When Juan José Ibarretxe, president of the Basque territories, approached the steps of Madrid's presidential palace last Thursday, Spanish media were watching closely. Would Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero greet him by descending one step, or two? Would he extend his hand first? Would he smile? And how would Ibarretxe respond?
The leaders' encounter was scrutinized more than most acts of political choreography. After all, the meeting - hastily called after the Basque Parliament finally approved a plan to allow its territories in the north to decide whether to remain part of Spain - will set the tone for congressional debates about the fate of the Spanish nation.
Ibarretxe, who wrote the plan, has called it an "opportunity" to forge better ties in what has been a difficult relationship between Basques and Spaniards. Yet many here say the plan threatens to destroy the country's constitution and would rupture boundaries that have stood since Ferdinand married Isabella in the 15th century. Both sides say the debate will test the quasi-federalist form of government Spain established in 1978.
The Basque people, who are racially and linguistically distinct from Spaniards and other Europeans, have considered themselves a separate nation since the 19th century. Their drive for political autonomy began in the 1960s, when dictator Francisco Franco repressed their culture and language.
The Basque relationship with Spain is sometimes inexactly likened to that of northern Ireland and Great Britain, especially because ETA, the Basque terrorist group that for decades has supported the creation of a separate homeland using violence, employs rhetoric and tactics characteristic of the Irish Republican Army.
But many moderate Basques support sovereignty as well, and though the region already enjoys a high level of autonomy, the dominant Basque National Party (PNV) supports the Basques' desire for full sovereignty.
The Ibarretxe Plan culminates these aspirations, calling for a local referendum on whether to create an independent Basque state. In short, says Javier Corcuera Atienza, Constitutional Law professor at the University of the Basque Country, "They are trying to obtain a situation in which the Basque Country could act like a state, and have its own voice in Europe." Called Euskal Herria, that country would, according to PNV leaders, seek recognition by the European Union.
In recent polls, 42 percent of Basques favored independence. Until a few weeks ago, that support had not formed the political muscle needed to advance Ibarretxe's proposal. Late in December, however, Batasuna, ETA's outlawed political wing, reversed course and endorsed the idea. And on Dec. 30, the Basque Parliament passed it with an absolute majority.
Any change in Spain's administrative or geographic makeup is probably a long way off. Yet the plan's momentum has created a sense of impending crisis. Spanish politicians are largely united in their opposition to the plan.
Mr. Zapatero has condemned the measure as a "mistake," saying it will "never be approved." Many deputies in Congress - which will take up the issue in February - echo his sentiments. And opposition leader Mariano Rajoy called the plan "the greatest attack on democracy since the constitution came into effect in 1978." [Editor's note: The original version may have given the wrong impression about Rajoy. He has long opposed Basque independence.]
Some analysts say greater Basque independence wouldn't threaten Spain's national fabric. "[The] sense of Spanish identity is much stronger than its counterpart in Yugoslavia," argues Ricardo Angoso, director of EuropeanDialogue, a nongovernmental organization based in Madrid. "Most Basques say they think of themselves as much as Spaniards as Basques," he adds.
Alberto López Basaguren, a law professor at the University of the Basque Country, says Congress probably won't agree to debate the plan - a decision that would mark a step toward its approval. But even that possibility is causing serious repercussions. For Zapatero, who emphasizes pluralism and compromise, the plan may be his greatest challenge so far.
To refuse further negotiations with Ibarretxe would undermine Zapatero's commitment to dialogue and erode whatever support he has among Basques. But talks with Ibarretxe pose great political risk. Conservative parties in Spain have, in recent years, successfully associated regional movements with terrorist activity, and public hostility toward ETA and its violent tactics has risen sharply.
Nevertheless, the plan's passage has reaffirmed that Batasuna likely has a role to play in the larger debate over the country's regional autonomy. As the illegal party revived rumors this week that ETA could finally be ready to negotiate a truce, analysts say Zapatero will be hard pressed to dismiss an opportunity to bring a degree of closure to the Basque issue through diplomacy.