In the run up to next month’s elections to the Basque Parliament, Julen Zabalo writes that the parties of the Basque Nationalist Left have fully embraced social and political strategies as an alternative to ETA’s armed activities. In this respect they have taken inspiration from the peace process in Northern Ireland, and the nationalist movement in Scotland, which illustrate the potential for political movements to bring about a referendum on independence in a relatively short period of time.

Classical stateless nationalist movements in Western Europe have undergone a renewal in the last ten to twenty years, with some success and with Northern Ireland and Scotland taking the lead. The new perspectives opened up by these processes necessarily influence other nationalist movements. This is very clear in the case of Catalonia and the Basque Country. Specifically in the case of the Basque Country, the Irish peace process and the call for a referendum on the independence of Scotland have been a fundamental point of reference in recent years and have opened up new channels which, not many years ago, would have been considered impossible. In this vein, one of the decisive factors was the radical change in the political strategy of the Basque Nationalist Left (Izquierda Abertzale).

The fact of the matter is that, since the 1970s, the Basque Nationalist Left had assigned ETA’s armed activities a prominent role, and based their strategy on direct negotiations between said organisation and the Spanish State. This led to two public attempts at negotiation (1989 and 2006) and several others which were hidden from the public. In addition to this road map involving direct negotiations, it actively sought the unity of the Basque Nationalist Left with the moderate nationalist tradition, in the so-called Lizarra-Garazi Agreements in 1999.  All these attempts failed.

Following these failures, which were repeated every ten years, the Nationalist Left movement decided to break with the strategy involving negotiations with the State as it considered that this strategy ensured that the State was always in full control of the situation. During the 2000s, the Spanish State was relentless in its repressive policy not only in relation to ETA but also the Basque Nationalist Left, sending numerous militants of different political, youth and social organizations to jail, shutting down newspapers, and banning political parties. The possibilities for political activity dwindled considerably, and this sparked an in-depth debate within the movement.

It is in this context that the Irish and Scottish examples exerted their influence. In view of the situation in Ireland, the possibility of seeing an end to armed struggle and opening up the way to an emerging political movement was considered. The Scottish situation highlighted the possibility of this political movement facilitating a referendum on self-determination in a relatively short time. With this outlook, the conclusions of the Basque Nationalist Left’s internal debate pointed to the advisability of declaring a unilateral, non-negotiated cessation of all armed activities and relying on the force of the Basque Nationalist Left’s social and political movement. To this end, priority would need to be given to a policy implying the accumulation of social and political forces.

Since then, as regards the political scene, the Basque Nationalist Left have helped create electoral coalitions which have gradually attracted more and more political parties and yielded truly positive results, which has in turn strengthened its commitment. Elections to the Basque Parliament (which represents three of the seven Basque historical territories), to be held on 21 October of this year, could imply definitive recognition of this policy, and opinion polls indicate that this could very well be the case, as they predict a victory of the two current trends in Basque nationalism within the Spanish State (PNV, Basque Nationalist Party, moderate; EH Bildu, left-wind, 4 parties including the Basque Nationalist Left).

However, this does not automatically imply a government formed by these two movements. Indeed, the probability of this happening is very low, at least in the near future. There have been many disagreements in the past and, in addition, pressure from Spain to marginalise the Basque Nationalist Left is overwhelming.  The PNV does not appear to be ready to take the risk implied by a joint operation with the Basque Nationalist Left, and to take the constant barrage of criticism from the two main parties in the Spanish electoral system. Unlike what seems to be the case with Catalan moderate nationalist tradition, through the CiU coalition and the Catalan president, Artur Mas, Basque moderate nationalist tradition is reluctant to speak of independence, although it does speak rhetorically of it on occasions. According to its leader, Iñigo Urkullu, independence is not a priority for the PNV.

Nevertheless, the considerable force that both trends in Basque Nationalism are likely to create following the coming elections is sure to impress. The certainty that the union of the two sectors could make up almost two thirds of the Basque Parliament inevitably leads to some thoughts on which to reflect:

– The Basque Nationalist Left will be in a strong position, but they will know that some support will be necessary. On the other hand, the quest for said support (normally from the PNV; occasionally from the Spanish Socialist Party, PSOE) may not be countenanced by a section of its voter base.

– The Basque moderate Nationalist movement will not be able to prevent the subject of independence from being brought to the table on the basis of the election results, and it will be forced to take a stance which it is currently unwilling to take, and may be dragged along by the tide of independence.

– Spanish nationalism and the Spanish government will inevitably be concerned about the threat posed by the union of both sectors of Basque nationalism, which, together with the threat of independence from Catalan nationalist sectors, could imply the ultimate failure of the Spanish model of a state. Oddly enough, whereas Catalan and Basque nationalists look to Ireland and Scotland, the Spanish government looks the other way, and has absolutely no wish to follow in the steps that the British government has willingly taken as regards both cases. The Spanish government’s extremely belligerent position appears to be one of the major difficulties for the negotiated solution of these long-lasting conflicts.

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Note:  This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of EUROPP – European Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics.

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About the author

Julen Zabalo University of the Basque Country
Julen Zabalo is a Doctor of Political Geography and a professor at the University of the Basque Country’s sociology department. He is director of a master in Nationalism at the University, and author of a number of publications on Basque nationalism, including Basque Nationalism and National Territory (Bilbao: UEU, 1996; in Basque language) and Migrants and integration. Integration ways in the Southern Basque Country, 1950-1980 (Bilbao: GITE_IPES, 2010; in Basque language).

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