Why has an independence movement flourished in Catalonia but declined in the Basque Country?

The regions' have vastly differing political alliances and histories with the central Spanish state, says academic Caroline Gray.

Traditionally, it is the Basques who have shown more inclination to seek sovereignty and fundamental constitutional change than the Catalans. Caroline Gray charts the differences between independence movements in the two Spanish regions.

It was the Basque Country that first sought a degree of sovereignty from Spain over a decade ago, when then Basque President, Juan José Ibarretxe, proposed redefining the Basque relationship with Spain as one of ‘free association’.

But Madrid’s refusal of Ibarretxe’s proposals resulted in a return to moderation in Basque nationalist politics. But a similar response by Madrid to Catalan proposals has resulted in renewed and sustained pressure for independence in recent weeks.

Why is it that a strong independence movement has grown in Catalonia rather than the Basque Country? Here are four contributing factors.

1) Catalonia has much higher levels of civil society mobilisation than exists is in the Basque Country.

Basque Nationalist Party (PNV) politicians I have interviewed are the first to admit that they feel previous Basque attempts at gaining autonomy were too heavily party-led without sufficient backing from society, a mistake for which the party ultimately suffered.

This is in stark contrast to the situation in Catalonia, where pro-independence civil society groups – particularly the Catalan National Assembly and Òmnium Cultural – have been very heavily mobilised and have at times ended up appearing to force the hand of nationalist politicians.

2) The Basque Country has a history of terrorism that does not exist in Catalonia.

For many Basques, the history of terrorist violence is all too recent – ETA only finally declared a permanent ceasefire in 2011 – and they are simply not interested in risking reigniting divisions.

3) The different levels of fiscal devolution in the two regions.

A lot of Basques are simply quite comfortable with the status quo and realise they’ve got a pretty good deal in Spain. Like everywhere, the Basque region has suffered in the aftermath of the financial crisis, but in comparative terms, it has fared better than most other Spanish regions.

Even more importantly, the system of fiscal autonomy in the region – named the Basque Economic Agreement – affords it far more resources per capita than what comparably wealthy regions (like Catalonia) get under the common financing system, due in part to the heavily redistributive nature of the latter system.

4) The different political relationships and alliances that the traditional Basque and Catalan nationalist parties have had with other parties in their regions.

The centre-right Democratic Convergence of Catalonia (CDC/Convergència) party – now rebranded as the Catalan European Democratic Party (PDeCAT) – and the Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC) reached a decision prior to the 2015 Catalan elections to subordinate their differences over left-right politics to their common position on territorial politics.

Despite the somewhat tenuous unity between parties of radically different left-right orientation, an alliance of sorts has been possible in Catalonia.

This is the Basque Nationalist Party’s idea of an absolute nightmare. It has looked on in horror as the once moderate centre-right nationalist party Convergència has been overtaken in popularity by left-wing pro-independence alternatives, and it has no desire to risk the same fate in the Basque Country.

The PNV did briefly flirt with an alliance with left-wing secessionist forces back in the late 1990s when it signed the Lizarra Pact with them, but this was short-lived (since ETA broke its ceasefire on which the Pact depended), and the PNV has shown little inclination to become close bedfellows again with the radical secessionist left ever since.

Far from seeking collaboration, the two forces are in competition with one another to lead the process of securing a new relationship for the Basque Country with Spain.

What’s to come?

Under Iñigo Urkullu, the PNV appears to have returned to a path of moderation, and the once similar Basque and Catalan nationalist parties are now following fundamentally different trajectories.

It is however important to note that accommodationist and pro-sovereignty politics are not necessarily entirely mutually exclusive.

The Basque nationalists are still seeking to work more gradually towards a new political relationship with Madrid involving the possibility of self-determination and co-sovereignty.

Indeed, the PNV sees its fiscal autonomy model, which is governed by bilateral relations between the Basque and Spanish governments under which both sides have equal veto power, as a prototype of the kind of ‘bilateral relationship between equals’ that it seeks to achieve in wider Spanish-Basque political relations.

Catalonia may be at the forefront of everyone’s attention right now, but the Basque nationalists still intend to take gradual steps themselves towards some form of shared sovereignty with Spain – even if not full independence – via slower, incremental change. Spain thus undeniably still faces territorial challenges in more than one corner.

This is an abridged version of an article that originally appeared on LSE’s European Politics and Policy blog — the full version can be read here.

Caroline Gray is a Lecturer in Politics and Spanish at Aston University in Birmingham. She tweets here.

Like this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.