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Basque Country and Catalonia rally in Bilbao, Spain; ETA slogans

Basques take to streets in pouring rain to protest against Madrid’s moves

More than 50 000 people rallied in the northern Spanish city of Bilbao against Spain's direct rule of Catalonia. This Basque Country region had boasted its own separatist movement, ETA.

Published: November 8, 2017, 8:37 am

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    While several separatist political parties attended Saturday’s rally, the Basque Nationalist Party, which rules the autonomous region, refused to officially take part in the rally.

    Madrid’s forceful reaction to the Catalonian independence declaration has caused alarm in other semi-autonomous regions of Spain such as the Basque country and Galicia.

    The current Basque leadership worry that the Catalan crisis could impact their progress towards self-rule. Leader of the Basque regional government Inigo Urkullu, has offered careful support for Catalonia, while also decrying the divisions in society that has developed since the region held a referendum on 1 October.

    Urkullu also has to deal with pressure at home from pro-independence forces, such as Bildu, which won 21 percent in the 2016 regional elections on his party, the PNV, winning 38 percent.

    Speaking to the media during the Bilbao protest, Arnaldo Otegi, leader of Basque pro-independence party EH Bildu and a former jailed ETA member, expressed concern over the recent moves by Madrid against Catalonia.

    “In the face of this situation, it’s necessary that the Basques take to the streets, as we’re doing today, and build a popular, democratic wall that allows us to confront this situation,” he said.

    But according Urkullu the Catalan referendum was not legal or binding. The Basque Nationalist Party (PNV) is “above all a law and order party,” says Borja Lasheras, director of the European Council of Foreign Relations in Madrid. “They don’t like the chaos we are seeing in Catalonia.”

    Lasheras added: “We have come out of a dark period, which saw Basque society fractured. The lesson learned is that it doesn’t make sense to push for independence because it galvanises your opposition.” Lasheras believes the Basques have “nothing to envy the Catalans”.

    The most recent surveys show that support among Basques for independence has fallen in recent years. A 2017 study by the University of Deusto found 17 percent of Basques back independence from Spain, with 29 percent satisfied with the current level of self-rule and 38 percent in favour of increased autonomy.

    The lehendakari, as Basque premiers are called, was involved in the marathon 11th-hour negotiations to prevent his Catalan counterpart, Carles Puigdemont, from unilaterally declaring independence in Catalonia’s parliament.

    Inigo Urkullu

    Urkullu was ultimately unsuccessful in convincing Puigdemont not to declare independence.

    Indeed the northern region has a better self-rule deal than Catalonia. Unlike Catalans, Basques do not pay more in taxes than is spent on their region – a rule that is enshrined in law, the BBC reported.

    Juan José Ibarretxe, also a member of the ruling PNV, had also pushed for a referendum on self-determination earlier at the turn of the century, but his plan failed to challenge Spain’s constitution, which denotes the country as “indivisible”.

    The Spanish Congress rejected his proposals in 2005 and Basque laws laying the framework for a binding vote were similarly declared unconstitutional by Spain’s highest court.

    ETA has since declared an end to its campaign of violence, in being faced with rising socioeconomic challenges in their region. Urkullu enjoys good relations with Spain’s central government, and that has resulted in improvements in the Basque region’s financial package and degree of self-rule.

    ETA members

    The separatist campaign by Basque region’s paramilitary group ETA has left some 850 people dead. When ETA surrendered its weapons earlier this year, it effectively ended its armed resistance.

    But protests against Madrid flowed over into the streets of the northern city of Bilbao in the Basque Country, putting this new cosy relationship at risk. According to the regional paper Naiz, the ultraleft party Podemos’ regional branch and several labor unions also participated in the march.

    The organisers of Saturday’s rally said they were angry at how the Madrid government had imposed direct rule on Catalonia following an independence referendum.

    Protesters carried a banner that read “No to 155. Democracy and right to decide,” in reference to Article 155 of Spain’s constitution, which Madrid had triggered to suspend Catalonia’s bid for regional autonomy. Spain also called a snap election for the region next month.

    Despite the rain, thousands of demonstrators had turned up waving Basque and Catalonian flags.

    Puigdemont, meanwhile, who is facing prison time, wrote in Dutch on his Twitter account on Saturday that he would “cooperate” with Belgian authorities, although his lawyer has said the pro-independence politician would fight a forced return to Spain.

    “We are prepared to fully cooperate with Belgian justice following the European arrest warrant issued by Spain,” Puigdemont tweeted in Dutch.

    Prosecutors in Brussels, said they were examining the arrest warrants for Puigdemont and four of his associates and would launch extradition proceedings. But the proceedings could take weeks.

    Tensions between Madrid and Flemish politicians have mounted since the issuing of the warrants, Flemish daily Knack reported.  Madrid has accused the Flemish conservative party, the N-VA, among other things, of having “a history of xenophobia” after its chair Bart De Wever  said: “If you’re silent at a time when politicians are thrown into jail because they just make a point because they have an opinion and if violence is committed to civilians, then that’s just guilty of failure.”

    De Wever continued: “Here things happen that we should not tolerate in any EU country. It does not matter whether the Catalans agree or disagree. You do not exclude people because they simply exercise their democratic rights. You just do not do that. You do not do that, and certainly not in the European Union. ”

    He added: “About the party’s history, the Partido Popular should really be silent.”

     

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