The potential of regional separatism in Spain
Supporters wave Basque flags as they
listen to a speech by Inigo Urkullu,
president of the Basque Nationalist Party,
on Aberri Eguna (Day of the Homeland), at the Plaza Nueva
in Bilbao April 8, 2012
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Doctor of History, Professor, Comparative Political Studies Department of the MGIMO University, RIAC Expert
Spain is an example of a multinational state, where the influential forces in some areas "encroach" on state sovereignty, claiming sovereign status of their territories. At the forefront of the struggle for sovereignty in Spain are representatives of the most advanced autonomous regions - the Basque Country and Catalonia, making demands of political, cultural and linguistic characters. Regional separatism in the past decade manifested itself in two main forms - a terrorist armed struggle and civil, often massive claims for independence. How great a threat of the territorial integrity of the Spanish state today?
Spain is an example of a multinational state, where the influential forces in some areas "encroach" on state sovereignty, claiming sovereign status of their territories. At the forefront of the struggle for sovereignty in Spain are representatives of the most advanced autonomous regions - the Basque Country and Catalonia, making demands of political, cultural and linguistic characters. Regional separatism in the past decade manifested itself in two main forms - a terrorist armed struggle (the ETA in the Basque Country) and civil, often massive claims for independence (in the same Basque Country and Catalonia). How great a threat of the territorial integrity of the Spanish state today?
Territorial organization of modern Spain
The current state of Spain is autonomous (it consists of 17 autonomous communities and two autonomous cities of Ceuta and Melilla on the coast of North Africa) during the years of democratic development it has proved its viability. However, this model of state-territorial organization has always been the object of political struggle which has intensified significantly in recent years. Some political forces insist on maintaining the autonomy of the State, with the possible introduction of certain adjustments, while others require its transformation into a federation, and others – into a confederation, while fourth are fighting for complete independence for their territories.
The reason for these differences to a large extent is the nature of the autonomous State, which is a unitary decentralized formation with numerous features, typologically characteristic of federal states. These include: unity in diversity, separation of powers between different levels of management, the combination of symmetry and asymmetry, divided loyalties – a multiplicity of forms of Spanish identity, including the people and their autonomy, towns, villages, etc.
With all the aforementioned features cannot, however, obscure the most important distinguishing features of the autonomous State as a unitary formation. Among the evidence for this is said to be at least the constitution of Spain. In a number of its articles the constitution states that the authority to take final decisions is reserved to the central government. This significantly distinguishes the State of autonomy from the federal states, where the system provides for the separation of powers between the center and the regions in decision-making processes. The Spanish autonomous state is based on a single and indivisible sovereignty (the Spanish nation) which recognizes their autonomy and gives them a portion of their competence. A nation is defined as a collection of nationalities (however the meaning of “nationality” is not explained in the constitution), in other words, recognizing the multinational character of the Spanish State.
The reason for these differences to a large extent is the nature of the autonomous State, which is a unitary decentralized formation with numerous features, typologically characteristic of federal states.
The autonomy of Spain took place in a bitter struggle with the conservative forces, brought up on the Francoist ideas of a unitary, rigidly centralized Spanish state. The Constitution of 1978, adopted during the transition phase to democracy, was the result of a compromise between right and left, and therefore was not free from a number of contradictions and unresolved problems. The constitution of the state-territorial structure of Spain “is written” only in general terms, there is no complete scheme of separation of powers between the central, autonomous regions and municipalities, and some of its provisions are ambiguous and are perceived by different political forces in different way.
This is partly why the granting of autonomy (which generally occurred in the mid 80’s) only fueled radical appetites, and moderate nationalists, who considered they had received inadequate rights and demanded further expansion of their rights. The desire of nationalities and regions of Spain to raise their status is also due to the deployment process of European integration and globalization and the associated fear of losing their language and traditions, dissolved in a globalized world environment. In the Basque Country and Catalonia, an important part of the ideological arsenal of the separatists is played by a myth-making process, artificial designed traditions "of an ancient sovereign nation", while rejecting the actually existing traditions that bind these regions of Spain. The interest of the autonomous communities to increase the terms of reference determined by the trend and movement towards “Europe of Regions”, which dictates the need to increase self-external relations. It is also clear that the collapse of a number of multinational states (USSR, Yugoslavia, and Czechoslovakia) has strengthened the disintegration processes in Spain.
Basque Country: varieties of separatism
In the Basque Country and Catalonia, an important part of the ideological arsenal of the separatists is played by a myth-making process, artificial designed traditions "of an ancient sovereign nation", while rejecting the actually existing traditions that bind these regions of Spain.
Separatist sentiments in Spain are most pronounced in the Basque Country. For more than half a century a terrorist organization ETA (founded in 1959) which declared itself as “a socialist movement in the Basque national liberation” has been fighting for an independent Basque state in seven provinces inhabited by Basque (four in Spain and three in France). The main part of its “acts” occurred in the years of democracy. It would seem that at this time there were all the conditions for ETA to cease the armed struggle against the Spanish state. After all, the Basque Country was granted an amount of rights and liberties, which it never had in its history. It has its own parliament, police, radio and two television channels, a bilingual education system, its own tax system. The Basques got more rights than any of the rest of the autonomous regions of Spain.
However, rebels did not lay down their arms. Several decades of bloodshed in Spain, for which carrying-out ETA was directly responsible, often resulted in serious political crises. The rebels are responsible for more than 800 have been killed, 2000 wounded, and tens of thousands abducted. To that the fact should be added that whole families of traders, small and large, had to leave the Basque Country due to a “revolutionary tax”, and many people have been subjected to threats of terrorism – politicians, journalists, judges, professors. On October 20, 2011 ETA announced the “final cessation of the armed struggle.” This fundamental shift in the position of the militants is largely due to effective action of Spanish and French secret services, which arrested some terrorists, including their leaders, and confiscated several weapons arsenals. This played a role in changing attitudes towards ETA in Spain, especially in the Basque Country. If in the first decades of activity many saw ETA members as heroes, then later they were considered as criminals and murderers. It was also affected by changes in the position of “left-wing Basque patriots” from the Basque National Liberation Movement, a semi-legal network structure that combines a number of parties, public organizations and groups, has long been controlled by ETA. A number of organizations included the movement, especially the Batasuna party, for the first time showed disobedience, calling upon ETA to cease the armed struggle. Finally, we cannot disregard the pressure on ETA from the international community – the European Parliament, and well-known political figures.
It is noteworthy that, despite announcing the cessation of the armed struggle, ETA did not disarm. The statement by ETA can only be seen as one of the links of a long and difficult process of solving the problem of terrorism in the Basque Country. The government of the conservative People’s Party took office in December 2011 and along with the previous government of the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party, was in favor of the unconditional disarmament of terrorists.
In the Basque Country the armed conflict with the Spanish government has been replaced by a political conflict between radical Basque nationalists.
The influential “separatist minority”, promoting the independence of the region, includes not only the “left-wing Basque patriots”, but supporters of the nationalist parties, especially the oldest one (founded in 1895), the Basque nationalist Workers’ Party. A distinctive feature of the BNP initially was dualism, a combination of radical political goals (gaining independence from Spain for the region) with moderate practice, participation in the political institutions of the Spanish State. “Two Souls” allowed BNP remaining the leading political force in the region for many decades, rallying disparate nationalist forces.
In the late 1990s, the position of the BNP radicalized. It went beyond the legal field, openly raising the question of the sovereignty of the Basque Country. In 2003 one of its leaders, the chairman of the autonomous Basque government, Juan José Ibarretxe came out with a plan providing for “free association” of this autonomy with Spain. In voting in the Basque parliament, advocates of the “Ibarretxe Plan” managed to secure its endorsement by a slight majority. However, the Spanish Cortes rejected the “Ibarretxe Plan” as unconstitutional. Basque separatists refused to accept this. Representatives of the radical wing of the BNP and the “Left Basque patriots” regularly held demonstrations , putting forward their demands to the authorities – the legalization of banned radical nationalist organizations, the transfer of ETA members in prison from distant places of detention “closer to home”, and, of course, independence for the Basque Countries. According to a representative sociological survey conducted in May 2010, 25% of the inhabitants of the Basque Country were in favor of independence . The surprise of the last parliamentary elections in Spain in November 2011 should also be mentioned. And this surprise was the election of seven members of the Basque radical nationalist bloc Amayyur, which many experts believe to be the heir to Batasuna.
So, in the Basque Country the armed conflict with the Spanish government has been replaced by a political conflict between radical Basque nationalists.
Separatist aspirations in Catalonia
In contrast to the Basque Country, Catalan separatists have for many years chosen peaceful unarmed methods of fighting over the central government, based on the peaceful coexistence of different political forces.
There is a noticeable trend towards separation from Spain even among some Catalans, which have always demanded the recognition of their differences from the rest of Spain, “We are different,” “Catalans are not Spaniards, and Spaniards are not Catalans” is the attitude of many citizens of the region. Catalan nationalism is fed by the fact that their region, until recently, would give a significant portion of their earnings to the state budget, providing up to a quarter of the total budget revenues of Spain. Catalans believed that they fed the whole country and were “noble donors compared to the rest of Spain”; while at the same time some of their autonomous projects cannot be realized. The development of separatist sentiment in the region did not stop the fact that according to the Autonomous Statute of 1979, Catalonia has acquired a wide scope of authority in matters of local government, public safety (they have their own police which are not subordinate to Madrid), transportation, communications, public education and culture, language, and environment protection. In contrast to the Basque Country, Catalan separatists have for many years chosen peaceful unarmed methods of fighting over the central government, based on the peaceful coexistence of different political forces. Let’s note that the word “seny”, symbolizing the specific Catalan mentality, means judgment and psychological balance.
The desire for the attainment of sovereignty is materialized at the level of political organizations (the most prominent representative is Left Wing Republican Party of Catalonia), and social consciousness. The most influential political force in the region is a coalition of “Convergence and Union”, which in its activity combines co-operation with the central government with radical nationalist rhetoric and a willingness to attain a favorable situation to lead the struggle for national self-determination.
A milestone of upmost importance in the definition of the current political and legal status of Catalonia and its rights in its relations with the central government was the adoption of a new statute. It was approved in a referendum held in Autonomy on June 18, 2006 and the adoption of the statute was preceded by intense struggle associated with the intention of its drafters to define Catalonia as a “nation.” This position is in tune with the mood of the majority of the population of the region but contrary to the constitution, which provides for the existence in Spain of only one nation – the Spanish. The concept of “nation” is treated differently. For some nationalists in Catalonia the definition of a nation does not mean its exit from Spain. While radical nationalists clearly interpret such a definition as a possible separation of this region from Spain. The political struggle over the term “nation” is important for them as a platform for further steps to distance themselves from Madrid, in particular, to conduct a referendum on separation.
European integration process, accompanied by the abolition of frontiers, creation of a single market for goods, capital and services, expansion of the authority of supranational bodies, works against national separatism.
As a result of a long discussion in the Cortes, the term “nation” was only included in the preamble of the new statute and has no legal force. However, in the articles, which have legal force, Catalonia was called a “nation”. However, the flag, national anthem and national day of Catalonia were officially recognized. In many other areas (judicial and law enforcement system, tax collection, language rights) the right of autonomy was increased in comparison with the statute in 1979. After the adoption of the new Autonomous Statute of Catalonia, seven entities (People’s Party, and several autonomous regions) challenged a number of its provisions in the Constitutional Court, first of all, the recognition of Catalonia as a “nation”. After long consideration the verdict of the Constitutional Court decided the interpretation to be unchanged.
Thus, unlike the Basque Country, for Catalonia, the autonomous statute expanded its powers. However, the radical nationalists remained dissatisfied, striving for the attainment of the region’s sovereignty. Their conflict with the central government remains but is becoming just a bit less tangible.
Theoretically, we cannot exclude a separation from Spain of some regions. It should be borne in mind that domestic and international conditions are not favorable for such a scenario. EU law does not provide for entry in it of particular regions which want to be separated from the member countries. We should not forget that the European integration process, accompanied by the abolition of frontiers, creation of a single market for goods, capital and services, expansion of the authority of supranational bodies, works against national separatism. It is estimated that separation of the Basque Country and expulsion from the EU will lead to an exodus of capitals from the region, relocation of businesses, the loss of many tens of thousands of jobs, and the high costs associated with the creation of a new government and a new currency. All this will result in the general impoverishment of the population and deterioration in relations between the Basques and the rest of the population of Spain (except for the nationalist groups). It is also important that the majority of the region's population does not want to break relations with Spain.
In the coming years there is a much more likely scenario: the maintaining of the status quo, or modification of the legal statutes of autonomy within the existing constitution. The relationship between the central government and the regions will develop by way of the logic of a single nation fixed by the constitution of the Spanish nation and the indivisibility of sovereignty. In this scenario, the central government will always have to deal with manifestations of separatist sentiments of some elites and autonomous populations, stimulated by the situation of the global economic crisis which has hurt Spain bad. Opposition to the separatist aspirations can serve as an active political advocacy, which proves the benefits of living in a diverse democratic Spain, and explains that separation is the process that will be extremely painful for any groups of regions which decide to go for it.
1. Euscobarometro. Estudio periodico de la opinion publica vasca. Universidad del Pais Vasco. Mayo 2010. P. 43.
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