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Train on the Move to Unite Basques, Scots and Catalans

Demonstrators in the village of Beasain, halfway along the 123-km long human chain “for the right to decide”. Credit: Karlos Zurutuza/IPS

BEASAIN, Spain, Jun 9 2014 (IPS) - “Around 150,000 showed up to claim that we, Basques, want to decide the future of this country,” Urtzi Urrutikoetxea, journalist, writer and member of the Basque people’s organisation Gure Esku Dago (GED), told IPS after on the 123-kilometre long human chain “for the right to decide” organised Sunday.

“This is just the beginning of a train that will link the Basque Country with both Scotland and Catalonia,“ said the Basque intellectual.

“Initially we thought we´d be done with 50,000 so it is definitely been a huge success,” he noted, referring to the number of demonstrators that lined up holding hands between Durango and Pamplona, respectively 418 and 450 km north of Madrid.

Gure Esku Dago, which stands for “It lies in our hands” in the Basque language, was set up in June 2013 as a platform which, according to Urrutikoetxea, “vows to serve as an umbrella organisation for local initiatives aimed at the activation and citizen support for the right to decide of the Basques.”

"We cannot but adhere to an initiative that is rooted in the most fundamental right to decide within a democracy. And this is the very basic point where both Spanish and Basque nationalists should come together" – Laura Mintegi, Basque MP

The Basque people have their own language and culture and live on both sides of the Pyrenees. Theirs is a territory divided into different political-administrative organisations: the Basque Autonomous Community and the Chartered Community of Navarre in Spain, and three provinces in France. Their total population is estimated at about three million. Well over two-thirds live in the Basque Autonomous Community.

Alongside several trade unions and social agents, the two main political forces in the Basque Parliament, the right-wing Basque Nationalist Party (PNV) and the left-wing Euskal Herria Bildu – with 27 and 21 seats respectively of the 75 in the Basque chamber – supported the demonstration.

“The citizenship has remained expectant for too many years, trying to figure out what the political parties´ next moves would be. Today they have lost the fear to remain ignored and unheard so they have decided to take the initiative,” Laura Mintegi, Basque MP and Parliamentary spokesperson for Euskal Herria Bildu, told IPS.

Mintegi summed up the reasons behind her group joining the human chain: “We cannot but adhere to an initiative that is rooted in the most fundamental right to decide within a democracy. And this is the very basic point where both Spanish and Basque nationalists should come together.”

But key actors such as the Popular Party (PP) – Spain´s ruling party – are still far from following suit. Laura Garrido holds one of the ten seats the conservative coalition has in the Basque chamber, where the Popular Party is the fourth force.

The 43-year-old MP labelled the Basque nationalist parties´ attitude as “disruptive”, while she accused them of “fostering instability.”

“Theirs is a dangerous challenge to the established order. Far from uniting the Basques, it only encourages confrontation among us,” Garrido told IPS.

Asked about the reasons for her party preventing a vote on independence, the conservative political leader was categorical:

“The Spanish Constitution does not provide any such legal instruments, so a referendum of this kind is simply not a feasible option.”

The “Basque nationalists versus Spanish constitutionalists” equation may not coincide with today´s national political scenario. Even members of the opposition Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE) and other left-wing Spanish parties have publicly showed support for Sunday´s demonstration.

Gemma Zabaleta, who served form many years as a Minister of Employment and Social Affairs in the Basque Government, has repeatedly stated that she would not favour an independent Basque Country, and that she would like to defend her position in a plebiscite.

“It is, by far, the most democratic, healthiest and most clarifying formula. Hampering such a referendum only boosts nationalist feelings even further,” said Zabaleta during a conference last April.

But perhaps one of the biggest arguments to refute the thesis that a referendum lies exclusively in the agenda of Basque nationalist sectors is the call on the citizenship to participate in the human chain by the Podemos (“We can”) political party, created in March this year by Spanish leftist activists.

Only three months after it was registered as a political party, Podemos won five seats in the European Parliament elections on May 25. Their arrival in the Spanish political arena has been spectacular and many political analysts see them as the outcome of the so called “Indignants´ movement”, which led a series of massive protests in demand of radical changes in Spanish politics back in 2011.

“The right of the peoples of Europe to become a state, provided that´s the citizenship´s will, is clearly stated in our political programme,” Carolina Bescansa, head of Podemos’ Unit of Political Analysis told IPS.

“The right of the people to decide on their future is not a nationalist claim, but a purely democratic demand,” insisted Bescansa, a professor of Political Science who calls for an “urgent restoration of democracy and participation lost at the hands of the ruling oligarchy in Spain.”

Public disenchantment with key institutions formed in the 1970s after a four-decade long dictatorship is, indeed, widespread in Spain after long and deep economic crisis, and an endless list of corruption scandals.

Also touched by the latter, Spanish king Juan Carlos I abdicated on June 2 after a 39-year reign, so the Spanish Government is currently working around the clock over the coronation of Philip VI. Meanwhile, thousands keep marching across the country for the abolition of the monarchy that was reinstated in 1975.

The next crucial date on the agenda will likely be November 9, when 7.5 million Catalans will hold a referendum over independence from Spain. The plebiscite date was announced by Catalan President Artur Mas in December 2013, only three months after a massive human chain criss-crossed Catalonia

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