All of Spain's political parties, except the PP, backed the Catalan demonstration, though the PSC, and many non-affiliated marchers, want symbolic recognition as a nation rather than actual separation from Spain. A similar march on the same day in the Basque city of San Sebastián only attracted a few thousand radical Basque nationalists, some of them still associated with the currently moribund but potentially still lethal ETA.
The vibrancy of the peaceful Catalan movement contrasts starkly with the moribund state of the self-determination movement in Basque country, which in the early 1980s chose the route of political terrorism. Less than 10 years ago, openly pro-ETA marches could attract tens of thousands, and broader nationalist demonstrations many more. But ETA's campaign of violence hollowed out all support among moderate Spaniards, and turned off increasing numbers of Basques. Most were quietly furious when ETA decided in 2007 to again break a ceasefire.
On a visit in July, I spoke to a number of people who were or had once been close to ETA. Without exception, they said that the group was finished in political terms, though a handful of diehards could continue isolated attacks for years to come. In 30 years of reporting on the region, I have never encountered this kind of consensus in these quarters.
It is slowly dawning on the leaders of the radical Basque movement that the chronic ineptitude of ETA's current leadership has terminally tarnished its once heroic image among Basque youth. In a recent interview, an erstwhile hard-line leader, Rufi Etxeberria, bluntly told ETA it had to either embrace exclusively peaceful means or lose all relevance to Basque politics. A senior Spanish conservative ideologue admitted 10 years ago that for precisely this reason he feared the end of ETA more than he feared the group's terrorist campaign. No one had done a better job than ETA at discrediting the Basque nationalist cause.
Perhaps Basque nationalists will be inspired by Catalonia's mass peaceful protests and thereby regain momentum. The prospect of facing majority movements for independence, organized democratically in two of its most prosperous regions, is a real nightmare for Madrid. Spanish conservatives might do well to reconsider their refusal to consider symbolic changes in national status for Catalonia and the Basque country. If symbolic reforms are denied, substantial ones are likely to follow.