Chris Bambery – Spain: The Basque Country Rising

All attention has been concentrated on Catalonia and the resurrection of fascism in Spain. Chris Bamberry looks at another aspect of the rapidly changing political landscape in Spain.

Chris Bambery is author and broadcaster. Co-author (with George Kerevan) of Catalonia Reborn: How Catalonia Took on the Corrupt Spanish State and the Legacy of Franco (Luath Press, June 2018)

Discussion of Spain naturally focuses on its difficulties with Catalonia or the recent elections in Andalusia which saw the right, including the fascist Vox party, take control in a former bastion of the Social Democrats  – this was Vox’s first electoral breakthrough. But there is another fault line emerging in the Spanish state. It is the relationship of Spain with the Basque Country.

The parties of the Spanish right are competing as to which takes the hardest line on Catalan independence. At the recent conference of the centre-right Popular Party, Pablo Casado, its new leader, lambasted the Catalan pro-independence movement, pledging to ‘bring order’ to Catalonia.

‘We will free a whole society, which has been kidnapped by a gang of fanatic, supremacist racists,’ he said on 20 January.

Casado also predicted he will ‘soon’ be the prime minister of Spain,” presumably at the head of a coalition including Ciudadanos and, possibly, Vox.

These statements received the endorsement of José María Aznar, the former Spanish prime minister between 1996 and 2004, who remains influential in the party. Aznar said that the party would not accept that ‘those who plot against the interests of Spaniards’ have any influence over the fate of the state.

Days previously the Assembly of Extremadura, in south western Spain  passed a bill backing any move by the Spanish government to apply article 155 of the Constitution and suspend Catalan autonomy (as they did in October 2017), for as long as necessary, including taking control of Catalan public broadcasting. The motion was from the PP but it was supported by Ciudadanos and also the Socialist Democrats. Only Podemos’ six members voted against. The backing of the Social Democrats for this measure is widely seen as an attempt to show they are equally hard on Catalonia.

But while the fire is concentrated on Catalan supporters of independence such attacks on the existing autonomy of nations and regions within the Spanish state puts the government of the Basque Country in a tricky place.

The Basque National Party (PNV) is in office in the Basque Country, and has dominated electorally since autonomy was granted in 1980. Until last summer it supported the PP government of Mariano Rajoy, until he had to resign over corruption. This was not a formal coalition but the PNV gave its votes to Rajoy over crucial issues like the budget. That reflects the fact that it is traditionally a Catholic and conservative party. Back in 1936 it only supported the Spanish Republic against General Franco’s rebellion after much hesitation because it was granted autonomy.

The other factor is that the Basque Parliament has far greater fiscal control than its Catalan equivalent and is far more structured into the Spanish economy centred on Madrid. Historically too Basque industry and banks were far bigger than their Catalan family run counterparts because they developed later.

But events in Catalonia are beginning to impact on the Basque Country. Last autumn the Basque president, Urkullu Lehendakari, tried to broker a compromise between Madrid and Barcelona. It centred on holding the Catalans government back from declaring independence and stopping  Rajoy scrapping autonomy and taking control over Catalonia. In the event no compromise was possible.

But the abolition of Catalan autonomy and the growing repression by the Spanish state created unease in the Basque Country and the PNV because the growing chorus of Spanish nationalism brought back bitter memories that Spanish centralists have never had any sympathy for Basque aspirations and fears that what had been done by Madrid in Catalonia could be done in the Basque Country. A substantial number of Basques aspire to greater autonomy, more than the roughly 25 percent who currently support full independence. Ciudadanos began lashing out at the Basques, as does Vox, creating growing fears there.

What the Catalan events have also done has put fresh wind in the sails of the radical left nationalists of EH Bildu, which is the second biggest party in the Basque Country, winning between 20 and 25 percent of the vote in Basque elections. They rallied behind the Catalans organising marches and protests.

Bildu came into existence seven years ago but is clearly in the tradition of Herri Batasuna, seen as the political wing of the armed struggle group, ETA. It and a number of subsequent creations were banned with members jailed because they were seen as supporting terrorism. One of those was Arnaldo Otegi, who served six years in jail. Last November the European Court of Humans Rights ruled against Spain for the Spanish National Court’s breach of Otegi’s right to have an impartial trial.

Otegi has been a key figure in the Basque peace process, the equivalent of Gerry Adams in Ireland. The comparison is apt because Sinn Fein has played a key role in advising ETA and the Basque radicals. Key players in the Northern Ireland and South African peace process got involved, establishment figures like Jonathan Powell, Tony Blair’s key political adviser. They have had no thanks from Madrid!

Brian Currin, is South African lawyer who was instrumental in the establishment of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission there following the end of Apartheid. Since 2004 he was involved in trying to resolve the conflict in the Basque Country and in 2010 helped set up the International Contact Group for the Basque Country. The Group had as mandate “to expedite, facilitate and enable the achievement of political normalization in the Basque Country.”

The ICG was not recognised by the Spanish or French governments, the body which represents victims of ETA asked the group not to become involved, and the Popular Party and Social Democrats argued it had no knowledge of the realities of the Basque conflict.

Last October, in the immediate wake of ETA’s dissolution and destruction of its arsenal the ICG ended it work and existence. Currin was interviewed about the peace process and was forthright in his conclusion:

“My own theory -and I wrote about it – was that actually Madrid didn’t want a peace process, they didn’t want ETA to go away, because if ETA continues to exist, you stick to your security legislation if Europe or the International Community says, you can’t have these laws that violate human rights you say “well, we’ve got a terrorist organization, we have to” and then they leave you alone. And that’s what happened, they were left alone. Also, when there’s a terrorist organization, you can say “well, this isn’t a political issue, this is an issue of terrorism” you never then have to engage with the political issue. But once ETA is gone, what’s left? The political issue! So now you have to talk. Now it’s pure politics. Let’s talk about the right to decide, and the parties are talking about that.

Actually Madrid didn’t want a peace process; they didn’t want ETA to go away

Once ETA is gone, what’s left? The political issue! So now you have to talk. Now it’s pure politics. Let’s talk about the right to decide.”

The Rajoy Government refused to acknowledge ETA’s dissolution and disarmament. It also refused any concessions, particularly on Basque political prisoners.

There are some 300 Basque political prisoners, held in Spain, France and Portugal, while 100 people are on the run.

The policy of both centre right and centre left governments in Madrid was to “disperse” ETA prisoners, so they were held in jails far from their families in the Basque Country

Despite this the Spanish government, whether under Mariano Rajoy and the Popular Party or, today, Pedro Sanchéz and the Socialist Democrats, have refused to allow those imprisoned for their involvement or association with ETA to be moved to jails nearer to the Basque Country. These prisoners are expected to serve their full term with no remission, meaning some could remain behind bars in 2050!

In contrast to the refusal of Madrid to grant any meaningful concessions the French government has transferred Basque political prisoners to jails nearer home.

There have been large protests demanding the prisoners be moved and that those with serious health problems be released.

Under Spanish law the great majority of Basque political prisoners are held in “first degree” conditions allowing them no leave on compassionate or health grounds and giving them only three to four hours outside their cell each day. This is meant to apply to those prisoners who are the most dangerous and most violent. Given ETA’s disbandment and the destruction of its weaponry there is no grounds on which these prisoners would resume the armed struggle. Twenty seven prisoners are in addition being held in isolation.

The Basque Government of the Basque National Party (PNV) has always opposed ETA’s violence but it has had to slate the Spanish government’s record on human rights as the Spanish government responded. The ECHR has convicted Spain for not investigating torture complaints by Basques on eight separate occasions. In February 2018 it found against the Spanish Government over the ill treatment of two Basque detainees. An official investigation commissioned by the Government of the Basque Autonomous Community concluded in December 2017 that there have been at least 4113 confirmed cases of torture since 1960. In January 2018, the Spanish Government blocked the decision by the Parliament of Navarre to commission a similar report.

Last year Amnesty International pointed out:

 “The offence of “glorifying terrorism” continued to be used to prosecute people peacefully exercising their right to freedom of expression. New cases of torture and other ill-treatment, excessive use of force and collective expulsions by police officials were reported.”

Another case also aroused widespread anger in the Basque Country. In October 2016 Basque youths in Altsasu in Navarre province (not formally part of the Basque Country) became involved in a bar brawl with off duty Civil Guards and their girlfriends. One officer was knocked to the ground.

This was a bar fight like thousands of others but the case was taken to the Spanish special court, the Audiencia Nacional. Because the public prosecutor claimed it was a “terrorist attack” and demanded sentences from 12 to 62 year sentences. In the event the National Court handed down sentences ranging from 2 to 13 years. The state prosecutor appealed the sentence insisting on the existence of ‘terrorism’. There matters stand.

This caused widespread anger among moderate Basque nationalists. Meanwhile the Basque radicals began to mobilise. Last June 125,000 pro-independence supporters formed a human chain, stretching 125 miles, linking San Sebastian and Bilbao with Vitoria, in a call for a Basque independence referendum.

Otegi visited Barcelona meeting key Catalan politicians. This was a major departure. In the closing years of the Franco dictatorship Catalonia and the Basque Country were the mainstays of the anti-fascist resistance but after the transition to democracy and the continuation of ETA’s violence Catalan nationalists, committed to non-violence, steered clear of involvement in Basque issues.

With ETA gone from the scene it’s clear that has changed.  If Spain is heading towards a coalition government of the right then that will create a reaction in Catalonia and the Basque Country. Together Basque and Catalan votes count for little in the Madrid Parliament but if Catalonia and the Basque Country look to be exiting Spain that would be of crucial importance, creating an even greater crisis for the Spanish state than that already in existence round Catalonia.

There is something else at play here too. Thus far the general mood in Spain has been hard against Catalan independence. There is no serious force giving it support (Podemos will only go so far as saying they would support a lawful referendum). But Spanish governments have threatened to scrap regional assemblies in La Mancha and Navarre because they don’t like what they are doing. If the Basques and Catalans are seeing to champion democracy against centralisation (one of the pillars of the Spanish right) and play on the legacy of Franco that can begin to impact into Spain.

It remains to be seen how the PNV will react to all this. But the rising tide of Spanish nationalism could well push them into positions there natural caution would never have taken, left to their own devices. After all last summer it voted to bring down Rajoy, despite previous PNV support for his government.

Returning to the Spanish right, when Pablo Casado was running for the leadership of the PP, after Rajoy’s fall, he visited the Civil Guard headquarters in Altsasu during the run-up to the presidency of the party, to show its support to the Civil Guard, declaring that “there can be no impartiality between thugs battering innocent people while in the bar and public servants who risk their lives battling it out for our rights and liberties” He rejected  any concessions to Basque political prisoners and that the Basque flag “does not belong in Navarre, and Basque is not the language of Navarre.”

Such statements cast a dark shadow over Basque nationalists, however moderate they are.






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