian ideas of meritocracy to the West.

Scotland and the Basque Country today occupy similar geopolitical positions. Both are non-sovereign, autonomous territorial units with strong but not overwhelming demands for independence. Both gained their own parliaments in the late twentieth century: the Basque Country in 1978, Scotland in 1998.

Electorally, the Basque Country is a bit more nationalistic than Scotland. In the Scottish parliamentary election of 2007, the Scottish National Party received 32.9 percent of the vote, while the three main British Parties received a combined total of 64 percent. In the Basque Autonomous Community parliamentary election of 2009, the two main Spanish parties received 45 percent of the vote, with most of the rest going to Basque parties. The Basque National Party received 38.5 percent of the vote, 6 percent went to Aralar (a non-violent leftist nationalist group), and 3 percent went to Eusko Alkartasuna (a social-democratic party), putting the nationalist total at almost half. Yet Vasconia is also home to a small but growing pan-Spanish movement led by intellectuals who have become disgusted with the excesses of local nationalists. Formed in 2007, the staunchly anti-regionalist party known as Union, Progress, and Democracy received two percent of the vote in the most recent election in the Basque Country itself, and in Spain’s European parliamentary election of 2009 it received almost half a million votes. The leaders of this party are mostly Basques. Its founder, the Basque philosopher Fernando Savater, is an ardent anglophile and defender of the Enlightenment tradition.

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The Paradoxes of Basque Politics

On September 5, 2010, the Basque separatist group ETA (Euskadi Ta Askatasuna) announced a cease-fire, hinting that it might lay down its weapons and embrace a non-violent path to independence. Spanish authorities were not impressed; ETA did not permanently renounce terrorist tactics.

Of Spain’s ethnic groups, the Basques are by far the most distinctive. All other Iberian languages are closely related, but Basque is a linguistic isolate, not related to anything else. The Basques have a little more autonomy than the other groups, running their own police force for example, and they have pushed harder for independence. The violence of Basque nationalism, however, has weakened it; today, Catalonia presents a more credible threat to the Spanish state than does the prospect of Basque secession.

Basque nationalists face a challenge in their region’s geopolitical fragmentation. Informally, the term “Basque Country” refers to seven territories of Basque heritage: four provinces of Spain and three former provinces of France. Formally, the same term means the autonomous community that emerged through the union of three of the Spanish provinces in 1978. The fourth historically Basque province of Spain, Navarre, became a de facto autonomous region in its own right, with the proviso that it could join the Basque political union should its voters ever choose to do so. If that were to happen, its capital – Pamplona – would automatically become the seat of the expanded autonomous unit. The current capital, Vitoria-Gasteiz, is not ideally situated. It lies in largely non-Basque-speaking Álava province, which is territorially compromised by a large exclave of Castile and Leon, Treviño. Basque nationalists, not surprisingly, demand Treviño for their own region.

Basque nationalism is also challenged by the limited distribution of the Basque language, known as Euskara. Across the historical Basque country, most people speak Spanish as their first language; for many in the north, French is the mother tongue. Some Spanish-speakers in the Basque region consider themselves of Spanish ethnicity, others as Basques who no longer speak their native language. Euskara has been retreating for some time, a process that accelerated in the late 1800s and early 1900s, as centralizing regimes in Spain and especially France sought standardization. The Basque hold on the land was also lessened by the arrival of immigrants from other parts of Spain, who were attracted by the high wages of Iberia’s first and foremost industrial zone. Today, Basque nationalism is generally opposed in southern Navarre, and even in Álava enthusiasm for it is limited.

Efforts to revitalize Euskara are currently underway. Many young Spanish-speakers of Basque ancestry are eager to learn it. As the map above indicates, most students in northern Navarre and throughout the autonomous region – even in Álava – are registered in Basque-language schools. The situation across the border in the Basque area of southern France is markedly different, with little Euskara education. France has long pushed political and cultural centralization, and it makes few accommodations for regional languages. Intriguingly, such policies generate little resistance in the Basque-speaking region, where support for the nationalist movement remains marginal.

Basque identity in Spain makes for interesting political coalitions. In predominantly non-Basque Navarre, right-wing and left-wing Basque parties have combined to form Navarre Yes or, in Euskara, Nafarroa Bai. In 2007, this coalition became the second largest party in Navarre’s parliament. In the Basque autonomous region, the center-right Basque Nationalist Party (EAJ-PNV) has been politically dominant for decades. The EAJ-PNV aims for independence through the democratic process; its conservative heritage is reflected in its Basque name, Euzko Alderdi Jeltzalea (EAJ): “Basque Party of Friends of God and Old Laws.” Leftist Basque nationalists have taken a more uncompromising path. ETA, a Marxist-Leninist organization, is classified across Europe and North America as a terrorist group. In 2003, the supposedly democratic socialist Basque party Batasuna was outlawed by Spain after evidence emerged of it funneling public money to ETA. Batasuna still operates openly in the French Basque country, but neither it nor the center-right Basque National Party receives much support.

In 2009, the Basque Nationalist Party suffered an epochal defeat, losing control of the autonomous region’s parliament to the center-left Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party. But as the socialists did not win a majority of seats, they had to forge a coalition with the local branch of the main Spanish center-right party, the People’s Party. Although the Socialist Party and the People’s Party are bitter rivals nationally, they agree on opposing Basque separatism.

The new president of the Autonomous Community, Patxi López, has thus far successfully pulled off a difficult balancing act. The fact that he has been able to work across the aisles with conservative members of the local parliament appeals to many Spaniards worried about their country’s economic crisis. As he result, López is being discussed as a possible candidate for the position of Prime Minister of Spain. At home, however, he is still working on his regionalist credentials; at age 50 he is only now learning how to speak Euskara.

Lopez’s popularity both in the Basque Country and in Spain at large stems mostly from his unyielding opposition to ETA, a group that even most Basque partisans have come to detest. As Helene Zuber writing for Der Spiegel reports:

Since coming to office, López has adopted a zero tolerance attitude to the terrorists. Photographs of members of ETA, which has killed approximately 850 people since 1968, have disappeared from taverns popular with its sympathizers and from town halls, even in Guipúzcoa province, the terrorists’ stronghold up to now…. Never before have so many ETA leaders been arrested in such quick succession, and never before have its members had such difficulty reorganizing their activities. They have not been able to perpetrate a deadly attack for over a year now. The Basque people – even ETA’s political wing – seem to have accepted that they cannot achieve their aims by violent means.

The reduced threat of terrorism in the Basque Country has also led to an uptick in tourism in the region, helping the local economy. Although the Basque Country has suffered in the recent Spanish economic meltdown, it has weathered the crisis better than other parts of the country. If the threat of political violence were to vanish, north-central Spain would likely do very well indeed.

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