The future of the Basque autonomous movement after Catalonia

November 06, 2017 11:32
Protesters carry Catalan separatist flags and Basque flags in a rally in favor of a referendum on independence for Catalonia. Photo: Reuters

One of the reasons Catalonia’s independence movement has failed to achieve the desired result is that its leaders have been unable to ally themselves with separatists in other parts of Spain, among them are the Basques.

Like the Catalans, the Basques also have their unique sense of ethnic and national identity “since ancient times”, only to be suppressed by former dictator General Francisco Franco after he swept to power in 1939.

During Franco’s reign, both the Catalans and the Basques were prohibited from using their own indigenous languages in public.

Franco’s repressive rule provoked widespread backlash among the Basques, and eventually gave rise to the ETA, the leading pro-independence militant group in Basque, in the 1960s.

The death of Franco in 1975 and the subsequent democratization of Spain didn’t put an end to the insurgency mounted by the ETA, whose leaders, unlike the overwhelming majority of Spaniards at that time, were highly dissatisfied with the arrangements over the future of Basque laid down in the country’s 1978 democratic constitution. At one point, the ETA was widely regarded as one of Europe’s most notorious terrorist groups in the Cold War period, and was responsible for more than 800 deaths.

And for the following two decades, the ETA would go on to wage a bloody campaign for independence on one hand, and hold peace talks with Madrid on and off on the other.

It wasn’t until 2010 that the ETA began to formulate a strategic alternative, under which it agreed to put a formal end to its pro-independence armed struggle that had continued for nearly half a century and pursue its pro-independence cause through dialogue instead of violence.

Then in April this year, the ETA finally completed its disarmament by turning over its last remaining armories located in southwestern France to the Spanish authorities.

Many have attributed the ETA’s willingness to give up violence to the fact that the Basque economy has been very promising, with several indicators such as employment rate better than other autonomous city and communities of Spain.

In particular, the Basque administration is allowed to collect and keep most of its own taxes, so that the taxes of this autonomous region, which is relatively well off compared to other parts of Spain, doesn’t have to flow to other parts of Spain.

This favorable arrangement has indeed proven instrumental in successfully allaying the discontent among the Basques with the central government in Madrid.

Meanwhile, in exchange for the ETA’s complete ceasefire and disarmament, Madrid has also agreed not to come after key members for their terrorist deeds in the past.

However, apart from “carrot”, Madrid has also employed “stick” in its efforts to eradicate the threat posed by the ETA and eliminate its living space.

For example, riding on the tidal wave of anti-terrorism in the wake of the September 11 attacks, the Spanish parliament overwhelmingly passed a new political parties act, which outlaws all political groups that have “direct or indirect sympathy for terrorist organizations”.

And Madrid’s “carrot-and-stick” approach to dealing with separatist sentiment in the Basque region has obviously paid off: according to a recent poll, less than a quarter of Basques are in favor of secession from Spain as a nation, or following the roadmap of Catalonia to strive for independence.

On the other hand, even though hundreds of thousands of Basque nationalists had taken to the streets in support of Catalonia’s bid for statehood two days before its independence referendum, most of the key leaders of the ETA have publicly dissociated themselves from the Catalan separatists.

As a matter of fact, there is currently little incentive for the Basques to push for secession from the rest of Spain. It is because on one hand, they are already enjoying “de facto independence” in terms of taxation, then on the other, the autonomous community has witnessed remarkable economic recovery in recent years thanks to the booming tourism. Given that, there is simply no reason for them to pick up weapons again.

Besides, leaders of the Basque autonomous community have adopted a new strategy, which is, through the European Union undermining Madrid’s control, to blur the boundary between the status of “independence” and “non-independence”.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Nov. 1

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Associate professor and director of Global Studies Programme, Faculty of Social Science, at the Chinese University of Hong Kong; Lead Writer (Global) at the Hong Kong Economic Journal