The road to Scotland’s independence referendum in the autumn of 2014 will be closely watched across the world, with the geo-political ramifications of a ‘Yes’ vote remaining a subject of huge contention. But in few places will the referendum have such great resonance as the Basque Country – the three million strong, stateless nation that straddles the north west coast of Spain and south eastern France.
For although we don’t yet know the results of the 2014 referendum, there are several certainties: it’s taken as given that the ballot will be seen as legitimate, and its results accepted, by all sides. Even the most staunchly unionist of politicians knows that if the ballot goes in favour of an independent Scotland, this will be seen as the will of the Scottish population and allowed to proceed.
It’s here that the contrast with the Basque Country could not be greater. For there, a popular desire for independence is not grudgingly accepted by politicians in the Spanish and French capitals, but is instead met with brutal suppression. Hundreds of political activists continue to languish in Spanish and French jails, beatings and torture are routinely meted out by militarised police forces, and pro-independence political parties, youth organisations and newspapers have been proscribed by Madrid courts on multiple occasions.
Under the Franco dictatorship in Spain, the Basque people faced untold repression – their language and any expression of Basque culture banned outright. It was in this context that the ETA military campaign began in the late 1950s, lasting fifty years and becoming synonymous with the struggle for Basque independence. But in the 1970s, Franco’s death brought hope of a return to democracy in Spain, consolidated by ETA’s assassination of his chosen successor, Luis Callero Blanco, a fascist veteran of the Civil War. But the post-Franco settlement would turn out to be little more than a carve-up between the newly legalised social democratic opposition, PSOE, and the former Francoists of the Popular Party. Although strongly endorsed nationally, the referendum on Spain’s new democratic constitution was widely boycotted in the Basque Country, in no small part due its insistence on the continuance of Spain as a single entity. Little room was given for truth and reconciliation, and former Francoists retained power at all levels of society.
Thus, although it marked the arrival of free elections and greater regional autonomy, for many in the Basque Country, Franco-era repression did not end with the advent of Spanish democracy. This was exemplified in the PSOE-sponsored para-state ‘death squads’ that emerged in the 1980s to engage in a dirty war with ETA and the pro-independence left.
More recently, however, the situation in the Basque Country has taken a new turn. A far-reaching debate saw ETA declare an end to its armed operations in September 2010, followed up by an announcement of a permanent ceasefire in October 2011. It comes as part of a wider realignment of the Basque pro-independence, or Abertzale, left towards pursuing independence through peaceful means. It represented a huge leap into the unknown, with a distinct unwillingness by the Spanish government to engage in negotiations forcing the Abertzale left to act almost wholly on their own initiative. Strongly influenced by the peace process in the north of Ireland, ETA’s ceasefire statement called for the Spanish and French states to directly engage in dialogue to find a lasting solution to the conflict. Perhaps unsurprisingly, little has been forthcoming, with the authorities largely responding with scepticism and further demands that ETA disarm and disband before any talks can take place.
Meanwhile, the repression has continued. As recently as 2009 it was made a criminal offence to publicly display photographs of Basque political prisoners, although the practice remains common in bars across the region. In 2011, judges in Madrid ruled that a new coalition of progressive pro-independence forces, Sortu¸which for the first time explicitly rejected violence, was simply the successor of the banned Batasuna party, little more than an ETA front organisation, and proscribed it. A second coalition, Bildu, was finally allowed to register after an initial ban, and won 26% of the vote in municipal elections in the Basque Autonomous Region (which comprises only one of three parts of the historic greater Basque Country, the others being Navarre, and the northern French part). In the Spanish national elections of 2011, the Abertzale left coalition, this time under the name of Amaiur, achieved an historic result, finishing with the highest number of MPs in the region and for the first time outpolling the right-of-centre nationalist party, the PNV, who are broadly comparable to the SNP’s right wing. Despite the best attempts of the Spanish state, the Abertzale left – who continue to branded as little more than terrorists in the Spanish media – go from strength to strength, and Basque activists predict they could form the largest party in the Basque regional parliament come elections next spring. It’s unlikely that this would give them an SNP-style majority, but combined with the PNV – who are similarly polling on around 28% – would give a clear majority to the parties in favour of independence, a momentous breakthrough. If the following year sees the world’s attention focused on the outcome of Scotland’s referendum on independence it will, to say the least, begin to put the Spanish government into a difficult position. While support for independence remains lower in the Northern (French) Basque Country, it is on the increase, with Sunday’s parliamentary elections seeing the Abertzale left finish in third place for the first time.
SSY supporting the Basque prisoners
The struggle of the Basque pro-independence left over the past few decades is an utterly inspiring one for those of us now fighting for the break-up of the British state and a progressive, transformative vision of an independent Scotland. In the face of incredible repression, they have built a mass movement, of which the ‘official’ organisations – the political party Batasuna and youth organisation SEGI – have long since been forced underground and to exist under a plethora of different acronyms. But across the towns, cities and villages of the Basque Country, the Abertzale left is ubiquitous, forming the backbone of the community in many areas through its role in running squatted youth houses, sports centres, women’s organisations, bars and cafes. Running centrally through this, and Basque society, is the issue of the political prisoners, a highly contentious issue that can mobilise huge public support. Around 700 prisoners continue to be held in Spanish and French jails, mostly accused of being members of illegal political organisations, including a sizeable number from the Abertzale youth. As a double-punishment designed to cause maximum distress to their families and to isolate them from fellow Basque prisoners, the prisoners are held in far-flung corners of Spain and France, meaning the demand for repatriation is at the forefront of the Abertzale left’s politics.
International solidarity can play a vital role in pushing for freedom and justice in the Basque Country. The demands of the Basque population for a peaceful and democratic resolution are clear, despite the best attempts of a Spanish state still struggling to break from its fascist past to gloss over and ignore this desire. Over the next few years, a real opportunity exists with the chance of not just an electoral breakthrough for the pro-independence left, but also of the emergence of an independent Scotland. If the people of Scotland are allowed a free vote on their future without the threat of being interned in a far-off prison, having our organisations banned or activists tortured, then for how long can Spain deny this basic right to the Basque people? Let’s hope that an independent Scottish republic can soon be among the first countries to recognise a new independent state of Euskal Herria.
Article first published here.