Basques and Catalans: Spanish lessons for Westminster and Whitehall?


Commentary by Fraser Wallace

The Lendakari, or leader, of the Basque Government, Iñigo Urkullu, told the Spanish newspaper El Pais last week that ‘in a globalised world, independence is impossible.’

Fraser Wallace
Fraser Wallace

It is clear that Urkullu means there is no absolute sovereignty. Many issues must be addressed collegially by the countries they affect. Trade, conservation and resource management are but a few examples of issues that are often dealt with more effectively by trans-national, cross border entities.

The European Union (EU) represents such an ongoing conduit for inter-community dialogue, within which individual states frequently must make compromises. Brexit-bent Conservatives fail to acknowledge that Brexit reduces this communication between states. It is a move unlikely to engender good will from other European countries, convinced Brexit will damage their interests.

In similar fashion to the EU, Spain’s government must also balance the interests of several internal communities. The Basques are just one part of this discussion.


It is only six years since the militant group Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (ETA) finally announced a definitive cessation of its armed struggle. Urkullu’s assertion that independence is impossible represents a sea-change from the bloody days before. The leader of the Basque Government has entirely disavowed complete independence, which Spanish unionists will no doubt welcome. For both the Basques and the Spanish state, moving toward discussion and away from conflict signifies a great success.

Catalonia however, represents an increasingly difficult conversation for the central Spanish Government. The Catalan Parliament (part of the entire Catalan governing body called the Generalitat) in October committed to holding a referendum on Catalan independence in 2017. The Spanish Government has continued to assert that no referendum can be held under the Spanish constitution.  The Constitutional Court has been called on to stop the poll. There is an impasse.

It seems however, that the ground is shifting. Urkullu rejected absolute independence because the road to reform giving the Basque community sufficient control over their own affairs is open. Stating that Basque representation in the Cortes (Spanish parliament) could pave the road to dialogue, he argued a bilateral conversation could benefit all of Spain, creating a new model of state Governance.


It seems that the central Spanish authorities may agree that communication is the appropriate way to engage with Catalonia too. The ruling Partido Popular (PP) , led by Mariano Rajoy, the Prime Minister of Spain, has opened a new office in Barcelona as part of a stated effort to initiate a ‘calm and deep’ dialogue between the central authorities in Madrid, and the independently minded Generalitat in Catalonia.

Some in the Catalan camp see this as a ruse, a poorly guised attempt to head off aspirations to independence. There are reasons, however, that the Spanish overtures to conversation should not be dismissed so lightly. These reasons also provide material for consideration by Scots seeking to ensure decisions affecting their community are taken at the appropriate level- principally, by the people directly affected by those decisions.

Because the PP are 40 seats short of a majority in the lower house, they must negotiate with other political actors in Spain. This is perhaps one reason that Urkullu, the Basque leader is so confident of increased autonomy and a better settlement within Spain. A further corollary of Rajoy’s weakness is that Catalan demands for independence. Perhaps the Catalan independentists believe they can secure a better deal, threatening Madrid with an unattractive alternative – losing part of the country forever.


The British Conservatives in London have no similar political challenges. With a small majority and the Labour Party providing no structured opposition or effective criticism of the British Government, Prime Minister Theresa May has rebuffed any notion of a differentiation in policy which would allow Scotland to retain close links to the EU. This is in spite of the United Kingdom’s northern member clearly expressing its desire to stay in the European Union. In response to this indifference to Scotland, May’s approval rating has plunged North of the Border.

The Conservative Party consider that there are no potential repercussions for disregarding Scottish interests; but they are wrong. It can do a Government no good to alienate a particular region, or any part of the electorate. This is precisely the reason that the Spanish Government is seeking to better engage with its own internal polities.

With regard to Britain, beyond Scottish rancour at heavy handiness from London, the EU referendum has reaffirmed the differences between Scotland and the rest of the UK. It would reflect poorly on the UK, which claims to be a bastion of democracy to ignore such a clearly marked will to remain within Europe. Respecting the mutual attraction between Scotland and Europe is a small concession. It could secure a measure of good will for London in forthcoming Brexit negotiations. The UK Government’s aspirations to ‘have cake and eat it’ will prove increasingly difficult without a more communicative and collaborative approach. Spain demonstrates that it is possible to secure an agreement suitable for differing, yet connected communities.