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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