Basque Coat of Arms

The Basque Statute of Autonomy

Published: 19 October 2018

Proposed revisions to the Basque Statute of Autonomy have revealed underlying tensions but the fault lines are not where an outside observer might assume they would be. They are fundamental and political and, explains Michael Keating, unlikely to be resolved by technocratic debate. 

The Basque Country is the last of Spain’s autonomous communities to revise and update its forty year old statute of autonomy. The reasons for delay were the continuing campaign of violence by ETA and deep divisions over the national question. In the late 1990s, a governing coalition between the moderate nationalist Basque Nationalist Party and the Socialist Party broke down as the former sought a pan-nationalist front with radical nationalists, hoping to wean them from violence and incorporate them in the political process (the example of Northern Ireland was important). This paved the way for Basque first Minister Juan José Ibarretxe to present a plan under which the Basque Country would become a ‘freely associated state’ in a confederal relationship with Spain. The plan failed when the Spanish Parliament gave it short shrift. The ETA campaign continued and the experience left a difficult legacy.

The new proposal comes from first minister Iñigo Urkullu, who has renewed the governing coalition with the socialists and also sought to bridge the divisions within the Basque Nationalist Party itself. ETA has now disappeared and radical nationalism has entered the democratic mainstream. The Basque Nationalist Party, occupying the constitutional centre ground, has restored its dominant political position.

The new plan is guided by three ideas: to avoid what is seen as the divisive approach of the Ibarretxe Plan; to avoid the unilateral and confrontational approach pursued in Catalonia; and to produce a settlement supported both by nationalists and unionists. If gaining the support of the conservative Popular Party is impossible, at least they seek the consensus of the Socialists and the Spanish radical left (Podemos).

A lengthy proposal has now been adopted by the Basque Parliament. Constitutionally, the next step is to send it to the Spanish Parliament. This is not happening because, in spite of the intentions of Urkullu, it is supported only by the Basque National Party and the radical nationalists of EB Bildu. It is opposed, in descending order of virulence by the Popular Party, the Socialists and Podemos.

The most difficult issues do not concern the powers of the Basque Parliament. There is wide agreement on the need to update the statute and complete the transfer of competences that have been pending for many years. Indeed, the scheme for dividing competences is not particularly radical; it does not even adopt the reserved-powers model used in Scotland, Northern Ireland or Wales. There are remaining issues about powers (many on a right-left basis) but these could be negotiated and compromised.

The deep differences, rather, concern the basic premises underlying devolution. The proposal defines the Basque Country as a nation, which is anathema to the main Spanish parties and to the Constitutional Court, for whom there can be only one Spanish nation. There is provision for Basque nationality and Basque citizenship (which are not quite the same thing). The Basque people are credited with the ‘right to decide’, which appears to mean self-determination. The sources of authority are the historic rights of the Basque people, and the principle of right to decide. There will be bilateral relationship between the Basque Country and Spain (although multilateral forums will also be used). There will be a referendum in the Basque Country before the new statute goes to Madrid for approval and not just, as the constitution provides, after.

This clashes directly with the Spanish doctrine that all rights stem from the Spanish constitution of 1978, in which the historic rights are consigned to an annex.  As the Popular Party puts it, the Basque Country as a cultural, ethnographic and sociological identity, should not be confused with a juridical category.

The proposal addresses the old question of the territorial extent of the Basque Country by starting with the existing autonomous community but drawing in, in various ways, Navarre, the Basque provinces in France and the Spanish enclaves within the Basque Country. No territory will be obliged to join in the common frameworks, but the idea is nonetheless unacceptable to unionists.

These are all matters which the United Kingdom has managed to avoid. The term ‘nation’ is freely used both for the UK and for its component parts. Some give it a historic and cultural meaning while for others it is political and includes the right to secede. In the Northern Ireland settlement, citizens are permitted and invited to adopt whatever territorial perspective they prefer – Northern Irish; all-Ireland; or British. There is even formal provision for remaining within the UK or joining a united Ireland.

Given the deadlock, the proposal has been sent to a committee of experts, appointed by the various political parties, to suggest a revised text. It is not, however, a technical difference, to which professors of constitutional law might have an answer, but a deeply political division on the nature of the state. This was the fate of the revised Catalan statute of 2006, which was mauled by the Constitutional Court on much the same grounds rather than on the details of power. There is a concept of Spain as a ‘nation of nations’ or ‘plurinational’ community, but the political class is still a long way from getting its head around it.


Constitutional History and the Making of the Modern World

What’s happening in Wales, and what does it mean for Ireland-Wales relations?

Bosnia and Herzegovina’s constitutional crisis: Is this time different?

Multilevel Politics, Climate and COP26

Constitutionally Sound podcast