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close this bookEthnicity and Power in the Contemporary World (UNU, 1996, 298 pages)
close this folder12. Political autonomy and conflict resolution: The Basque case
View the document(introductory text...)
View the document1 Introduction
View the document2. Basque singularity
View the document3. The significant political problems
View the document4 The statute of autonomy
View the document5 Autonomic praxis
View the document6 Conclusion

1 Introduction

"The Basque Country," Euskal Herria, and Vasconia are all names referring to a territory divided between Spain and France. It encompasses the Spanish provinces of Navarre, Alava, Guipuzcoa, and Biscay and the ancient countries of Lapurdi, Zuberoa, and Lower Navarre in the Atlantic Pyrenees Department of France. This division has left the continental Basque Country in the north traditionally dependent on France, while the peninsular Basque Country, in turn, is dependent on the Spanish State.

Situated between an oceanic basin and the Ebro River, the territory spreads over 20,644 sq km. The peninsular zone is highly industrialized, although it is undergoing a structural crisis, particularly in Guipuzcoa and Biscay, and to a lesser degree in Navarre and Alava. The economy of the continental area is sustained by its primary sector, but other economic activities, such as tourism, are expanding.

While there have been constant claims for autonomy in the Basque territory controlled by France, the French government has never conceded any degree of political control. This article, therefore, deals exclusively with the peninsular, or Spanish, area. The Spanish Basque territory is itself politically divided into two autonomous communities: the Statutory Community of Navarre and the Autonomous Community of the Basque Country.

The Autonomous Community is governed by a basic law called the Statute of Autonomy. From a political and institutional point of view, this statute offers solutions to problems that persist in the Basque Country as a whole.

The Basque Country has always maintained a very notable singularity. It has its own language, Euskera (or Basque), which is of pre-Indo-European origin and is spoken by over one-fourth of the population. There is also a peculiar political-institutional framework, consisting of self-government through provincial parliaments, which has been historically respected by the Castilian monarchy (as well as that of France up to the 1789 revolution).

The nineteenth century was particularly hard on the peninsular Basque Country, because the majority of the population supported the losing faction in this period's two great dynastic wars (the Carlist Wars). The four provinces opted for defence of monarchic autocracy, the right to their own Church of the Old Regime, and, with unquestionable intensity, the continuation of the Basque Country's political uniqueness. During the second civil war, the Basque territory was the stage for war operations and a defeat which, for the first time in its history, resulted in the disappearance of its autonomous government. The only exception was an agreement to share taxes collected with the Spanish State.

It was precisely this formula, known as the "economic contract," which enabled Basque provincial institutions to undergo vigorous industrialization. This started with tremendous force at the end of the last century in Biscay, thanks to the sale of iron to England. This led to the accumulation of large sums of capital which were soon distributed to the adjacent territories. The Basque Country led Spain in industrialization and, subsequently, in development and standard of living.

Throughout this century, because of the appearance of the nationalist phenomenon, the Basque Country has made continuous demands for recognition of its political reality. The reign of Alfonso XIII brought no response to this growing demand. The monarch limited himself to conserving the economic contracts regime. It was during the Second Republic (1931-39) that the Basque Country (as well as Catalonia) articulated its strong will to obtain an autonomous political regime.

Its concept was based on the Statute of Autonomy and followed the decentralized model of the Weimar Republic. The Statute was obtained at the late date of 1936, in the midst of the Civil War, at a time when the Spanish Republican government needed to attract Basque support in the struggle against fascism and the insurgent military forces. Franco's regime suppressed all signs of Basque identity. Perhaps as a consequence of this overt oppression, when the political transition to democracy occurred after Franco's death, claims for autonomy, particularly in the Basque case, became an essential issue to be resolved. This was due both to the intensity of the claims as well as to political violence with clearly separatist objectives. For this reason, the Spanish Parliament approved a new Statute of Autonomy covering the provinces of Alava, Guipuzcoa, and Biscay. It was proclaimed on 18 December 1979. The Spanish legislators believed that an autonomy generous to the wishes of the Basque representatives would end terrorism and serve to integrate a territory that had traditionally been reluctant to take part in the Spanish political sphere.