The Basque Nationalist Party’s long quest for a more equal partnership with Spain

by Dr Caroline Gray

The Basque national question in brief

The term ‘Basque Country’ can refer either to one of Spain’s 17 regions known as ‘autonomous communities’ (ACs), which have accrued extensive devolved powers, or to a wider area also encompassing the neighbouring autonomous community of Navarre and parts of southern France. While the most radical elements of the Basque nationalist movement may harbour ambitions ultimately to achieve the reunification and independence of this broader territory, the mainstream Basque Nationalist Party (PNV) focuses first and foremost on what powers can be achieved for the Basque autonomous community. The PNV has long been the lead party on the Basque political scene, winning all regional elections bar one since the first were held in 1980, following Spain’s transition to democracy.

The autonomous community of the Basque Country, like Spain’s other ACs, has acquired extensive policy competences in key areas such as health and education. For historical reasons, however, both it and Navarre have far greater fiscal powers than Spain’s other 15 ACs. Under their Economic Agreement (Concierto Económico) with the Spanish government, the Basque authorities collect almost all taxes and legislate on these, within the requirements of harmonisation with Spanish tax legislation. The Basque government then pays a small proportion of these revenues to the Spanish government each year to cover its contribution to the remaining non-devolved competences. 

To the outside world, the Basque territorial question has often been associated with ETA (Euskadi Ta Askatasuna), the terrorist organisation that sought to achieve independence for the Basque Country through violence until its permanent ceasefire from 2010. However, the mainstream PNV rejected violence and has consistently sought to accrue greater powers and some degree of sovereignty, albeit not necessarily full independence, via political means. 

The PNV is often described as a centre-right party on account of its economic liberalism, but it also has a more social democratic and progressive dimension. It has usually governed the Basque Country in coalition with the Basque Socialist Party (PSE), the regional affiliate of the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE). The other main player with territorial ambitions for the Basque Country is EH Bildu, a coalition primarily of radical left-wing, secessionist parties which was founded and became fully incorporated into the political sphere following the cessation of violence. EH Bildu replaced the previous main political formation of Basque far left separatism, Batasuna, which had been made illegal due to its links to ETA.

The PNV’s territorial ambitions past and present

The PNV has usually sought to accrue powers for the Basque Country incrementally, rather than seeking a radical overhaul or rupture with Spain. In the first two decades of democracy, the PNV negotiated with Spanish governments to consolidate and develop the Basque Economic Agreement and to secure as many devolved spending competences as possible. The Spanish Constitution of 1978 left room for manoeuvre in this regard as it had laid the foundations for devolution to begin, without setting an end point to the process. From the 1990s onwards, when Spain started to experience frequent minority governments, the PNV, like the main Catalan nationalist party federation at the time (CiU), took advantage of the opportunity to secure and develop ever more competences for the region in return for supporting those central governments, be they conservative or socialist.

The PNV’s most ambitious territorial initiative to date came in the early 2000s, when the then regional president, Juan José Ibarretxe, spearheaded an attempt to revise and update the Basque regional autonomy statute to achieve recognition of the Basque Country as a nation and open the door to the possibility of fuller self-determination. The proposal, often referred to as the ‘Ibarretxe Plan’, envisaged a step towards a confederal arrangement rather than complete secession. Even so, it went beyond the parameters of the Spanish constitution, under which nationhood and full sovereignty are reserved for Spain alone. The Plan was approved in the Basque parliament, albeit only just, before the Spanish parliament rejected it. The Spanish Constitutional Court then also rejected Ibarretxe’s follow-up initiative, this time for a Consultation Law to allow Basque citizens a vote on whether the Basque government should seek the right to self-determination. 

Rather than escalating matters in response to these rejections, however, the PNV took a step back under the subsequent leadership of Iñigo Urkullu, Ibarretxe’s successor at the helm of the PNV and Basque regional president since 2012. Many even within the PNV felt Ibarretxe’s plan had been too divisive, pitting the nationalists against their traditional coalition partner, the Basque Socialist Party, and requiring support in the Basque parliament from elements of the Basque radical secessionist left, which at the time still had not managed to sever its links to ETA. Some also felt it had been too heavily party-led, without sufficient backing from society. Moreover, by then, the Basque authorities needed to turn their attention to the more immediate priority of the economic and social impact of the 2008 financial crisis, especially given the responsibility and accountability that the region’s fiscal autonomy model entails. 

Nevertheless, the PNV did not renounce its territorial ambitions, instead choosing to put them on the backburner until a timelier moment. Its goal is still eventually to achieve some form of shared sovereignty between the Basque region and Spain, based broadly on an extension of the bilateralism inherent in the Basque Economic Agreement to other areas. The PNV sees the Economic Agreement as a relationship between equals, since both sides have veto power, and therefore a model to follow in wider political relations, though its vision of ‘co-sovereignty’ is deliberately ambiguous and open-ended. 

In the more immediate future, the PNV is more inclined to work with the ‘constitutionalist’ Basque Socialists, with whom it is in coalition, on plans to update the Basque autonomy statute than with EH Bildu. The term ‘constitutionalist’ is used in Spain to denote parties that seek to work within the existing parameters of the Spanish constitution, rather than proposing major change. Since Ibarretxe, the PNV has restored its relationship with the Basque Socialists and, in recent years, also upheld the Spanish Socialist-led minority government in Madrid. Whatever criticisms it may have of certain Socialist initiatives that it deems too centralist, ultimately they remain PNV’s preferred partner as it seeks to keep the radical left-wing secessionists under EH Bildu out of power in the Basque region and the Spanish centralist right and far right out of power in Madrid. 

Impact on the PNV’s electoral performance

The PNV’s longstanding dominance in the Basque Country suggests that its gradual approach towards accruing territorial powers, while focusing first and foremost on the everyday matters of governance, has served it well. The relative strength of its wins and its relationship with party allies and competitors has nevertheless evolved over time. If anything, the party suffered electorally from its move towards a more ambitious territorial agenda under Ibarretxe, winning four seats fewer (29 out of 75) at the Basque regional elections in 2005 – which took place after the Spanish parliament had rejected Ibarretxe’s proposal – compared to those of 2001. 

In 2009, despite winning again, the party was then forced into opposition for the first (and so far only) time for three years, due to the formation of a highly unusual coalition between the Basque Socialists and Conservatives to oust the PNV. This consolidated the ‘Basque nationalist versus Spanish constitutionalist’ divide that had begun to be established when the PNV shifted its alliances away from the Socialists towards the radical secessionist left under Ibarretxe – a move some within the PNV were sceptical about at the time and came to regret. 

Since then, party politics both in the Basque Country and in Spain has shifted considerably. In the Basque Country, EH Bildu has gained strength and significant parliamentary representation now that the radical left secessionism it represents is channelled exclusively through politics rather than violence. Since its founding in 2012, EH Bildu has come second to the PNV in all Basque regional elections. It has displaced the Basque Socialists, who have also been weakened by fragmentation on the statewide left since 2015 with the emergence of Podemos and other left-wing alternatives. Such parliamentary fragmentation has put the viability of regional coalitions between the PNV and the Basque Socialists under more pressure than before – while the two parties combined currently hold a majority in the Basque parliament, they fell one seat short during the 2016-2020 term, necessitating some support from EH Bildu. 

Generally, however, neither the PNV nor EH Bildu have shown much inclination to collaborate closely, at least not at the regional level (the picture at local and provincial level is somewhat different in certain areas). Instead, they are first and foremost in competition to lead the process of securing a new fit for the Basque Country within or without Spain. They also espouse very different economic views, with the PNV’s liberalism contrasting with EH Bildu’s radical left positioning. Depending on how parliamentary dynamics evolve both in the Basque Country and nationally, however, they may have no choice but to work together much more in future. 

This raises the question of whether this would radicalise the PNV or de-radicalise EH Bildu. Political dynamics to date would suggest the latter is more likely, as EH Bildu has come to prioritise more immediately achievable goals than Basque independence. Most notably, it has sought to spearhead a left-wing front with Unidas Podemos and other state-wide left formations in opposition to the centre-right PNV. Yet it has also been known to show some support, albeit rather reluctantly, for the PNV’s vision of co-sovereignty, seeing it as a possible first step towards independence. 

This may nevertheless change should the conservative People’s Party (PP) end up forming a coalition government with the far-right Vox following the Spanish elections due later this year. The drive towards centralisation that they would likely espouse would prove a game changer for the PNV and what it is able to achieve. In such circumstances, the impact on the PNV’s territorial strategy and its relations with EH Bildu is difficult to predict.

Author bio

Dr Caroline Gray is a Lecturer in Politics and International Relations at Aston University and author of Territorial Politics and the Party System in Spain (Routledge, 2020).