Juan Ignacio Llana Ugalde/The Christian Science Monitor
Helena Gartzia, a former politician for a pro-independence party in the Bilbao city council, says she has wanted independence for her homeland in Spain’s Basque Country for her entire life. So it is with anticipation – and some envy – that she looks to Catalonia, a Spanish region that is holding an independence referendum expected Sunday, Oct. 1.

In Spain, Catalans try independence path that Basques feared to tread

A referendum Sunday  will ask residents in the northeastern region if they want a Catalonia free from Spanish rule. In the Basque region, nearly 800 people died during ETA’s long fight for independence. 

Helena Gartzia has wanted independence for the Basque region her entire life. And 10 years ago the former city councilor in the industrial city of Bilbao, along with other likeminded Basque nationalists, was in the vanguard of Spain’s restive regional communities.

Today, though, it is the Catalans who are making the running in the independence stakes, scheduling a referendum for Sunday that will ask residents in the northeastern region of 7.5 million inhabitants if they want a Catalonia free from Spanish rule.

How did their fortunes switch?

Manu Fernandez/AP
Catalan firefighters unfold a large banner with a ballot box at the Museum of History of Catalonia in Barcelona, Spain, Sept. 28, 2017. Spain's National Court plans to investigate possible sedition charges for demonstrators who took part in a massive protest against a police crackdown on preparations for an Oct. 1 referendum on the Catalonia region's independence. Banner reads: 'Love Democracy.'

Largely, observers say, because the Basque regional government has given up on Gartzia’s dream of independence, settling for a generous chunk of autonomy instead.

The central government in Madrid and the courts have declared the Catalan vote illegal, national police have arrested Catalan leaders and confiscated millions of ballot papers, and the plebiscite threatens to plunge Spain into deep constitutional crisis.

Among Basques, who lived for 40 years through the bloody armed struggle that the separatist group ETA waged for Basque independence, the vote has sparked mixed feelings.

“I am profoundly happy thinking about what the Catalans are going to experience on Sunday, and I watch it with a healthy envy,” Ms. Gartzia says. “How I myself would love the opportunity for the same experience. Unfortunately we are light years away from what is happening in Catalonia right now.”

That is because when then-president Juan Jose Ibarretxe of the center-right Basque Nationalist Party (PNV) tried to push through a self-determination referendum in 2008, he backed down in the face of opposition from Spanish courts, which ruled that the bid was illegal.

Mr. Ibarretxe, whose party is still in power today, felt he didn’t have enough public support. One poll this summer by the University of Deusto in Bilbao found that only 16.9 percent of respondents said they seek an independent state.

But Arkaitz Fullaondo, a sociologist at the University of the Basque Country, says that support, which has oscillated but not risen beyond 30 percent in recent years, reflects political leaders’ positions. The PNV has left “independence wishes in the past,” he says. “They say independence is just a dream that leads nowhere. But the fact is that the number of pro-independence voters increases when there are political movements that show independence is possible.”

The PNV stance has angered separatists who say it is taking the easy route. “If you belong to a state that doesn’t want to recognize you, and you contest this, there is going to be a moment of confrontation, which is what is happening in Catalonia,” says Garztia, who served as a city councilor with EH Bildu, the more radical and leftist independent party in the Basque Country. She says if the PNV had dared to risk such a confrontation in 2008, “we would be much closer than even the Catalans are” to an independent state.

Divided in Catalonia

Catalans, who like the Basques boast a distinct language and culture, are currently evenly divided over the independence issue, but support for the idea was not always that high. The mood shifted with the international debt crisis, which heightened a sense that Catalonia, one of Spain’s major economic engines, gives more than it gets.

Pro-independence fervor gathered new momentum in 2010, when Spain’s constitutional court watered down powers that the region sought under a new autonomy statute.

Since then Barcelona, the capital of Catalonia, and Madrid have dug in their heels as the stakes have risen.

Defying Madrid’s ban on the referendum, Catalan President Carles Puigdemont has pledged to carry out his central election promise no matter how high the cost.

That kind of talk stirs uneasy memories in the Basque region, where nearly 800 people died during ETA’s long fight for independence. The group declared a cease-fire in 2011, but it disarmed officially only in April this year. ETA members convicted of terrorist offenses remain in jail, dividing society.

“There are still all of these issues that need to be resolved post-ETA,” says Caroline Gray, an expert on Basque and Catalan independence movements at Aston University in Britain. “The remnants of violence put off a lot of citizens from thinking about independence. There is still that post-terrorism, post-conflict resolution going on.”

And many Basques – unlike Catalans – feel simply that they are getting a good deal from Madrid today. While Spain’s regions all enjoy varying degrees of autonomy, the Basques have the most, running their tax system, for example.

The size of Catalonia’s economy – nearly 20 percent of Spanish GDP compared to the Basque region’s 6 percent – makes Madrid wary of giving Barcelona control of tax revenues that are currently shared throughout Spain. That fuels Catalan resentment, but it underlines the privilege that Bilbao enjoys.

“Pro-independence sentiment in [Basque] society has been falling as people see the current deal works quite well,” says Dr. Gray. “There is not that same sense of angst.”

The de facto approach

Indeed, many Basques feel that they already have de facto independence, and some outsiders agree with them.

Bea Pereyro, for example, a doctor, is not Basque and cannot speak the local language, so she cannot work in the region. She was obliged to move to neighboring Cantabria with her husband, Ibai Herval, a former Basque paralympic swimmer representing Spain.

“I would say the Basques and the Catalans already have their independence in a way,” says Dr. Pereyro, “because of the language barrier and the difficulty other Spaniards feel when trying to access some jobs without speaking those languages or holding diplomas in those languages.”

That is not enough for Basque independence activists like Ibon Alkorta, a TV editor who lives in Germany. “I tell my friends that we Basques are watching and learning with the Catalans, to do it better later,” he says. “It’s a good test for us.”

Others worry that a referendum against Madrid’s wishes would mean only trouble. “They fear it could bring back the sort of violence that plagued them for years,” says Ramon Pacheco Pardo, an expert in international relations at King’s College in London. “Basques don’t want to go through that again."

Either way, says Gray, “the Basque issue is still very much there.” 

Catarina Fernandes Martins reported from Lisbon.

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