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Catalan Vote Seen as Test for Separatists in Europe
On a recent drizzly morning here, Mariano Bilbao, a retired metals worker, took part in an event for the 120th anniversary of the first hoisting of the Ikurriña, the Basque flag. But with the neighboring region of Catalonia set to hold a vote this fall on whether to break from Spain, Mr. Bilbao's thoughts were less on the past than on the future. The Ikurriña, he hopes, will eventually fly over a new Basque nation.
"Catalonia opens new possibilities, and the dream of independence is now very much alive for us," Mr. Bilbao said.
Indeed, as the Catalan vote nears, analysts are raising alarms that it could set off a separatist spiral that would dismember Spain, as well as have a domino effect among other independence-minded European regions that should make defenders of the 28-nation European Union sit up and take note.
A meeting last week between Artur Mas, the leader of the Catalan regional Parliament, and Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy of Spain did nothing to forestall the independence drive, and Mr. Mas vowed to go ahead with the vote as scheduled on Nov. 9.
If Catalonia does vote on independence, the Basque Country and other regions will quickly want to stage similar votes, potentially paving the way for the eradication of the Spanish state, said Emilio Lamo de Espinosa, the president of the Real Instituto Elcano, a political research group in Madrid. And if Spain splinters, it "would destroy the E.U. project, which is based on union and not division and splitting," he added.
The Catalans are set to vote just weeks after the Scottish hold their own referendum on independence from the United Kingdom on Sept. 18, and the Scottish outcome is being regarded as something of a bellwether here. But if the United Kingdom has something to worry about in Scotland's referendum, then Spain arguably faces larger trouble.
Scotland's 5.3 million people represent about 8 percent of the United Kingdom's population and account for 9 percent of its economic output. Scotland's North Sea oil assets, however, make it the wealthiest part of the United Kingdom per capita.
By contrast, Catalonia's 7.5 million people represent about 16 percent of the Spanish population and account for 19 percent of Spain's gross domestic product. The Basque region of 2.2 million people is Spain's richest region per capita, accounting for 6 percent of G.D.P.
Combined, Spain would lose a quarter of its economy if both the Basque and Catalan secessionist drives ever succeeded.
Still, both Catalan and Basque nationalist politicians are urging Mr. Rajoy to take a lesson from Prime Minister David Cameron of Britain, who has argued against separation for Scotland but has not tried to block the Scottish vote. Mr. Rajoy should understand what Mr. Cameron does, said Ibon Areso, the mayor of Bilbao, the largest Basque city, which is that "the Spanish state is made up of several different people."
"The whole problem of the European Union is that it has been about politicians defending states rather than trying to create a genuine union of people," Mr. Areso said.
When it comes to Catalonia, Mr. Rajoy has argued that the vote is unconstitutional. But whether he can actually stop the region from carrying it out is another matter. If the vote goes ahead, it will at a minimum set off a serious constitutional crisis for Spain. But while insisting that Catalonia has to abide by Spanish law, Mr. Rajoy has done little to entice it to stay.
"The Catalans are now leading the way, but nobody should forget that historically it has been the Basques who have made the strongest sovereignty demands," said Jon Iñarritu, a Basque member of the Spanish Parliament.
The Basque problem could be even knottier for Mr. Rajoy than Catalonia, given that the Basque region's history of violent separatism may make it even harder for him to offer concessions.
E.T.A., the Basque separatist group, killed over 800 people in Spain during a four-decade campaign of bombings and targeted assassinations. It has not killed on Spanish soil since 2009, has stuck to a cease-fire announced in 2011 and recently announced that its military wing had been dismantled. But Mr. Rajoy and other mainstream Spanish parties are demanding an unconditional surrender and the handover of weapons.
In the Spanish news media and in the corridors of power in Madrid, Mr. Iñarritu is often portrayed as representing an extremist coalition, known as Euskal Herria Bildu, which includes politicians who supported E.T.A.
E. H. Bildu, whatever its antecedents, has made significant electoral gains. It now holds 21 of the 75 seats in the Basque regional Parliament, second only to the 27 seats of the P.N.V., the Basque nationalist party that is also seeking greater autonomy.
In July, Iñigo Urkullu, a P.N.V. politician who is the head of the Basque regional government, sent a letter to Mr. Rajoy requesting a meeting to discuss Basque demands for greater sovereignty. There was no official response from Mr. Rajoy.
Already, the independence claims of Catalonia and the Basque region are feeding each other, even as they differ in important ways.
In June, about 150,000 people formed a human chain across the Basque region to demand independence, mimicking a much larger secessionist show of force last September by Catalans, who had clasped hands across Catalonia.
Pedro Ibarra, a Basque political scientist and former lawyer who defended several E.T.A. members in the 1970s, said the Basque human chain showed how far Catalonia's referendum push and the E.T.A. cease-fire had "clearly reshaped the nationalist debate here in much more democratic terms."
But unlike with the clearly defined region of Catalonia, the Basques are divided over where the borders of any independent country should lie. What Basque nationalists call their homeland, known as Euzkadi, stretches north into France, where about 300,000 people are Basques.
Hard-liners believe a Basque nation should encompass Spain's three Basque provinces as well as the French Basque Country and the neighboring Spanish region of Navarra. Only a section of Navarra, however, speaks Basque. And the French Basques, while proud of their distinctive sports and culture, have not been pushing to break away from Paris.
For now, Basque secessionist politicians seem content to let Scotland and Catalonia "lead the independence movement within Europe," said Laura Mintegi, an E. H. Bildu politician. If Scotland and Catalonia fail to secede, however, "we will certainly go ahead on our own path," Ms. Mintegi warned.
Francisco de Borja Lasheras, associate director of the Madrid office of the European Council on Foreign Relations, forecast that "the referendum question will be on the Basque agenda sooner or later, depending on both how quickly the E.T.A. issue gets fully resolved and what happens next in Catalonia."
[Source: By Raphael Minder, The New York Times, 05Aug14]
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