Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
For Basque nationalists Euskadi (the Basque Country) comprises the four Spanish provinces of Álava, Guipúzcoa, Navarra, and Vizcaya, and the French pays of Labourd, Soule, and Lower Navarra. More Basques live in Spain than on the French side of the Pyrenees, but Basque separatists consider the Basque Country to cover both regions.
There are six main dialects, three in Spain (Bizkaian, Gipuzkoan and Upper Navarrese) and three in France (Lower Navarrese, Lapurdian and Zuberoan), but the dialect boundaries do not follow the political boundaries. A seventh dialect is standardized Basque, Batua, which is based on Gipuzkoan.
There are around 2.2 million people living in the Basque Country, of whom around 896,000 people are fluent Basque speakers: there are also additional Basque speakers in Navarre, where around a tenth of the population speak the language, as well as in border regions of France. The Basque Country is the second most industrialized region, after Catalonia, and the wealthiest region in Spain. The majority of jobs in Navarra are in tourism and other services but the region is much poorer.
Basques are the long-established inhabitants of the region on either side of the western Pyrenees. Their language is distinct from other Indo-European languages and has survived without incorporating much of the latter.
The Duchy of Vasconia was established in the seventh century. In the ninth century the territory had shrunk to the present-day Basque Country as the Kingdom of Pamplona, later known as the Kingdom of Navarre. The Spanish provinces of the present-day Basque Country joined Castile in 1200. War between Castile and France led to the division of Basque territory between France and Spain in 1513. The Statutes of Vizcaya gave a certain measure of autonomy to the Spanish regions in raising finance and deciding their own laws. The Statutes were revoked in 1839 and abolished in 1876 following the defeat of the Basque Country in the two Carlist wars.
The Basque nationalist movement was born in opposition to the central government. At the same time the Basque Country was industrializing, and its mining and shipbuilding industries brought large-scale immigration from poorer areas of Spain. This led to the alienation of rural Basques. Sabina Arana-Goiti, the first Basque nationalist politician, defined Basques anthropologically and linguistically, forbade ‘intermarriage’, and opposed Spanish immigration and immigrants. In 1895 he founded the Basque Nationalist Party (Partido Nacionalista Vasco, or PNV).
In October 1936, on the eve of the Civil War, the Second Republic approved the Basque autonomy statute. Basques supported and fought with the Republicans in the Civil War, and their region suffered viciously at the hands of the Nationalists, whose German allies bombed Guernica, the ancient Basque capital. General Francisco Franco’s victory and the Republicans’ defeat unleashed a tide of revenge against Basques. Some 21,000 Basques died in the aftermath of the war; thousands more went into exile or were imprisoned. Under the Franco regime all traces of self-government were lost; the Basque language was banned; and teachers unable to demonstrate ‘political reliability’ were removed from Basque schools. The PNV formed a government in exile in France.
In 1959 Basque Homeland and Freedom (Euskadi Ta Askatasuna, or ETA) was formed. Its aim is an independent socialist Basque state uniting the Basque provinces of Spain and France. Unlike the PNV it advocated class struggle, the overthrow of the dictatorship, and solidarity with Spanish immigrants. According to ETA, anyone who sold their labour in the Basque Country was entitled to be considered Basque. ETA’s war against the Spanish state – involving bank robberies, kidnappings and assassinations – had a huge impact. The government replied with repressive police tactics, including illegal detention and mistreatment of prisoners. In 1968 the government declared a state of emergency. ETA was at the forefront of the struggle against Franco, and in 1973 it assassinated the Prime Minister and Franco’s self-appointed heir, Admiral Carrero Blanco.
With Franco’s death in 1975 Basque nationalists demanded full independence. Rejecting the 1978 Spanish Constitution, they called for sovereignty, self-determination, and measures to improve the working and living conditions of the working class. The PNV accepted the 1979 autonomy statute but continued to press for greater autonomy (avoiding the word ‘independence’). ETA proceeded with its bombing campaigns, experiencing a rise in popularity during the next decade. A new Basque left-wing alliance, Herri Batasuna (United People), which rejected working within the Spanish state system, also gained support. According to recent allegations, during the 1980s government-financed units waged a ‘dirty war’ on ETA in which more than two dozen Basques were killed.
During the first half of the 1990s support for both the Spanish Socialist Party, which was voted out of national office in 1996, and for ETA – which has been accused of perpetrating indiscriminate violence – declined among Basques. In January 1995, 150,000 people took part in a silent march against terrorism in Bilbao. But Basque nationalism remained vibrant and ETA continued its bombing campaign. ETA was wrongly accused of the Al Qaeda Madrid bombs in March 2004. These tragic events were followed by national elections which returned the anti-Iraq war Socialists to power. In March 2006 ETA called a ceasefire and the government planned peace talks. But no progress was made, and ETA broke its ceasefire with a car bomb at Madrid’s Barajas airport in late December 2006. In 2010 ETA declared a new ceasefire. In 2011 it announced the end of its armed activity, and April 2017 the group revealed the locations of its weapons caches and announced that it had officially disarmed.
The Basque language has official status with Castilian Spanish in the autonomous region of the Basque Country and in the Basque-speaking and mixed areas of Navarra. The 1982 Language Standardization Law in País Vasco and 1986 Ley Foral del Euskera in Navarra set out the use of the Basque language.
In the Basque Country several organizations were set up to promote the Basque language, including the Secretariat-General for Linguistic Policy, the Consultative Council for the Basque Language, the Basque Institute of Public Administration, and the Institute for the Promotion of Literacy and Renewed Knowledge of Basque among Adults and for the Regulation of the Euskaltegis Adult Basque Training Organization. The Basque language was introduced into the education system in 1983 and a 1993 law defines more closely how Basque and Spanish are taught. Basque Radio and Television (EITB) was set up in 1983. In 1989 there was an agreement on the funding of the Academy of the Basque Language Euskaltzaindia. Other new regulations included the 1981 rules for teaching Basque to adults and the 1989 standardization plan for the use of Basque by the various public administrative bodies.
In Navarra the Academy of the Basque Language is the consultative institution for linguistic standards. Statutory Decree 159/89 established four linguistic models through which Basque can be given its place in the education system. In 1990 the government of Navarre assumed full powers over education policy.
The protection and promotion of cultural traditions has long been an important issue. However, the use of Basque (or Euskara) is now growing among young people and in areas such as public administration, the mass media, and in general in the Basque Country. It is expected to continue increasing on account of active policies to promote the language and willingness on the part of the public to use it. Although fluency in Basque is not required in employment, except for the civil service, it is an important consideration in recruitment, especially for jobs requiring contact with the public. In Navarra, although there are few speakers for whom it is the first language, there are a growing number who understand Basque, and again this trend is expected to continue due to government policies and public support.
Due to high levels of autonomy, the Basque government has invested large amounts of money into education. Not only has this prevented the Basque language from dying out, but it has also led to the Basque Country having one of the best education systems in the world. In fact, the only countries with higher per pupil-spending are Denmark and Austria. Nearly 48 per cent of the Basque population has some form of tertiary or university qualification – a level on a par with Finland and Norway. Basque is a compulsory subject at all levels of school in the Basque Country. It is the language of instruction in some pre-primary and primary schools. Basque is taught in colleges and is the teaching language in certain university faculties in both the Basque Country and Navarra. In Navarra, Basque is either the teaching medium or taught as a subject in schools in the Basque-speaking areas. There are also private Basque-language schools, the ikastolas, run by pupils’ parents on a cooperative basis. The number of Basque speakers has increased markedly in the past two decades, with a much larger share of young people now speaking the language. In 1991, only 25 per cent of 16 to 24 year olds in the Basque Country stated that they could speak Basque; in 2017, the figure was more than 71 per cent.
Following the group’s October 2017 disarmament, in April 2018 ETA apologised to its victims and formally announced that it would dismantle itself completely. These developments have raised questions surrounding the ways that the victims can find justice, and the Basque people and Spanish society as a whole can work towards reconciliation. Victims’ groups rejected ETA’s apology. During its campaign of violence, ETA killed more than 800 people; there are still numerous unresolved cases, including of Basque victims.