Spain: No Basque Autonomy

Basque nationalists cheer regional Prime Minister Juan Jose Ibarretxe.
Basque nationalists cheer regional Prime Minister Juan José Ibarretxe at a rally in September 2003 (Photo: Rafa Rivas/AFP-Getty Images).

The so-called consensus constitution—forged by myriad Spanish social and political forces on Dec. 6, 1978, after Gen. Francisco Franco’s nearly 40-year-long fascist dictatorship—could be in peril.

Although debates over quotas for regional political representation (mainly in Catalonia and the Basque Autonomous Community) are common in Spain, the country’s territorial integrity is now being challenged. Basque regional Prime Minister Juan José Ibarretxe and his Basque Nationalist Party (PNV) are waging a war against Madrid. Their weapon: the “Ibarretxe plan,” which, in a nutshell, calls for Basque sovereignty.

“The Basques want to decide their own future, and they also want to part, once and for all, with the barbarity of the ETA [the Basque separatist movement, Euskadi ta Askatasuna],” Ibarretxe was quoted in El Mundo’s special report on the plan (November 2003).

The solution, according to Ibarretxe, is a political agreement granting the Basque Autonomous Community the status of a “free associated state,” with its own foreign policy, separate courts, and representation in the European Union, to be decided in a referendum in 2005.

Ibarretxe’s plan has already been translated into a statute, which was passed by the Basque Parliament on Oct. 25. Now, theoretically, negotiations with the government can begin.

The Spanish government strongly opposes the plan. “Certain proposals aimed at reforming the constitution do not contribute to an image of unity,” argued Manuel Seco in El País (Dec. 13). “Proposals, which in my opinion are extremely unfortunate in timing, though more or less reasonable in content.”

Iñaki Galdós, president of Eusko Alkartasuna (Basque Solidarity)—the party jointly governing in Basque country with the PNV—was quoted in Gara (Dec. 15): “The problem is that Basques do not agree on how to resolve the situation they live in....[We have to find] a common diagnosis about the Basque conflict and about our identity, because so many different interpretations block the way forward….We need to be consulted.” Galdós was referring to Ibarretxe’s intention to call for a referendum on Basque sovereignty.

To prevent Ibarretxe from implementing his plan, President José María Aznar introduced a proposal to reform the criminal code on Dec. 10.

According to the proposal, any politician calling a referendum outside his jurisdiction could be thrown in jail. That would apply to Ibarretxe, should he go ahead with his sovereignty plan.

“The argument of the Popular Party is to use every possible means to stop Ibarretxe’s plan before it can become legal,” observed El País in an editorial (Dec. 11). “Of course, legal mechanisms have to be used, but not necessarily the criminal code. Not every illicit behavior must be criminally punished.”

Meanwhile, Basque society is equally divided between those who prefer to remain Spaniards and those who—whether by violent or peaceful means—strive for political independence.

An editorial in El Diario Vasco (Dec. 14) lamented: “Those thousands who demonstrated yesterday against Ibarretxe’s plan are so detached from the proposal of a free associated status between the Basque Autonomous Community and Spain that a minimum climate of political understanding among the Nationalists and the non-Nationalists seems unimaginable—unless Ibarretxe’s plan is withheld.”

This is precisely the main argument put forward in the Spanish press. “This is no democratic undertaking if it is based on taking advantage of ETA’s violence. This is perverse,” fumed Fernando Savater in El País (Dec.14).

“It is legitimate that parties have their own projects and ideas—but in Basque country, all have to be united.”