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Fears of disintegration persist in Spain

More than half a millennium after Catholic monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella laid the foundation for the political unification of Spain, the question remains on top of the political agenda.

Spain is known for the Basque separatist group ETA, which has killed more than 800 people in its four-decade campaign for the northern Basque region and neighbouring Navarre to merge with a part of southern France in a new state.

The Basque nationalist movement is, however, much wider than the violent and marginalised ETA. Separatist currents are growing stronger also in larger region of north-eastern Catalonia, and even in Galicia in the northwest.

The roots of separatism lie in Spain’s linguistic, geophysical and historical variety.

The country’s 2.1 million Basques have their own language, unrelated to any other in the world. Catalonia, with 6.8 million residents, and Galicia, with about 3 million, have Romance languages related to Spanish.

Dictator Francisco Franco, who ruled from 1939 to 1975, tried to suffocate any separatist potential with an iron fist. His policies, such as a partial ban on regional languages, sparked counter-reactions including the birth of ETA.

Democratic governments that followed Franco resorted to the "soft" method of granting regions significant measures of autonomy.

Spain is today divided into 17 regions with varying degrees of self-government, with the Basques and Catalans even having their own police forces. Catalonia is promoting its language so strongly that some Spanish-speakers feel discriminated against.

The attempt to dilute separatist tendencies by recognising regional identities has, however, backfired, some analysts believe.

The autonomy system "has not helped to reduce centrifugal dynamics, but rather the contrary," political scientist Ignacio Sotelo said.

The system has encouraged even regions which did not traditionally have clearly distinct identities, such as Andalusia or the Balearic Islands, to seek more autonomy, analysts argue.

At the same time, however, migratory movements within Spain have increased ethnic and linguistic homogeneity. In the Basque region, for instance, an estimated 40 percent of the population does not have a single Basque parent.

Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero’s Socialist government tried to solve the huge problem that ETA represents for Spain, attempting to launch peace talks with the group, but failed like previous governments had done.

ETA sees no chance for peace as long as Spain refuses to put the question of independence on the table, and ended its 14-month ceasefire in June 2007. It has since then killed two police officers in southern France.

ETA and its banned political wing Batasuna are, however, only the extreme expression of a Basque nationalist movement which also comprises more moderate parties, such as regional prime minister Juan Jose Ibarretxe’s Basque Nationalist Party (PNV).

Ibarretxe believes that the only way to solve the problem of ETA is to stage a referendum on future options including independence, a plan that the Spanish government is prepared to block in court if necessary.

Meanwhile in Catalonia, the separatist party ERC has been in the regional government since 2003, and the larger moderate nationalist formation CiU has also grown bolder in demanding more autonomy.

"I am not considering independence … but the right to decide includes everything," CiU leader Artur Mas said.

Demonstrations requesting Basque or Catalan "national" sports teams have turned into separatist rallies, small Catalan groups have burned pictures of King Juan Carlos, and dozens of Basque and Catalan city halls refuse to hoist the Spanish flag.

Even in Galicia, which had been quiet on the separatism front, a group called Galician Resistance has emerged, carrying out minor attacks.

Separatism is rising to one of the top themes in the 9 March elections, with the opposition conservatives accusing Zapatero of having encouraged it by negotiating with ETA and by granting several regions more self-government.

Internal separatist movements have influenced Spain’s stance on the possible unilateral independence of Kosovo, which Madrid is not keen on, for fear of a possible knock-on effect in Spain.

At the same time, however, separatism may not be as big a threat for Spain’s unity as the opposition and related media make it seem.

The question of independence divides opinions in the Basque region, where around half of the population votes for mainstream Spanish anti-independence parties.

In Catalonia, only 30 percent of residents back independence while 38 percent are against, according to a 2007 poll.

February 2008

[Copyright dpa 2008]

Subject: Spanish news, regionalism