Basque Independence, parliamentary debate.

The President of the Basque Regional Government visited Madrid yesterday to outline his plan, the Ibarretxe Plan, for increased Basque autonomy from Spain. President Ibarretxe aims to change the Spanish constitution inside out – from regional government inwards, rather than from central government outwards.

Ever since the transition to democracy in Spain, the claim of a percentage of the Basque population for greater autonomy has been heard in national and regional parliamentary debates and, of course, in the acts of terrorism carried out by the Basque terrorist group ETA.

Even though today’s debate was labeled as a waste of time by some of Spain’s parliamentary groups, notably the Popular Party, the fact that the Spanish government was prepared for the Basque nationalist government’s ruling party to come to Madrid and to explain its independence plan to national parliament, and the fact that all political parties agreed to attend the debate and, in the end, spent most of the day, evening and part of the night in Congress debating the very essence of the Spanish constitution is an indication of both the strength and also the naivity of the Spanish democratic system.

In theory the Basque Regional Government is prevented by Spanish Law from extending its own powers, which is what it wants to do. So, in theory, a debate held in national parliament to discuss a plan which has no legal ground to stand on has no raison d’être. Spain’s President José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero began his speech today with the words “if we live together, then together we must make decisions” and surely this has to be valid in any plural democracy.

The Basque country has to find ways of putting proposals forward which do not violate Spanish law. And if Spain is to ultimately defeat Basque terrorism, the Spanish government has to find a way of opening the door to democratic debate of constitutional reform, and find ways of reconciling its belief in the need for a strong central Spanish government with demands for greater autonomy powers coming from the Basque Country (and Catalonia of course).

At the same time, the Spanish government is right to reject illegal plans such as the Ibarrexte plan, and wise to open the door to further debate as President Rodriguez Zapatero did yesterday.

If yestoday’s debate in the Spanish congress proves to be the first step towards listening to Basque regionalist claims rather than pointedly ignoring them, then surely this is a positive move towards strengthening a plural state in which all voices are heard but none is allowed to impose its opinion over any other.

The strength of any democracy lies in its ability to listen to and discuss polemical ideas and avoid resorting to simply insulting the proposals of political adversaries. Spanish political party representatives from all sides, to their credit, managed to do this yestoday.

The question most newspapers ask this morning is “Now what?”.

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