The association of the Basque country with political (and often violent) conflict in the eyes of much of the world is at first sight belied by the sense of tranquil prosperity exuded by its capital, Vitoria. Yet as soon as the visitor even begins to make sense of the city's basic geographic and historical coordinates, it is impossible to avoid being confronted by the intractable nationalist dispute that has wracked the region, and Spain itself, for almost forty years.
This city of 250,000 people is known in the Basque language as Gasteiz, just as the Basque country as a whole is Euskadi. It is capital too of Álava, the largest of the three Basque provinces; Guizpúchoa and Vizkaya [Biscay] are the others, though Basque nationalists also include within the historic (and imagined) nation the neighbouring province of Navarra and the area of southwest France, both home to Euzkerra [Basque-speakers]. This wider territory comprises for local nationalists the entirety of Hegoalde (the four provinces of southern Euskadi) and Iparralde (the northern, French area). In the weather reports of the local nationalist press, for example, this aspirational Euskadi is represented as a separate geographic unit.
Vitoria is a long-established manufacturing centre which has expanded multiply since it was named as Euzkadi's capital under the system of regional "autonomy" (in British terms, "devolution") that was introduced in 1978 as part of the transition to democracy to Spain after the death of the dictator Francisco Franco in November 1975. The choice of Vitoria was in part by default: the other obvious candidates were excluded for reasons of political sensitivity (Guernica [Gernika], the historic capital devastated by the German air-force attack in May 1937) or reluctance to grant disproportionate influence to the largest cities (the ports of San Sebastian [Donostia] and Bilbao [Bilbo]).
Vitoria's layout is clear from any high point around the city: on a slight hill stand the churches and narrow streets of the old walled town, established by Sancho the Wise, King of Navarra, in 1181, far from the Arab armies to the south; beyond lies the urban civility of modern Spain that in turn gives way to the arid hills that lie between the cereal-growing plateau of Álava and the Bay of Biscay. The vast Cathedral of Immaculate Mary (completed only in 1973, and one of two cathedrals in Vitoria) exists among a variety of churches, whose most prominent ones are floodlit at night.
The main square - named "The White Virgin" after the city's patron-saint, hosts a large memorial to the victory of the Duke of Wellington in the battle of Vitoria of 21 June 1813, a decisive moment in what for Spaniards is the "war of independence" (and for some others the "peninsular wars"). In August the same square is the site of a curious local custom, whereby everyone in the crowd lights a cigar as an angel "descends" from the belfry of the 14th-century St Michael's church.
The summer is a time of regional festivals, and the papers are full of their attractions - from the annual San Fermin bull-run in Pamplona, capital of Navarra, to musical performances by Norah Jones and Ornette Coleman. This is also the season when the University of the Basque Country runs its summer school, generously supported by local and provincial Basque authorities, at which I have been invited to give a series of lectures.
I duly begin each talk with a few words in Basque: egún on deóri (good day everyone). The welcome is warm, and on my second night in Vitoria - accompanied by the other teachers and students of the school - we are invited to walk a short distance along a sunny tree-lined avenue, to the house of the lehendakari (president of the Basque country): Juan José Ibarretxe.
Fred Halliday is professor of international relations at the LSE, and
visiting professor at the Barcelona Institute of International Studies
(IBEI). His many books include Islam and the Myth of Confrontation (IB
Tauris, 2003), 100 Myths About the Middle East (Saqi, 2005), and The
Middle East in International Relations: Power, Politics and Ideology
(Cambridge University Press, 2005).
Fred Halliday's "global politics" column on openDemocracy surveys the
national histories, geopolitical currents, and dominant ideas across
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After the customary mass photograph in front of the presidential residence, Ibarretxe welcomes us with an introduction of judicious nationalist affirmation to the place of the Basque country in today's world. The notes he strikes are familiar enough, if no doubt heartfelt, and are immediately comprehensible to the motley collection of visitors (students from elsewhere in Spain and from Latin America, as well as two academics from Turkey): the Basque nation speaks the oldest language in Europe; it is part of Europe and of the globalising world (Ibarretxe never mentions the word "Spain"); its future rests on the skills and education of its peoples; it is open for visitors and business alike.
Juan José Ibarretxe is an economist who has been lehendakari since 1998, and it shows: he exudes a strong and well polished confidence. His party, the centre-right Eusko Alderdi Jeltzalea / Partido Nacionalista Vasco (Basque Nationalist Party / PNV) - which long predates the Spanish civil war of 1936-39 - has been the ruling party in Euskadi since the late 1970s. In recent years it has governed in coalition with two smaller leftwing, and more overtly nationalist, parties.
Yet all is not well in the PNV, or in the Basque country or, indeed, in Vitoria's relations with the rest of Spain. Vitoria itself is far from being the bucolic urban space that it at can first appear: in the days after I was there police discovered a house in which a military commander of Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (Basque Homeland and Freedom / ETA) - the armed opposition group that has been waging a guerrilla war since the late 1960s for Basque independence - had been until recently based; its streets are regularly convulsed by the Basque practice of kale borroka, a form of street violence in which crowds of young people armed with Molotov cocktails attack government and commercial buildings, intimidate the general population and attack, in a clearly targeted way, the homes of those who do not support the nationalist cause. Much as ETA and its friends claim that all of this is spontaneous, a "natural" response to Madrid's repression, it is an open secret that the kale borroka is controlled and switched on or off by ETA and its allies.
In the Spanish provincial and municipal elections of May 2007 the PNV's share of the vote in the Basque provinces fell significantly, in a sign of general tiredness with the party's long period in office, as well as of punishment for corruption. A few weeks earlier, ETA had announced it was ending a ceasefire it had declared in March 2006 with the expectation of negotiating with the Spanish government: arrests and discoveries of substantial supplies of weapons have followed, in Spain and France. The Basque country, if not all of Spain, is on alert for a new wave of ETA attacks, possibly coinciding with the summer tourist season. The morning after Ibarretxe welcomes us, the press carries reports of an attempt by rightwing politicians to prosecute him for illegal contacts with ETA; while the moderate chairman of his party, Josu Jon Imaz, has opposed Ibarretxe's plan to hold a referendum by the end of 2007 on Basque sovereignty.
The ETA conundrum
Thirty years after the reintroduction of democracy to Spain, and the granting of substantial autonomy to the Basque provinces, the central problem in the politics of Euskadi remains what it was three decades ago: the armed campaign waged by ETA. ETA has continued to call for the full independence of Euzkadi and has persisted in maintaining the claim to Navarra, despite the fact that everyone knows that the great majority in that province do not consider themselves Basques. As with Sinn Féin and the IRA in Northern Ireland, ETA historically mobilised political support through an allied political party, Herri Batasuna, which (again like Sinn Féin) regularly won 15%-20% of the vote: more than enough to sustain a mass political base, and provide flexible and compliant political cover, for the armed movement.
Herri Batasuna (HB) was banned before the last municipal elections, but much of its support went to another party, the Acción Nacionalista Vasca (ANV), until then a relic of a split from the PNV of the 1930s, but recently strengthened by the award of 700,000 euro in compensation for property seized during the civil war. It is hard accurately to read the results of the May regional and municipal elections in terms of ANV support, because of a high level of abstention and disqualification of candidates (for being associated with HB); but it would seem that the pro-ETA vote largely held up. In some municipalities, the ANV is now the governing party.
Ibarretxe's problem is that while ETA is condemned by most Basques, and has suffered major blows as a result of arrests in Spain and France, the underground nationalist group continues to be able to dominate, if not control, the political agenda, not only in the Basque country but, because of the inflamed nature of the debate on ETA within Spanish politics as a whole, on the national level. His own party, the PNV, is split at least three ways: one wing favours (without saying so too loudly) Basque independence, but by democratic means; another, led by Imaz, is opposed to independence; while Ibarretxe, himself inclining against independence, believes the best way to weaken ETA is to put the question of independence to the vote, something the Imaz wing believes will only legitimate ETA's intransigence.
This is, however, only part of the problem: for the question of ETA, and the related issue of Navarra, are at the centre of national - Spanish - controversy and denunciation. Even more than the other "hot" questions of contemporary Spanish politics - compulsory citizenship education in schools, gay marriage, and the "law on historical memory" relating to the Franco repression - the issue of ETA is the one that the opposition Partido Popular (Popular Party / PP) uses to berate the government.
Although the Jose Maria Aznar government did hold talks with ETA during an earlier 441-day ceasefire in 1998-99, the position of the PP now is to denounce all negotiation and to mobilise rightwing opinion and the families of ETA victims to oppose any such talks. At the tenth anniversary celebrations of the killing by ETA of Miguel Ángel Blanco, a PP local councillor in the Basque town of Ermus, the PP sought to exclude representatives of the government and to use the ceremony to stake a partisan position.
On his side, Spain's prime minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero took a risk in June 2006 when he followed his cautious welcome of ETA's March announcement of a ceasefire with a pledge to open discussions with the organisation's representatives; Madrid's emissaries are reported to have met five times with ETA in Geneva in ensuing months. But a bomb in the the four-storey car-park of Terminal 4 of Madrid's Barajas international airport on 30 December 2006, in which two immigrant Ecuadorian workers were killed - as well as ETA's continuation by of recruitment, training, reconnaissance and intimidation - suggest that the organisation was, at best, divided on the wisdom of the ceasefire.
The announcement of an end of the supposedly "permanent" ceasefire, laced with mendacious and self-serving attacks on the Zapatero government, was timed for 6 June 2007 - a week after the municipal elections, but two days short of the 441 days of the "indefinite" ceasefire of 1998-99. From what can be made out of the murky internal politics of the abertzale (the pro-ETA political world), those who genuinely wanted an exploratory dialogue with the socialist government have been overruled by a new, younger and harder, generation of militants. The latter holds the democratic process, the tolerance of other parties and the massive social protests that their actions have occasioned within the Basque country in contempt.
Basques and Irish
Against this background, and with the polarisation of Spanish politics as a whole, it would appear that the Basque question is, once again, at an impasse. Far from having learnt the lessons of the past, or come to accept that any campaign for independence should be conducted by peaceful and constitutional means, ETA would seem to have set itself on a course of non-negotiable confrontation with Madrid.
Allusions are often made in Spain to a possible knock-on effect of the peace agreement in Northern Ireland, and Sinn Féin has, while continuing to indulge Basque nationalism, called for such a repetition. In some senses there are analogies: the majority of the population in the province concerned clearly oppose violence and most probably do not want independence; any sense or legitimation of armed opposition ended with the death of Franco in 1975. Instead, an underground armed group has hijacked the imagination of a significant part of the younger generation, and has maintained its hold through intimidation, extortion, street violence and the systematic abuse of the autonomous linguistic and education rights acquired in the late 1970s.
An article in the weekly supplement to El Pais on the town of Hernani, where the ANV runs the local council, gives a chilling, and entirely convincing portrait of a world where intimidation, fear, silence are the order of the day (see Alfredo Cáliz, El silencio de Hernani, 22 July 2007).
However, the differences with Ireland are also significant. Five in particular deserve emphasis:
- Spanish opinion as a whole is agitated by the Basque question and would not tolerate loss of the Basque provinces, whereas, since the 1970s at least, the mass of British opinion would have been happy to see all of Northern Ireland disappear into the Atlantic
- There is no equivalent in Basque politics of the United States's Irish lobby, an influential but external nationalist grouping that, while indulgent of Catholic nationalism, sought a compromise and was willing to give political and financial backing to it
- The fundamental axis of the Northern Irish conflict, from 1968 onwards, was - "anti-imperialist' and nationalist rhetoric notwithstanding - between two communities within Northern Ireland, whose more extreme representatives finally made a deal, not between extreme Catholic / Irish nationalism and Westminster
- After the Provisional IRA leadership broke with the leftist "Official" IRA in 1969 and established hegemony over the Republican movement, there was a continuity of leadership over the ensuing decades - such that, once it became evident in the course of the 1980s that a complete victory was impossible, this leadership was able, in agonisingly slow and crab-like manner, to bring Sinn Féin and the IRA to a negotiation
- In Ireland, the political wing, Sinn Féin, more or less controlled the military wing, the IRA; in Euskadi it would seem to be the other way around.
A journey through ruins
On the last evening of my stay in Vitoria I walk to the the Basque parliament, a three-storey building on the other side of the Florida park that once housed an educational institute. In front of this democratic and constitutional edifice, with the word Legebiltzarra inscribed above the entrance, I recall my first visit to Euskadi in 1966, and a ride on a country bus from Bilbao to visit - in effect to pay homage to - Guernica. At that time, it was still forbidden to use or display the Basque language in public, and local officers of the Guardia Civil, Franco's thuggish police force, were all from other provinces of Spain.
In a little bookshop down a side-street, in response to an enquiry from my side about the Basque language, the owner surreptitiously produced a little booklet, Apuntos del Idioma Vasco, a book I still possess. In Guernica, I visited the famous tree, one of four in the Basque country, under which in medieval times the newly created Lords of Biscay would come to swear to protect the fueros (rights) of the Basques. In 1483, Queen Isabel, clad in Basque national costume, visited the town.
Also on the Basque country's politics on openDemocracy
Diego Muro, "A Basque peace opportunity" ( 18 March 2006)
Diego Muro, "ETA's farewell to peace" ( 23 January 2007)
In 1966 some of the ruins of the 1937 attack were still visible, while the walls of the town were covered with slogans calling for the restoration of the fueros: these had, in fact, been lost in the 1870s, when the Basques had sided with the insurrection of the the rightwing rebel Carlists. In 1966 the fueros were above all a symbol of constitutional and legal resistance to Francoism. However, the outbreak of the ETA military campaign two years later changed the demands of Basque nationalism, from one demanding restoration of historic and constitutional rights, to one in which the most vocal and intransigent were demanding independence.
In 2007, standing outside the Basque legislature in Vitoria, it was not unreasonable to conclude that, in large measure at least, the fueros have indeed been restored, by a sorely tried and increasingly exasperated Spanish democratic system. One of my Turkish companions observed: "If the Kurds had 20% of what the Basques now have, they would be happy indeed." Such proportion, and self-restraint, are not, however, the mark of modern nationalism, in Euskadi, or anywhere else.
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