The last few days of winter have been a whirlwind. Martin McGuinness resigned and forced new elections in Northern Ireland. Sinn Fein surged leading calls to reject Brexit and the threat of a hard border separating north and south. The idea of a united Ireland has surfaced once more.
Scottish leader, Nicola Sturgeon then stunned London with a call for a second independence referendum in the autumn of 2018. Brexit is not merely a divorce with Europe. It is breaking up Britain. On the same day, the 13th of March, Catalan leaders were punished by Spanish courts for holding a popular plebiscite in 2015.
The Basques then made an unexpected appearance in the middle of the French Presidential campaign. Social activists (the “artisans of peace“) announced that on the 8th of April, ETA would let the French authorities know the location of the remaining 85% of their arsenal of bombs and guns. In Madrid, Mariano Rajoy blustered. He offered no concessions, no new strategy not even a gesture of goodwill. As he has ever since ETA called a unilateral cessation of hostilities six years ago.
Then Martin McGuinness, one time Chief of Staff of the IRA, and a leading respected politician for four decades, passed away. Ex-Prime Minister Tony Blair, who had presided over the Good Friday Agreement, eulogised McGuiness. Ironically, this month is the 14th anniversary of the illegitimate Bush and Blair invasion of Iraq. Warmonger in Iraq. Peacemaker in Ireland. And almost one in the Basque Country.
Blair, via his adviser Jonathan Powell, was instrumental in the Basque peace process which effectively ended the six decade conflict. Curious connections abound.
Is Peace a problem for some?
Before the Basque pro-independence leader, Arnaldo Otegi, flew from Bilbao to Belfast and onto Bogside to pay his respects, he had asked the French and Spanish government to refrain from putting obstacles in the way of ETA’s disarmament. He explained that Madrid and Paris would take this definitive event badly. ETA for decades, had, after all, allowed both capitals to frame the Basque question solely in terms of violence. There could be no question of negotiation on Basque sovereignty while the conflict was in play.
Now mainstream politicians will have to adjust to a new era.
Belfast was meant to be the trailblazer for Bilbao and Vitoria (the seat of the Basque automous government). Unfortunately, Madrid and Paris have ignored London and Dublin’s lessons for bringing peace. Madrid, weakened by independence moves in Barcelona, is loathe to lose its narrative of ‘uniting Spain in the face of Basque terror’.
Ending a war leads to the obvious next step of the early release of prisoners, as happened in Ireland. This is not on the cards in Spain. Nor the transfer of prisoners to the Basque region to reduce the current dispersion hundreds of kilometers away. Nor a comprehensive series of acts of reconciliation of all the victims, on all sides. The wounds are not being allowed to heal.
The road to Barcelona and Berlin
The emerging story north of the Ebro is no longer to be complicated by the distraction of ETA. It becomes a simpler one of self proclaimed nations negotiating with Madrid about the status of their relationship with Spain, south of the Ebro. On Al Jazeera this week, Irish writer Paddy Woodworth commented that the Basque Country without ETA would be a ‘nightmare for Madrid’.
Clearly, by summer 2017 as Catalonia gears up for a unilateral referendum, the Basque independence movement will hope to piggyback with its own demand for the right to decide.
The options will be between deeper autonomy and outright independence. Most likely will be a move to unilateral referenda. And a constituonal crisis. The Basques seem to be a decade behind the Scots and Catalans. This seems to be acknowledged by independence political groups slating 2026 as the year of independence for a Basque republic. In a joint public meetig with Catalonia’s Artur Más, a former Basque centre-right leader, Juan José Ibarretxe, envisaged 2030 as a goal. They might all want to refrain from setting dates. Things are moving much faster in Western Europe.
On a European scale, Caledonia and Catalonia are now virtually working in parallel. From north and south, they are talking to Berlin.Berlin is sending out supportive coded signals to Edinburgh that it would facilitate a smooth accession for Scotland into the EU. It cannot be seen to do the same to Catalonia.
The zeitgeist has suddenly become a Multi-speed EU. In a recent summit, Rajoy voiced his support for this project. As leader of the EU’s fourth largest economy. The dirty little secret is that without Catalonia, the rest of Spain becomes like Italy south of the Rubicon. It would have to be demoted to a slower second division.
The critical factor is Spain’s continuing economic weakness. A rise in exports is coming as usual mainly from the Basques and Catalans. Recent domestic growth is almost entirely due to Quantitative Easing or money printing from the ECB as well as the €100,000 M bailout of Spanish banks in 2012. QE is slated to end in January 2018. Then what?
And if Catalonia did leave, the Basques would have to kiss goodbye to their precious ‘Fueros’ or economic agreement with its devolved fiscal autonomy. Inevitably, there would be a swift shift from the politics of current Lehendekari (president) Urkullu to that of Ibarretxe as Basque Big Business changed orientation. The precedent is the Catalan business class seeing the writing on the wall and reluctantly jumping on to the independence bandwagon.
The post ETA scenario will be the attempted peaceful synchronicity of the Catalan and Basque independence movements. The connection with Belfast may be regarded by some as nostalgia for shared experiences in the XX century. Others will see it as a model for how to bring about a lasting peace. Nevertheless, the early XXI century for the Ebro corridor will be defined by the links with Barcelona.
Towering over all will be Berlin’s decisions on how it reshapes a multi-speed Europe. Deciding who is in and who is out. Alarm bells are ringing in Madrid.