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Author Topic: The Failure of the Ibarretxe Plan in the Spanish Basque Country (2003-2005)  (Read 1613 times)
Hashemite
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« on: March 13, 2012, 01:34:10 pm »
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Between October 2003 and May 2005, debates over the Spanish state of autonomies were dominated by the question of the Ibarretxe plan, the controversial proposal of the head of the Basque government, lehendakari Juan José Ibarretxe, which would have transformed Spain’s Basque Country into a freely associated community within the Spanish state. Described by then-opposition leader Mariano Rajoy as the “biggest challenge to national unity since 1978” , the Ibarretxe plan, had it succeeded, would have represented the most fundamental change to Spain’s quasi-federal structure since the country’s current constitution was ratified in 1978. Though the Ibarretxe plan ultimately failed, the reasons for its failure inform us about factors which prevent constitutional change in a federation. This paper will argue that it was more the context and theoretical footings of the Ibarretxe plan rather than its content which led to its demise. A disconnect between the Spanish and Basque nationalist political elites, conflicting and incompatible perceptions of nationhood and self-determination and the lack of unity in the Basque Country concerning the push for Basque self-determination all affected the eventual demise of the Ibarretxe plan.

   In October 2003, lehendakari Juan José Ibarretxe – the head of the Basque autonomous government – presented the Political Statute of the Community of Euskadi, what has since been widely referred to as the Ibarretxe plan. The plan would have had the effect of turning the Basque Country into a community freely associated with the Spanish state, with the potential for further change according to the principle of self-determination.  The freely associated Basque community would have significant powers, even in comparison to the extensive powers it already enjoys. Its exclusive powers would have included full responsibility over education, culture, social policy, transportation, the environment, natural resources and international relations in the domains for which it would be domestically responsible for. Furthermore, the Basque community would be represented in EU institutions, and the judicial system would be decentralized with the creation of a Basque judiciary.  There would be rather few shared powers and the Spanish state would have been left with responsibility in fields such as Spanish nationality, defense, currency, customs and tariffs and international relations.

   The bulk of the proposal was technical, but the proposal’s ambitious and clearly nationalist preamble proved the most controversial.  The preamble proclaimed that the Basque people had the right to decide (derecho a decidir) its own future and its relation with the Spanish state.  The plan also created fairly ambiguous concepts of Basque ‘citizenship’, granted to all residents of the Basque community (article 4.1), and a Basque ‘nationality’ whose acquisition, conservation and loss would be regulated by legislation based on Spanish nationality law (article 4.2). 

   The plan specified a three-stepped blueprint for ratification, which included approval by the Basque legislature, an agreement with Madrid and a referendum on the agreement in the Basque Country.  The Basque legislature, made up in majority of nationalists, ultimately narrowly ratified the plan in December 2004.  The conservative government of José María Aznar, in office in Madrid until 2004, had refused any discussion of the plan, but the election in 2004 of a Socialist government led by José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero augured a less rigid attitude and the new government allowed for the plan to be debated in the Spanish parliament in January 2005. Despite the intervention of the Basque lehendakari during the debate, the Spanish parliament rejected his plan by a lopsided 313-29 margin.  Ibarretxe’s subsequent attempts to hold a referendum regardless were blocked by the courts, signaling the end of the road for his controversial proposal after a bit less than two years of debate, under two successive governments in Madrid. The causes of the plan’s demise lay more in what it symbolized and in the context in which it was set than in the technical details of the plan itself.

The fundamental reason for the plan’s failure was a disconnect between the Spanish political elites and the Basque nationalist political elites, defined here as the leaders and supporters of Ibarretxe’s Partido Nacionalista Vasco (Basque Nationalist Party, PNV). The views of these two actors, crucial in such a constitutional reform, were totally disconnected from one another, blocking any chance of dialogue or compromise.

   This gap was most pronounced under the conservative government of José María Aznar, under whose majority government the plan was first introduced in October 2003. Aznar’s conservative Partido Popular (Popular Party, PP) was, of the two main parties at the national level in Spain, the one which was most reticent of further decentralization and of regional nationalisms. In the tradition of modern Spanish liberal nationalism, the PP holds a strong attachment to the 1978 constitution which recognizes Spain’s diversity but still defines Spain as a nation, with the Spanish people as the sole source of democratic legitimacy and sovereignty.  The Ibarretxe plan provoked, on the PP’s behalf, a rallying around the constitution as the sacred, inviolable document without which Spain’s progress since 1978 would have been impossible. In light of this viewpoint, Prime Minister Aznar called the Ibarretxe plan the “deluded rantings of a fanatic” which “runs absolutely counter to the constitution and jeopardizes the achievements of the past 25 years.”  In a similar manner, Aznar claimed that he had enough of some people who woke up every morning with the sole will and purpose of “insulting Spain.”

Viewing a single Spanish people as the sole source of democratic legitimacy, the PP also viewed the Ibarretxe plan as a dangerous and divisive ploy. Mariano Rajoy, in 2003, was not as blunt as Aznar, but nonetheless clearly stated that he would oppose any constitutional reform, such as Ibarretxe’s proposals, which would affect the “fairness, solidarity and justice” and which sought to distinguish between “citizens of first order and second order.”  He continued by saying that the central government was in no condition to devolve further powers, believing that the state model was “substantially consolidated” and that the state had fulfilled its constitutional obligations.

The presence of an armed terrorist group seeking Basque independence, ETA, cast a long shadow over the debate concerning Ibarretxe’s proposal. Terrorism was often invoked by the PP as a means of discrediting the plan and assimilating it to terrorist blackmail. Claiming that Ibarretxe’s proposal was backed by terror, Prime Minister Aznar commented that the plan could be a joke if it was not backed by “victims and stinking bombs.”  In this sense, Aznar claimed that the plan “covered itself in terrorism, fed on terror and gave reason to terror” and warned against “ending terror by agreeing with those who use terror.”  Even more bluntly, Aznar held that the “aims of nationalism and of terrorism are identical” and that the plan was “utterly incompatible with the constitution.”
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« Reply #1 on: March 13, 2012, 01:35:11 pm »
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Zapatero’s Socialist government, which took office in 2004, did not subscribe to the same philosophy about the nature of the Spanish state and Zapatero himself took a very different approach than Aznar in dealing with regional nationalisms. In the debate in the Spanish parliament about the plan, Zapatero shared his wish to come to an “historic and definitive agreement” on the Basque question and claimed that he was “disposed towards dialogue.”  At the same time, however, he criticized Ibarretxe’s proposal as rooted in outdated visions and concepts of Spain, sovereignty, self-determination and nation-states.  Other high-ranking members of the government were franker in their responses. Then-justice minister Juan Fernando López Aguilar called the plan “fundamentalist” and against “democratic reason.” Then-defense minister José Bono said that he was against a plan which created two classes of Spaniards.

   At the other end of the spectrum, the Basque nationalist political elites – in this case the PNV and Ibarretxe – held a radically different view of the situation. The PNV, arguing the case from the democratic standpoint, claimed that the Basque had an undeniable democratic right to decide of its own future. The lehendakari stated that “no one who calls himself a democrat” could deny the Basque people’s right to “decide for themselves.”  On other occasions, Ibarretxe stated that nothing and no one could prevent the Basques from deciding their own future  and that neither Zapatero nor Rajoy would decide the future of Basque self-government.

   Unsurprisingly, the PNV does not share the PP’s attachment to the Spanish constitution. In fact, the PNV, in 1978, had called on voters from abstaining from voting in the referendum which ratified the referendum because it did not recognize a right to self-determination.  Ibarretxe argued that the 1978 constitution and the Basque Country’s statute of autonomy were not static documents.

   There can be little dialogue when a head of government, such as Aznar, believes that a proposal for reform such as Ibarretxe’s plan is “profoundly disloyal” and reeks of “unacceptable blackmail.”  The disconnect between these two political elites has only grown in recent years, and in a way the Ibarretxe plan was a logical culmination of years of divergence. In 1988, the PNV had aligned with all other Basque parties, save for the radical nationalists but including the PP and the Socialists, in signing the Pact of Ajuria-Enea which denounced ETA as illegitimate and called on it to disarm before any dialogue could advance.  Despite providing its vote to Aznar’s minority PP government in 1996, the PNV completed a nationalist turn in 1998 when it aligned with other nationalist parties – most notably the radical nationalists (Herri Batasuna, HB, which was ETA’s political front) and their associations – in signing the Pact of Lizarra which sought pan-nationalist dialogue open to all actors (including ETA) on all aspects of the Basque question (including the radical nationalists’ agenda), though in the absence of violence.  The ETA declared a cease-fire in September 1998, but because the Pact of Lizarra – a purely nationalist affair – could not truly engage dialogue with the Spanish state, ETA broke its cease-fire in November 1999.

   Concomitant to the radicalization of the Basque nationalist discourse and the PNV’s new strategy of accommodating or attracting support from the radical nationalists, the two national parties – the PP and the Socialists – moved closer together. In the 2001 Basque elections, they both made clear that they would form a governing coalition in the eventuality of a non-nationalist majority coming out of the polls.  In that same election, the PP, which in the Basque Country took the most stringently anti-nationalist and anti-ETA line there could be, became the second most voted party with 23% support, a sign of the polarization of the Basque electorate.  The policies pursued by the Aznar government following the 2000 election where it won an absolute majority served to further polarize Basque public opinion and radicalize the nationalist discourse as Aznar’s actions against regional nationalisms fed the nationalist rhetoric.

   A question on which the two ideologies clash in a way which renders them incompatible with one another is on the question of nationhood and self-determination. The Spanish constitution of 1978, while, in a compromise with the forces of peripheral nationalism, recognized “historical nationalities” such as the Basques, also spoke of the “indissoluble unity Spanish Nation, the common and indivisible homeland of all Spaniards” and affirmed in its first section that national sovereignty belonged exclusively to the “Spanish people.” 
The Ibarretxe plan with its concept of an asymmetrical confederation was a major challenge to the traditional conception of the nation-state and its notions of uniformity. According to Keating and Bray, the Ibarretxe plan’s vision of the plurinational state created a state where the meaning of nationality differs from region to region (the Basque Country, for example, would see the Spanish and Basque nations co-exist; but Castile would likely adhere to a single Spanish identity, concomitant with the Spanish state).  Keating and Bray also argued that Ibarretxe’s proposal, instead of being harboured in archaic conceptions of sovereignty as Zapatero argued, was instead part of an ambitious new idea of “post-sovereignty” where there could be many different sources of authority (the EU, the nation, the central state) rather than a single source, emanating from a constitution, as in traditional definitions.  Some of the plan’s more controversial proposals, such as a Basque nationality concurrent to the Spanish one, are examples of such ‘post-sovereignty’ theories which challenged the traditional view of sovereignty and the nation-states by seeking to de-emphasize physical borders and shifting the locus of sovereignty.

Although the Socialists, especially under Zapatero, are more open to the notion of a multinational Spain, the PP, with its deep adherence to the constitution’s word, has been very reticent of recognizing any other ‘nation’ in Spain than the Spanish one. All Spanish governments have tended towards symmetry in the Spanish federal structure,  but the PP more stridently so. Mariano Rajoy, then-leader of the opposition, was infinitely clear in this regard in his speech against the Ibarretxe plan in the Spanish parliament. The PP leader said that “in Spain, like the constitution recognizes, there are no more nations than the Spanish one” and that there was only “a single ensemble of citizens legitimated to elaborate a constitution, the whole of Spaniards.”  In the PP’s constitutionalist tradition, Rajoy also denied the PNV’s claim about the “right to decide” of the Basque people, saying that “all Spaniards have the right to decide their present and their future, in the same way that all Spaniards, the Basques included, have the right to decide about the future of Murcia or of Melilla.”  In this emblematic phrase, he merged the Basque Country (or Basque nation, for nationalists) into the same category as the tiny city-state of Melilla or the unremarkable region of Murcia, a sign of Rajoy and the PP’s view of Spain as being a single nation, a nation-state, which the PNV and other regional nationalists deny.

At the other end of the spectrum, the PNV and the Basque nationalist community have long clamoured for the recognition of their right to self-determination. The absence of such recognition prevented the PNV and other nationalists from supporting the 1978 constitution. The Basque nationalist community claims that the Basque provinces never gave up their autonomy, rather they signed a foral agreement with the Spanish crown hundreds of years ago, a foral tradition which insinuated shared sovereignty and some type of contract between the Basques and the crown. These ‘historic rights’ were recognized by the Spanish constitution, but debate ensues over whether they were original, inalienable rights or simply gifts of the fathers of the constitution.  The Ibarretxe plan, with its idea of an asymmetrical relationship in a plurinational state and of co-sovereignty, is close to this foral tradition in which the PNV is strongly rooted.  Recognizing the Basque people’s right to self-determination would be unacceptable for the Spanish political class, because it could insinuate a right to secession. One of the Ibarretxe plan’s controversial sections, article 13, gave the Basque government the right to hold referendums in the democratic exercise of the Basque people’s right to decide, perhaps on matters including secession.

The Ibarretxe plan did not fail as much because of its content, but it failed in part because of what it symbolized. The plan’s radical new concepts of post-sovereignty, plurinationalism and asymmetrical power relations represented a challenge to the legitimacy of the Spanish constitution and the fundamental principles it embodies such as the single Spanish nation-state and the Spanish people as the sole source of sovereignty.
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« Reply #2 on: March 13, 2012, 01:37:04 pm »
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Zapatero’s justice minister, Juan Fernando López Aguilar, criticized Ibarretxe for speaking of the Basque people as a homogeneous entity, when it was in fact a “plural society.”  López Aguilar was correct in his observations, and what he noted was the third reason for the Ibarretxe plan’s failure. The Basque Country is indeed a plural society where the views of the Basque nationalist community about the territory’s future are not shared by all Basques. Roughly one-third of the Basque population are working-class immigrants from the rest of Spain or have at least one immigrant parent.  Given that voting is often a function of origin and class,  the presence of such a large segment of the population which is not native to the region means that there is no homogeneous ‘nationalist majority’ in the region. Surveys have shown an electorate divided into a core nationalist group, staunch supporters of Spain and an ambivalent group whose identification evolves according to circumstances and which prefers political discourses not based on identity boundaries.  In theory, there is broad popular support for vague nationalistic propositions such as the right of the Basque people to decide its own future and the need for the inclusion of all actors,  yet on the Ibarretxe plan support was far from overwhelming and often split along partisan lines.

In a certain way, the Ibarretxe plan was in reality always more of a symbolic proposal, presented by the PNV with the political aim of seizing the initiative on the Basque question and attracting radical nationalists to the PNV on the basis of an unambiguously nationalist project such as the Ibarretxe plan.  Opponents of the plan, especially the Socialists, criticized the plan as being an exclusive, unilateral project created “by nationalists, for nationalists.”  In their article, Keating and Bray explored the reactions of Basque citizens to the plan, and opponents were often suspicious of the plan as being nothing more than a nationalist agenda, which excluded those who did not identify with Basque nationalism. Both the PP and Socialists decried the plan as divisive, aimed at pitting Basques against Basques and discriminating against opponents of Basque nationalism by branding them as “anti-Basque.”  The plan’s very origin in a nationalist front rendered it suspicious to many, and their suspicions turned into clear opposition as Basque nationalist actors from the PNV and other parties reinforced the cleavages through use of rhetoric which excluded and shunned opponents of the plan.

The Ibarretxe plan received a cool reception from the non-nationalist voters in the Basque Country, again not because of its technical content but because of its symbolism, what it embodied and the context in which it was placed. However, even within the single nationalist community, the plan ended up symbolizing many things. The PNV; despite Ibarretxe claiming he was always extending a hand, not a fist, in his proposal; used strong nationalist language in support its agenda, in a bid to attract support from radical nationalists, but in doing so it also worked to deepen the existing cleavages and opened the plan up to criticism from opponents as being exclusivist. The PNV’s coalition partner, the more clearly separatist and left-leaning Eusko Alkartasuna (EA) supported the plan as the “first step” towards the “final objective of Basque independence.”  On the other hand, the PNV’s other coalition partner; the non-nationalist Basque referent of the pan-Spanish United Left (EB) supported the plan as a project for “self-determination” for the Basque Country, but in the context of a federal Spain.  Thus, even the plan’s three partisan upholders – the PNV, EA and EB – all disagreed, to an extent, on what the plan represented – a first step to secession or self-determination within a plurinational Spain?

When the Basque legislature ratified the plan by a narrow one-vote majority, it was done thanks to the support of three (out of six) representatives from Batasuna, ETA’s political wing. The radical nationalists had been divided over the plan, which they officially opposed for not going nearly as far as they wanted and simply re-enforcing the status-quo of the Statute of Autonomy.  The radical nationalists had always been wary of the PNV, which it traditionally views as the vehicle of the Catholic Basque establishment which has no real intention of challenging the status-quo.  However, perhaps fearing backlash from its nationalist base, Batasuna’s six representatives opted to split their votes, with three members voting in favour of the plan in the Basque legislature – thereby ratifying it. It claimed that it cast three ‘yes’ votes in favour of self-determination and a popular consultation of Basque voters; and cast three ‘no’ votes signifying opposition to a plan which does not resolve the conflict and which is a statute reform in disguise.

Following the rejection of his plan by the Spanish parliament in early 2005, the lehendakari opted to take the plan to the Basque people by calling an early regional election in April 2005. In an election billed as a referendum on the plan, the PNV’s expectations of winning an absolute majority which could have put the plan back on track were dashed. The governing PNV lost votes and four seats, falling quite short of a majority.   It was the local Socialist party, which had taken the most moderate discourse in opposition to the plan and proposed an ‘inclusive’ statute reform which would define the Basque Country as a “national community”, which gained the most out of the ballot boxes.  The PNV’s underwhelming performance in the April 2005 regional election marked the end for the Ibarretxe plan, but the election also showed the lack of unity in the Basque Country over the plan in particular and over the plan’s broader goals of self-determination and ‘right to decide’. This lack of unity prevented the plan from being presented as the inclusive plan supported by a clear majority of Basques against the opposition of the Spanish political elites.

The Ibarretxe plan was the most significant challenge to the principles embodied in the Spanish constitution of 1978 and would have been a ground-breaking constitutional reform in the broader international context of federalism had it succeeded. The plan’s ultimate demise was not, however, primarily because of its technical content but rather because of its theoretical footings, which challenged several key sacrosanct principles of the Spanish constitution; and the context it was presented in, one of political polarization with the lingering shadow of ETA’s terrorism. Ultimately, a growing disconnect between the Spanish and Basque nationalist political elites; their two competing but incompatible ideologies; and finally a lack of unity behind the plan or its embodied principles in the Basque Country led to the plan’s failure. The way in which the plan was presented by various political actors, either as akin to treasonous separatism (for the PP) or as an insufficient faux reform upholding the status-quo (for radical nationalists), twisted the debate and prevented the little chances the plan had at success or even sparking debate on Basque self-government. The Ibarretxe plan, in the context of federalism, speaks volumes about the primordial role of context, symbolism and abstract concepts in debates concerning constitutional reform in federations.
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« Reply #3 on: March 13, 2012, 01:40:38 pm »
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