Sunday, 23 March 2008

A Day to Celebrate for the Basques

For us in Catalonia, the decisions which the Basque Nationalist Party (PNV) makes, are important. Tactically, since Zapatero can opt for a long-term co-operation with them in order to circumvent the Catalan nationalists CiU. Strategically, since they are a political force which works for independence from the Spanish state with democratic means, condemning the terrorism of the Basque separatists within ETA.

Last year the Basque president (lehendakari) Juan José Ibarretxe upset many Spanish nationalists by setting out a date for a referendum to October 23, 2008, in which the Basques are to determine whether they, themselves, have the right to decide on a possible future independence (el dret de decidir, as it is called in Catalan).

Today, Easter Sunday is the day of the Basque Homeland (Aberri Eguna). It is always celebrated on Domingo de la Resurrección and not on a fixed date like eg. Catalonia's national holiday on September 11. In their speeches in Bilbao, President Ibarretxe and PNV chairman Urkullu did not repeat their demand for a referendum, but instead opened the door for an agreement with Zapatero’s government, provided the Basques receive maximum self-determination within the Spanish state. Since what they want is something different from the, in their eyes, watered-down statute which Catalonia got recently, a referendum is in fact not needed. The text which they demand would in itself clarify that the Basques are sovereign to decide whether or not they belong to Spain.

The Basque nationalism is strong and this week, my family and I have visited one town after the other full of posters and graffiti calling for independence. For tourists who come from castellano-dominated parts of Spain, I assume that it can feel hostile. However, for us who live in Catalonia, although the Basque language is a huge barrier, we recognise many of the messages. That feeling is mutual - Basque souvenir shops offer t-shirts with the flags of Catalunya and Euskal Herria (the 'great' Basque Country - i.e. including the French parts) next to each other.

Only one of the posters we saw confused us a bit. To see the Basque flag next to that of Scotland is logic - outside the Spanish state, the Scots are a preferred partner for many nationalists. Neither did the flag of Montenegro surprise us, since it peacefully won its idependence not long ago. But what were Swedish and Finnish flags doing in the background? We used to be one country some 200 years ago, but I doubt that the Finns consider that they got rid of the Swedes in an especially nice way, since they were occupied by Russia before they reached independence. Or are we only seen as role models for small but relatively successful states?

In symbols, it is always easy to prove that independence would work, but the real issue is how to get there. Most small European states find international strength through the European Union, but neither the Basque Country nor Catalonia will be allowed in unless they have the majority of the population within their territories with them and that is, most likely, not the case today.
Personally, I am convinced that Catalonia and the Basque Country will be independent one day, but hope that it will be in a new federal Europe. In modern democracies – and especially in a state like Spain where there is a strong tendency towards regional autonomy – I do not see the need to rush things. In their rhethorics, Basque and Catalan nationalists see things differently, but in action most of them seem to agree.

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