Today Spain’s president Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero receives the president of the regional Basque government, Juan Jose Ibarretxe, in the Moncloa in Madrid. This is the second time Zapatero receives Ibarretxe in his official residence since he became president, although this meeting is expected to be more tense than the first.
Just before the New Year the Basque regional parliament narrowly voted in favour of the “Ibarretxe Plan” which was designed by the regional president during the last Popular Party government to upgrade existing autonomy in the Basque region and eventually achieve “free association” status.
The plan is considered by all mainstream Spanish political parties to be unconstitutional, and the fact that it was passed in the Basque parliament thanks to the votes of some of the political wing of the terrorist group ETA has added wide indignation to what was already firm rejection of the initiative throughout the rest of Spain.
The Basque government’s next move is to take the plan to the Spanish national parliament where it will be debated (and, inevitably rejected by a great majority).
The Popular Party have criticised the fact that the Basque plan is even going to be debated, since it is considered to be inconstitutional anyway. The Socialists argue that one of the roles of parliament in a democracy is to debate all major political issues, and if a political party with representation in parliament requests a debate, then there is no constitutional reason to refuse. Zapatero said yesterday that the proper way to defeat the plan is by democratic debate and arguments – “this is the greatness of a free system”.
Ibarretxe on the other hand has warned that he will not let the Spanish parliament override the will of the Basque people if they back his plan in a referendum.
And the pro-autonomy Catalan Republican Left (ERC), have warned that its representatives in national parliament might withdraw support from the national government unless the government starts negotiating the terms of the plan with the Basque government. The popular party call the whole thing the biggest challenge to national unity since Spain’s transition to democracy in 1978.
Meanwhile, the Spanish president has announced his intention to express his total opposition to the plan when he meets with Ibarretxe this morning and to underline the “illegality” of the whole process. Last week King Juan Carlos made an appeal for unity and respect for the constitution which “allows Spain to progress united, in democracy and in freedom”, and yesterday the association of Basque businessmen announced their opposition to increased autonomy.
The Spanish government is in a difficult position. While it accepts the desire of a majority in the Basque Region and Catalonia for greater independence and is committed to debating constitutional change, the Basque government’s plan means that national government has lost the chance to lead a process of change based on consensus and constitutionality. In this sense it is difficult to predict where the solution lies and it will be very interesting to see how Spain’s president tackles this one.