Regional lawmakers in Spain's Basque country have voted for a plan to make the region virtually independent. But it's been firmly rejected by the country's main political parties and has little chance in parliament.
The Basque nationalist movement is centuries old
Basque President Juan Jose Ibarretxe (photo below) is generally a close-lipped, serious man. But after the regional parliament voted 39 to 35 to pass the controversial autonomy plan on the last Thursday of 2004, a hint of the smile could be seen.
Basque regional president Juan Jose Ibarretxe
"Now I will call Mr. Zapatero and ask to begin discussions on the matter," he said, referring to Spanish Premier Jose Luis Zapatero.
But the new year had hardly begun when then answer came from Madrid. Zapatero would meet with the Basque leader, but acceptance of the Basque autonomy plan was all but impossible. Zapatero derided the initiative as secessionist, unconstitutional and a reversal of Europe's attempts for closer union.
"I will listen to Mr. Ibarretxe," Zapatero said. "But he will also listen to me and what he will hear from me is very clear. In our democracy we can talk about anything within the bounds of our constitution. Outside of the constitution, however, we can talk about nothing."
The conversation between the two men will likely be short as the Basque plan goes beyond what Spain's constitution allows. The initiative envisions a Basque "free state," which would only be loosely associated with Spain. It would have its own social and justice system, new citizenship rules and separate representation from Spain in international bodies such as the European Union.
Besides negotiating with Madrid, Ibarretxe wants to hold a referendum on the matter in the Basque country and let the people decide. However, politicians in Madrid are not supportive of the idea. Besides being rebuffed by the ruling Socialists, the conservative Popular Party has also answered Ibarretxe's calls with a clear 'no.'
"One cannot negotiate, either with Mr. Ibarretxe or about his plan," said Mariano Rajoy, head of the Popular Party. "One does not negotiate with someone who attacks our national sovereignty and scoffs at our laws."
Spain's Prime Minister Jose Luis Zapatero
But the socialist government has rejected calls by the conservatives to file a lawsuit with the Constitutional Court against the proposal. Zapatero (photo) said instead his government with consult with other parties about the plan, look at it from a legal standpoint and eventually vote it down in parliament.
"The government must not make any wrong moves," he told reporters.
The initiative got a majority in the regional legislature with the help of lawmakers accused of being close to the banned Batasuna Party, the political arm of the Basque separatist movement, ETA.
The group is blamed for more than 800 deaths in its campaign for an independent homeland in the area straddling northern Spain and southwestern France.
Although the recent Basque initiative does not go as far as ETA would like, three of the six representatives accused of being supporters of the armed group voted in favour of the plan.
"ETA is the initiator, the motor and the guarantor of this plan," said Leopoldo Barreda from the Popular Party.
That suspicion, shared by Spain's main political parties, is enough to ensure the initiative's defeat when the national parliament votes on it. Without Madrid's approval, the Basque regional parliament cannot implement the plan, nor hold a legally binding referendum on the matter.
Even in the Basque country itself, opinion is split on the issue. The province of Alava, one of three in the Basque country, has fewer Basque nationalists than the two other provinces. Its district administrator, Popular Party member Ramon Rabanero, said if the autonomy plan did somehow become reality, Alava would choose to stay with Spain. A Basque country split from Spain could mean a Basque country that's internally split as well.