"BALKAN SPAIN", is today's editorial in the Wall Street Journal's European edition (paid reg. req., sorry):
Are Europe's oldest nation states immortal? Spain will soon test this supposition. Basque nationalists late last month put the country's unity in unprecedented jeopardy.The best part of the piece is towards the end:
José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, the prime minister, is contending with probably the worst political crisis since Spain restored democracy almost three decades ago. The outcome will provide useful hints for the future of Europe's other multiethnic states.
The Basque parliament, by a narrow vote of 39 to 35, on Dec. 30 passed a measure to create a Basque state "freely associated" with Spain, "sovereign" and able to run its own foreign policy, even mint its own currency. So, in all but name (for now), independent.
The Spanish parliament will reject the plan, probably by next month. But Basque leaders say they don't give a whit about the Spanish constitution or the national legislature and promise to call a referendum on the measure this spring. The Basques say they can leave Spain on their own; the rest of Spain disagrees. The potential for a clash is obvious.
Short-term political considerations may help explain Basque motivations but they don't mitigate the danger. Juan José Ibarretxe, the Basque premier, pushed the "autonomy" plan to galvanize nationalist voters ahead of regional elections due this spring. In Madrid, Mr. Zapatero was slow to respond, but last week got around to denouncing the Basque move. The ruling Socialists have assumed that their soft line on separatism would secure Basque cooperation, but this approach has evidently failed. Spain now needs strong leadership. In both foreign and domestic policy over the last 10 months, Mr. Zapatero has inspired little confidence on that score.
The Basques certainly have every right to agitate for constitutional changes -- by constitutional means. A four-vote majority in a local parliament hardly gives them the green light to act by fiat. For the sake of all Spaniards, Madrid can't afford to let these local politicians hijack the Spanish constitution. If it does, Spain as a country will be history.
In response, the Basque nationalists invoke popular democracy. That's a sham. Why? In a word, terrorism. The persistent political violence of the past 35 years does not allow room for free choice, nor does it augur well for the future political rights of Basque voters if their politicians somehow succeed in their secession effort.
Since 1968, ETA terrorists have murdered more than 800 people who don't share their views. A crackdown by the previous Aznar government weakened the terrorist group, but didn't put it out of business. Uncounted thousands have fled the Basque country. In this climate, no open debate is possible. So no one can honestly say that the Basques really want more autonomy or independence. Opinion polls in fact show large majorities in the three Basque territories opposed to splitting up Spain. The borders of any future state also would be in dispute. Álava, one of three provinces, wants no part of the Ibarretxe plan -- nor do Navarre or the French Basque regions that nationalists are eager to claim as their own. The financial settlement in any divorce with Spain would be tricky, too.