Peter Jones: Basque nationalists look on with envy

The Spanish constitution denies Basque nationalists the right to vote on independence. Picture: Getty
The Spanish constitution denies Basque nationalists the right to vote on independence. Picture: Getty
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BASQUE nationalists, having secured a majority in the devolved Basque parliament last October, and their economy – while not in great shape – being in better condition than Spain’s should surely now be thirsting for independence? Actually, no, they are not.

And neither do they seem to think that independence is all that big a deal anyway.

This was the message clearly conveyed to me in a recent interview with Andoni Ortuzar, president of the Basque National Party (EAJ-PNV), in the party’s impressive offices in Bilbao. Though they are quietly situated in a corner of a leafy square, they loom as large in Bilbaoan minds as the Guggenheim Museum and the adjacent, new 40-floor Iberdrola Tower which, well, towers over the city.

“Just tell the taxi driver you want to go to Sabin Etxea,” I was told, “Everyone in Bilbao knows it.” The Basque name doesn’t just commemorate the EAJ-PNV’s founder, Sabino de Arana Goiri, but embodies much more. The present-day party offices are built on the site of his house, razed by General Franco’s forces after he won the 1936 Civil War.

So determined was Franco to wipe out Basque nationalism, he ordered the rubble to be dumped at sea. So determined were nationalists to keep the flame alive, that they squirrelled away bits of the debris, kept them hidden for four decades and brought them out to be incorporated into the party offices – built after democracy was restored to Spain with Franco’s death in 1975.

It speaks volumes for how deeply embedded nationalism is in Basque culture and life. And last October, elections ousted a socialist-conservative non-nationalist coalition from power in the Basque government with the election of a parliament dominated by nationalists, holding 48 of the assembly’s 75 seats. But the lack of a rush to independence was the first thing I wanted to raise with Mr Ortuzar, when I met him on the day that, back in Edinburgh, Alex Salmond announced Scotland’s independence referendum date.

“I am envious,” he said. He went on to point out that the Basques are caught in a constitutional cul-de-sac. Written in the 1978 Spanish constitution is that it is “based on the indissoluble unity of the Spanish nation, the common and indivisible homeland of all Spaniards …”

This was put in to reassure remaining Francoist and centralist elements in the army and the much-feared Guardia Civile, the paramilitary police, that the proposed autonomy statute, which gives the Basque country and the other nationalities and regions of Spain local political power, would not lead to the break-up of Spain.

Successive Spanish governments have interpreted it to mean that any moves to independence by any part of Spain are illegal. The current prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, has said he will enforce that rigidly – Catalonia’s attorney-general was sacked last month for daring to say in public that he thought a referendum on Catalan independence was reasonable.

Such is the febrile nature of Spanish politics – Mr Rajoy is embroiled in a corruption scandal, police are investigating political espionage and financial scandals involving Catalan politicians, while the country teeters on the edge of bankruptcy – that rumours of a military coup d’etat can’t be lightly dismissed.

This background goes some way to explain why the EAJ-PNV is not keen on pushing independence right now. Indeed, the party never has been, adopting a formula that it seeks the degree of independence that the Basque people wish.

Despite Spain’s troubles, the authoritative Euskobarometro, run by the University of the Basque Country and which polls Basque political sentiment every six months, found in November 2012 that only 25 per cent want independence, against 67 per cent who prefer either a federal or autonomy solution for the Basque Country within Spain.

Mr Ortuzar, as might be expected, reckons the Basques would go for independence if they had the choice, but what really irks him and his party is that they are not allowed to have that choice. “This not a nationalist aspiration, a nationalist request, it is a democratic principle,” he said, finger-stabbing the table.

Hence his envy of Scotland where, to the utter bemusement of Spanish centralists, Prime Minister David Cameron has freely conceded the right of Scots to vote on independence, a move which, Mr Ortuzar said, “opens the door to hope” for the Basques.

He added: “For the EAJ-PNV, the fact that it is happening is very important. Why? Because the first demand from the EAJ-PNV is the right to decide.

“The people will decide yes or no, but the question is the right to be able to say yes or no.”

As to independence, he was frank enough to admit: “For those who are nationalist, it is an urgent issue, but for the people themselves, it is not urgent.” The people’s priorities, he said, were pretty much exclusively focused on fixing the economy.

Here, the Basque government, to many Scottish eyes, is in the fortunate position of setting and collecting rates for most taxes levied on the Basques, and remitting a sum of money to Madrid to pay for central services such as defence. It means the Basques control a lot of fiscal levers of economic power.

Rather surprisingly, Mr Ortuzar conceded that it also means that independence is not a great deal extra. “But what is it to be independent today?” he asked.

“Spain is independent, but the public deficit level is set by Brussels. If your level of indebtedness and your budget levels are marked by Brussels, if the financial system is controlled by the troika [European Commission, European Central Bank, International Monetary Fund], if many of what were considered to be national competences have been transferred to Brussels, the classic concept of independence has changed, changed a lot,” he said.

Meantime, there are domestic political considerations for while the EAJ-PNV is in power, it has only 27 seats. The other 21 nationalists in the parliament come from a grouping – Bildu – which has sprung from a leftist nationalist party and more militant nationalists, some of whom used to have links with the political wing of the now dissolved ETA terrorist group.

There is no love lost between them. Mr Ortuzar dismissively described Bildu as “possibly the last Marxist-Leninist party in Europe” and out to replace the EAJ-PNV as the leaders of Basque nationalism. Until that gets settled, Basque nationalism doesn’t look to be going anywhere fast. It is to Britain and Scotland that Basque nationalists are currently looking for a lead.