Judging from the headlines it's accumulated over the years, Spain's Basque country, with its notorious ETA terror campaigns, has been leading one of Europe's most high-profile independence movements. But it's in the Catalan region, at the other end of the Pyrenees, that demands for independence now appear to approaching critical mass -- all by means of peaceful civic protest.
The depth of the Catalan crisis was underscored by a stark parliamentary debate in Madrid on July 15. "A plural Spain and a social Spain, the two pillars [of your policy], are in a shambles, " Josu Erkoreka, spokesman for the Basque Nationalist Party (PNV) in the Madrid parliament, told the Spanish prime minister, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, who leads the center-left Socialist Party (PSOE).
Zapatero had, indeed, taken office in 2004 promising a "plural Spain" that would grant additional recognition to the country's regions, which already enjoy considerable autonomy. Nation-building on the Iberian peninsula has always been a decidedly shaky enterprise, and the prime minister's 2004 promise to revamp the relationships between its constituent parts was strong on good intentions but chronically weak on coherent strategic thinking. In the process, he managed to raise -- and then dash -- the aspirations of regional nationalists, and woke the dormant dragon of Spanish nationalism.
Basque and Catalan nationalists have been harbouring grievances since the late 1970s transition to democracy after Franco's death. These territories assumed they would have an option on independence, but the power brokers of the old regime -- in particular, the military -- steadfastly refused to compromise on the country's indivisibility.
The regions expressed their disappointment in markedly different ways. Basque nationalists of all stripes called for a rejection of the 1978 constitution. A substantial minority of Basque radicals sympathized with ETA and supported terrorist campaigns against the Spanish state throughout the 1980s and 1990s. Catalan nationalists, meanwhile, largely accepted the autonomy granted them in the new regime. But in both cases, the desire for increased self-determination was only deferred, not extinguished.
Zapatero had rashly promised to accept whatever changes the Catalan parliament made to its existing autonomy statute, so long as they stayed within the current constitution. But the most radical changes were watered down by the Madrid parliament, though it did approve Catalonia's desired affirmation of its "preferred" status of the Catalan language, and its full control of over its judiciary. Most significantly, it accepted Catalonia's status as a "nation" in its own right, though it shifted this provision from the main statute to the preface.
But in early July, the Spanish Constitutional Court, responding to a petition organized by the opposition conservative People's Party (PP), ruled that some of the changes violated the constitution and avowed that only it only recognizes "one nation, Spain," dashing Catalan hopes. Popular support for the PP petition campaign revealed that Spanish nationalism, dormant since the dictatorship, remains a key force in Spanish politics.
Yet the court decision provoked what were probably the biggest demonstrations in Barcelona since the transition to democracy. Around a million people took to the streets to protest in favor of increased self-determination for the Catalan nation. They were led by José Montilla, leader of the PSC, the Catalan chapter of Zapatero's party, who described the decision of Spain's highest court as "offensive." The tone of the march suggests that many Catalans who would have been content with even the watered-down statute are now shifting towards demands for complete independence. Montilla was repeatedly abused by pro-independence demonstrators, who appear increasingly to reflect the popular mood.
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.