Tension is mounting in the arm-wrestling going on between Madrid and the Basques, whose leader Juan José Ibarretxe has underlined the primacy of the region’s parliament over central government. On December 30 his plan for a “free association” status with Spain, amounting to full independence was passed. Confrontation is now inevitable, but Ibarrexte has issued a warning to Spain’s prime minister; “If we are not open to negotiation of this plan how can we sort this out? With fisticuffs?” he said.
Since Franco’s death three Spanish regions have gained wide-ranging autonomous powers but the Basques have relentlessly pushed for more. Ibarretxe insists they will not be denied; “The will of Basque society will not be subservient to the Popular and Socialist parties’ anti-terrorist alliance in the Spanish parliament,” he declared.
Prime Minister Zapatero met the Basque leader shortly after taking power, and will phone him on Friday to set a date for formal talks on the plan, but he has already issued a warning of his own; “In our democracy we can do anything and discuss anything, but always within the framework of the constitution. Outside it, nothing”, he said.
Ibarretxe intends to put his plan to a referendum vote, which is illegal under Spanish law, and would have meant his going to jail under the previous Aznar government. The result of the vote is non-binding, but it would be a clear indicator of the two point one million Basques’ resolution to stand behind their leader, or not. When the plan was approved in parliament moderate and radical Basque nationalists rose as one in applause.