February 28, 2024

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Home » Content » The Catalan entanglement seen from the Basque oasis
The roles of Basque and Catalan nationalism have been reversed: stability is now in the Basque Country. Ortuzar: "Catalonia must turn the page, it needs a government that manages and at the same time finds a way out of the procés.” ”Basque nationalism is a thousand times more pragmatic”: Unai Sordo union leader. "Basque citizens want more self-government because they believe it is being managed well. Catalonia has spent years focusing more on the procés than on management. In the midst of a pandemic, this is difficult to defend”: Manuel Chaves Nogales. “Ten years ago, the PNV in the Basque Country understood that tensions in Basque society were leading to disaster. CiU in Catalonia took the opposite path.”: Enrique Portocarrero, Circle of Basque Entrepreneurs. “The Catalan independence movement has been completely irresponsible in adopting the unilateral path without the necessary support”. "Spanish politics has not been up to the task: the 'procés' activated a Spanish nationalism that justifies the repressive and intransigent reactions of the State”: Andoni Ortuzar, president of PNV. Unai Sordo, from Bizkaia, leader of the CC OO and a connoisseur of Basque socio-politics, stresses that Catalan separatism "entered into a populist moment until the move got out of hand; the PNV moved away from that path when it glimpsed that some trade unions were tempted to do so.”


BILBAO – 14 FEB 2021 – 09:40 CET

Oriol Junqueras and Arnaldo Otegi, during their speech at an ERC election rally in Girona on 7 February. DAVID BORRAT / EFE

A good report on 14-F should begin in Queralbs, the Pujol family’s summer village in the Pyrenees, not far from Andorra. Or in the vicinity of Plaça Francesc Macià, in Barcelona’s Eixample, near the headquarters of La Vanguardia, the newspaper that for a time seemed to sponsor the Catalan bourgeoisie’s journey from seny (sanity) to rauxa (madness). Or Diagonal below, in the towers of La Caixa, which after a long silence ended up doing something that the Anglo-Saxons define as voting with your feet: it went to Valencia. And yet this report begins near the titanium plates of the Guggenheim: on the Bilbao estuary, a mirror image of the vanished Catalan oasis. In Sabin Etxea, the historic headquarters of the PNV: in the austere office of its president, Andoni Ortuzar, the man without whom almost nothing moves in the Basque Country. From Bilbao, the Catalan elections are viewed with attentive disinterest: after the noise of the Ibarretxe Plan and the end of ETA, pacts and stability are on the rise in Basque politics: society has shunned adventurism and has also found economic stability (within the pandemic mess) and influence in Madrid.

It is not easy to tell the story of Catalonia from the Basque Country: the path is full of odious comparisons, of distorting or even broken mirrors. Businessmen and trade unions, abertzales and former leaders of the PP and PSOE, spokespersons of the Basque Executive and nationalist deputies in Madrid, sociologists and political scientists parade through this piece: a dozen sources conclude that Catalonia and the Basque Country are two clocks that do not keep the same time, and underline that their roles have been reversed. Twenty-five years ago, José Antonio Ardanza reproached Jordi Pujol with a “haughty touch” when he referred to the Basque Country; now Basque leaders do everything they can to avoid this haughty touch, but sometimes it does appear. Twenty-five years ago, Catalonia was a haven of political stability, with a thriving industrial economy and a powerful influence on Madrid: these are, in a small bottle – the GDP and population of the Basque Country are roughly a third of Catalonia’s – the aromas that Basque politics exudes in the vicinity of the estuary.

“Spanish politics has not been up to the task: the ‘procés’ activated a Spanish nationalism that justifies the repressive and intransigent reactions of the State”. ANDONI ORTUZAR, PNV PRESIDENT

Economically, Catalonia is far from being the Titanic that some predicted: the industrial decline is evident – with Nissan as the archetype of the crash – and the flight of hundreds of companies has done a lot of damage, but the Catalan economy is still powerful, although the Covid (and its effects on sectors such as tourism, fundamental for Catalonia) has done even more damage than the procés and instability. Catalonia has been punching below its weight lately, while the opposite is true of the Basque Country, partly because of the economic agreement, partly because of socio-political stability, which will come up again and again in the next few paragraphs. The income per inhabitant of the Basques amounts to some 34,000 euros a year: 10% more than that of the Catalans. Unemployment in Catalonia is around 14%, almost four points higher than in the Basque Country. The Catalan administration is much more indebted; the vast majority of socio-economic indicators reflect an anaemia that goes hand in hand with the management deficits accumulated over the last five years and which contrasts with the clear horizon of the Basque economy. This is expressed in indicators that go beyond the strictly economic. The management of the pandemic has yielded mediocre results; Catalonia is the sixth autonomous region with the highest number of deaths per inhabitant, according to excess mortality, in a country with one of the worst figures in the world; the Basque Country, on the other hand, is not doing so well on that front either. But this report is not a profit and loss account: it is a look at the Catalan mess from Euskadi: from its parties, from the institutions and from civil society.

Bilbao: Ortuzar, to the point

“Spanish politics has not been up to the task: the procés has activated a Spanish nationalism that justifies the repressive and intransigent reactions of the state”. Andoni Ortuzar offers a coffee, sits behind a solid table and fires off headlines with disarming ease. He does not mince his words. He does not hide his sympathies for sovereignism, but there is also firewood for Barcelona: “In the management of the procés, short-termism has prevailed; in Barcelona there was a struggle for hegemony that was wrapped in flags and symbols, and in Madrid Catalonia was used to turn the Congress into a theme park for political confrontation with no qualms about using a justice system that has not been able to make the transition that the other powers of the State have done. Rajoy renounced any kind of political approach to this mess and in the most tense moments used force or justice or a combination of both, with a climate of exalted opinion”. “The Catalan political class subcontracted the procés on the street. The leaders got behind the demonstration after the Diadas 10 years ago. It was strange to see the bourgeoisie on the streets, because of the combination of a feeling of grievance that comes from the brushing over of the Statute, Madrid ens roba (Madrid rob us) and the clumsiness of the state. But this preponderance of activism over politics got out of hand”.

Ortuzar stresses that Basque nationalism never embraced unilateralism. “We may like the rules more or less, but we abide by them”. And he outlines other differences. “The main one is ETA: with ETA killing, we could not be blinded by the situation, as Catalonia did. The second is that the PNV never subcontracted political action on the streets. The third is that we never had the aspiration to modernise Spain because of our size, and therefore we never had the frustration of the Catalans, because we Basques expected little from the State. But the fundamental thing is that the Basque Country knows very well how the State acts when it sets its mind to it: it closes newspapers, bans parties and uses the judiciary as a battering ram, not to mention worse things. The Catalans thought that Madrid would not dare to respond to this response: they were wrong, and we warned them”.

“The Catalan independence movement has been completely irresponsible in adopting the unilateral path without the necessary support”. ENRIQUE PORTOCARRERO, CIRCLE OF BASQUE ENTREPRENEURS

“After crossing the Rubicon of unilateralism, what followed was a foregone conclusion”, he recalls. Ortuzar dissociates himself from the all-or-nothing pro-independence movement, and his party has supported – with a small mouth – the PDeCAT. But the recent past is viewed with a certain – only a certain – discomfort: “The parties did not measure well, perhaps they lacked the leadership and the sense of institutionality that the PNV knew how to have at key moments: when Congress slammed the door on the Ibarretxe Plan and the Constitutional Court threw it out, we went to elections; Puigdemont went ahead”. And the future? “The day after the elections, Catalonia has to let go of ballast. It needs a government that makes two things compatible: to manage once and for all and to find ways of dialogue to channel the political conflict. A good part of Basques and Catalans feel Basque and Catalan, full stop. I have nothing against Spain, but I feel Basque: how can we articulate a formula for coexistence for the next 10 or 20 years in view of the fact that coffee for all has ruined the constitutional pact? How?” he asks.

Vitoria (and Madrid)

Vitoria does not have the airs and graces of Bilbao, but even semi-confined, it is a charming city with a lot of charm. At the headquarters of the Basque government, the government spokesman, Bingen Zupiria, made a speech in which he highlighted two contrasts between Catalonia and the Basque Country. “ETA’s violence is so obvious that there is no need to explain it: fear marks the politics or non-politics of those years of lead and also the subsequent phase. When ETA is dissolved, Basque society continues to be nationalist, but it no longer tolerates adventures”. The second contrast is “the institutionalised way of doing politics” in the Basque Country, with a PNV “full of counterweights, which has the role that CiU once played”. The PNV took more or less the opposite path to that of Pujol’s party: “After Ibarretxe, the PNV lost power: Basque society punished instability. It is a time of very serious crisis, including an economic one. Iñigo Urkullu managed to come to an agreement with the socialists, and together with the end of ETA, this created the framework of stability in which we find ourselves. Moments of serious crisis require powerful leaderships. Catalan politics abused rhetorical stratagems and ceded leadership to the street: this would never have been allowed by Ortuzar or Urkullu. Catalonia needs a turnaround, a catharsis, but that is not easy without calm, and even less so without strong leadership”.

Still in the PNV, Aitor Esteban, the party’s voice in Madrid, flatly rejects “playing mirror games between Catalonia and the Basque Country”. He is reluctant to give advice, but is committed to returning to dialogue after 14 February ‘without maximalist positions, in the knowledge that both sides have to give in’, and invites ‘to end up giving in without being afraid of criticism’, in a message addressed to the PSOE and the pro-independence movement. And he leaves a final reflection: “For me, the most surprising thing about the procés was the reading of the result of the referendum. The State applied 155 and gave the impression that no one was urging Catalonia to recover its institutions: that would have made the PNV move immediately. But we are not here to give lessons: we also screwed up in our day”.

The ‘abertzale’ point of view

Jon Iñarritu is a young EH Bildu deputy in Congress. His party goes hand in hand with ERC in what is known as the broad road to independence. In contrast to those who believe that the procés was a post-pujolism manoeuvre that ended with the former Convergència embracing unilateralism, Iñarritu puts the burden of proof on Madrid: “It was the state that took a unilateral stance in the face of successive proposals for dialogue; the independentistas responded by calling the consultation because they had that mandate from the elections. The state’s repressive response has been negative for Catalonia, but it has also damaged Spain’s image”, he said. Bildu’s leader, Arnaldo Otegi, has campaigned in Catalonia in favour of ERC: “Catalonia’s battle is also ours”. But in the Basque Country the distances are clear. “The Basque Country is in a different phase. There is no pro-independence process underway in the Basque Country: the PNV is on a different wave, and EH Bildu does not renounce independence but places the emphasis on the ideological axis, on left-wing proposals”, according to Iñarritu’s version. The solution? “To put an end to repressive measures, but this is a snowball that is difficult to stop: it is possible that the pro-independence parties have given in to pressure from the street, but the state has also left things in the hands of the justice system, and the Spanish justice system is as it is”.


Eduardo Madina, former PSOE deputy, arch-rival – in his day – of Pedro Sánchez, from a family of historic Basque socialist militants and victim of an ETA attack in 2002, affirms that both communities “are on two opposite paths”. “For decades, Basque society looked to Catalonia as a model of coexistence – the stability and influence of pujolismo, the drive of Pasqual Maragall, those Games, the bicapitality – while Euskadi was a lake of blood and a nest of fanatics.

“Ten years ago, the PNV understood that tensions in Basque society were leading to disaster. CiU took the opposite path”. BORJA SÉMPER (EXDIRIGENTE DEL PP VASCO)

Now the opposite is happening: “the Basque Country has drawn conclusions from its past and is obsessed with preserving its stability, and Catalonia has suspended the principle of reality and is living in the throes of a hallucinogenic fiction; Catalan nationalism miscalculated its own forces and those of the state, but is unable to get out of the film”. Euskadi is at a different stage: “30% of the census does not remember ETA. The PNV has opted to gobble up competences via the Statute, always guaranteeing the financing of these competences, something that Catalonia has never done: the agreement and Catalan financing are a key piece in this Meccano. Basque nationalism is in the midst of emptying the State in Euskadi through the Statute, while the Catalans choose the revolutionary path: they have not been able to see that there is another way, that of the Deusto graduates.

“And the so-called constitutionalist parties have not been able to adapt after the end of ETA: neither the PP nor the PSOE have a solid programme in the Basque Country”, he complains. Borja Sémper, former leader of the Basque PP, stresses that the divergent trajectories of CiU and PNV explain many things: “Ten years ago, the PNV understood that stressing Basque society would lead to disaster. CiU took the opposite path and veered from that strange balance between permanent demands and the pact with the state towards the road to nowhere of unilateralism. The decapitalisation of the Catalan political leadership and the hyperventilating reactions in Madrid have not helped either.

Socialist Ramón Jáuregui, a former minister in Madrid and vice-president of the Basque Country, admits from San Sebastián a “recalcitrant pessimism” about Catalonia. “I can’t understand how the Catalans decided to abandon the oasis to embark on an uncertain journey through the desert. And I fail to see a way out in a society that is 50% fractured, with activists setting the pace for the parties and the brutal tension that persists in large part because of the prisoners. “In the Basque Country, the end of ETA, with its democratic victory over terrorism, the PNV’s turnaround and the desire for stability in society made a turnaround possible; even the Basque nationalist world joined in. But in Catalonia the conditions are not right, everything is upside down; there is a lack of calm”, according to this brilliant analysis.

Trade unions and employers

Unai Sordo, from Bizkaia, leader of the CC OO and a connoisseur of Basque socio-politics, stresses that Catalan separatism “entered into a populist moment until the move got out of hand; the PNV moved away from that path when it glimpsed that some trade unions were tempted to do so”. “Basque nationalism is a thousand times more pragmatic”, he adds. But perhaps the group that is looking most closely at Barcelona at the moment is the business community. “It is very worrying that 19% of the Spanish economy has been in combustion for years,” says Enrique Portocarrero, director of the Basque Businessmen’s Circle. “The Catalan independence movement has been completely irresponsible in adopting the unilateral path without the necessary support. In the medium term, it is inevitable that the social movement that has sustained it will deflate. But we should all help to ensure that this medium term is as short as possible: Catalonia needs a government that governs”.


Braulio Gómez, director of Deustobarómetro, points out that the sociological profiles of the two societies are very different. “Independence has gone dormant in the Basque Country. Seventy per cent of the vote goes to nationalist parties and people want more self-government, but society shuns anything that sounds like a mess: not even the most coffee-loving people dream of independence in the short or even medium term; in Catalonia, sovereignty has less support, around 50 per cent, and yet there are more people who want independence, and they want it as soon as possible”. The polls, moreover, show that Catalonia “does not interest the Basques”. “Neither now, with the elections, nor in the most tense phase, did the Basque public believe that the procés would get anywhere”. And Madrid? “The motion of censure against Rajoy suited the PNV perfectly: it has supported the PSOE in exchange for competences, has gained influence and has generated a narrative that works, because in this way it contains the far-right bloc: support has no costs at home, as was once the case with CiU”. Political scientist Cristina Ruiz Bujedo adds that “the romantic sensibility of Basque nationalism vanished because of terrorism, but it still has strength in Catalonia. However, fatigue is starting to set in, even more so with the pandemic. The desire for independence is losing steam in favour of more mundane demands: people want better management.

Coda: Chaves Nogales and Josep Pla

“Separatism is a rare substance used in the political laboratories of Madrid as a reagent of patriotism, and in Catalonia as a binder of conservatives”, wrote Manuel Chaves Nogales 85 years ago in ¿Qué pasa en Cataluña? “Between one demonstration and another, someone should govern”, he added in a text that is still as fresh as a daisy. The eternal question was asked by Josep Pla a long, long time ago: “Tot això qui ho paga? [All this, who’s paying for it? At the end of his chat with this newspaper in Sabin Etxea, Andoni Ortuzar leaves, in his own way, a similar question in the air: “Basque citizens want more self-government because they believe it is being managed well. Catalonia has spent years focusing more on the procés than on management. In the midst of a pandemic, this is difficult to defend”.



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