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.

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3 Responses to “Why has an independence movement flourished in Catalonia but declined in the Basque Country?”

  1. Alasdair Macdonald

    My wife and I live in Glasgow and we support independence for Scotland. We were in the Basque Country in 2014, a few months prior to the referendum in Scotland. There was great interest in what was happening in Scotland from local people whom we met and sympathy for the recreation of an independent Scotland. In Eibar, the train we were on stopped just above the football stadium (Eibar are in the top football league in Spain) and on the walls behind each goal there were huge murals of the Saltire and the words in Euskera, ‘Scotland the Brave’.

    Although politically a part of Spain, the impression we formed was that Spain was elsewhere. The local people clearly believed by their actions that they were in charge of the Basque Country.

    I think that the violence of ETA, which was still a recent memory, had an impact on the people. They did not want that kind of thing to happen again. I think Ms Gray’s conclusion is pretty sound.

  2. Will

    I feel that if the Madrid government had allowed an official vote on Catalan independence at the beginning of any signs of trouble, the vote would have ended the same as it did the previous time with a comfortable win for the Spanish–however, big egos got in the way and they now have this difficult situation to try and sort out before it turns really sour.
    What is it with modern politicians? Do they have no diplomacy or common sense?

  3. uglyfatbloke

    Will..the short answer is ‘no; they have no diplomacy or common sense’. he thing is, they don’t give a damn either. The political class does not like the people; they just like to tell us what we’re to do and how we ‘re to live. This was not always he case. For all their faults, leaders like Attlee and MacMillan loved the people. Leaders like May and Corbyn do not. That’s one of the reasons (apart from personal self-interest) that they are so vehemently opposed to democratic reform.

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