Peoples and nations today: Basque Country

DOSSIER. The Basque Country stretches far beyond the current territory known as Euskadi or Basque Autonomous Community. Euskal Herria –literally, “the country of the Basque language”– is divided into 7 territories: Biscay, Guipuzcoa, Alava and Navarre, all of them under Spanish rule, and Low Navarre, Lapurdi and Zuberoa or Iparralde, under French administration. The coining of the famous pro-Basque slogan Zazpiak bat (the seven ones [are] one), which calls for the unification of the Basque nation beyond state borders, was due to such administrative division.

Basque or euskara is a pre-Indo-European language which shares no links with other languages, and so remains isolated from other language families known. It is currently spoken by around 1 million people, a third of the population of the Basque Country. It is not commonly used in most of the Alava (Araba) province, the southern half of Navarre and some areas of Iparralde (French Basque Country). Its legal status varies depending on the ruling administration. In Euskadi (Basque autonomous community consisting of Alava, Biscay and Guipuzcoa provinces) enjoys co-official status alongside Castilian/Spanish. In Navarre Basque only has official status in Basque-speaking areas (mainly the northern half). It lacks official recognition in Lower Navarre, Lapurdi and Zuberoa.

As regards education, there is Basque-medium schooling in Euskadi and the Basque-speaking territories of Navarre. However, teaching in Basque in the French side is limited to a few private schools called ikastolak.

Basque is usually classified as a language in danger of extinction, although it is experiencing a gradual increase in the number of speakers. As UNESCO's on-line atlas of endangered languagespoints out, Basque has a significant number of speakers -approximately 700,000 as their mother tongue and 300,000 as a second language- but its use is limited to certain domains. According to United Nations Cultural Educational and Scientific and Cultural Organisation, Basque has become an "unsafe language" in terms of vitality, in comparison to a "definitely endangered" former state. The improvement can be explained by the increasing number of children learning and speaking the language.

Political and social demands for greater self-government and independence are also common to the seven territories. Still, the lack of a Basque administrative framework in territories under French rule has hindered the participation of Basque parties in French institutions. In fact, the three territories forming Iparralde or the Basque Country under French rule do not form an administrative unit, but are part of the department of thePyrénées-Atlantiques together with the Gascon-Occitan territory of Bearn. That is why most of the representation hold by Basque nationalist parties is not concentrated in the Regional Council, but in municipalities instead. The strongest party is Abertzaleen Batasuna, a left pro-independence party close to Aralar in Hegoalde (Southern Basque Country). It governs 15 towns and has 1 regional councilor: Jean-Michel Galant, from Saint-Étienne-de-Baïgorry. Euzko Alderdi Jeltzalea - Parti National Basque (Basque Nationalist Party) also has town councilors and several mayors in Iparralde, but holds no seats in the Regional Council.

Finally, it is worth mentioning 2 other political forces with rather modest election performances in the North, which attract, though, a large portion of vote in the South: Batasuna, a far-left pro-independence coalition that is still banned in Spain, and Eusko Alkartasuna, pro-independence social-democrats.

In Navarre, Basque nationalism is represented by the Nafarroa Bai (Navarre Yes) coalition, comprising the Basque Nationalist Party and pro-independence parties EA, Aralar and Batzarre, as well as several independent members. It is the second largest political force in the Navarre's parliament, holding 12 seats out of 50.

In Euskadi, Basque nationalism lost majority in 2009 parliamentary elections, partly due to the ban on far-left pro-independence political representation. For the first time after Franco's death Spanish nationalist forces (Socialist Party of Euskadi, Popular Party and Union, Progress and Democracy) add up to more than half of the parliamentary seats. EAJ-PNV, the hegemonic force in Parliament, holds 30 seats out of a total of 75. Aralar polled 4 and EA only 1. Ezker Batua Berdeak, Green leftists that defend a free federation with Spain, also obtained 1 seat.

Prior to the Basque parliamentary elections, the Spanish judiciary banned D3M and Askatasuna, lists of candidates that aspired to replace the illegalized Communist Party of the Basque Lands (9 seats during the 2005-2009 term) and attract the vote of the far-left pro-independence electorate. The Spanish Supreme Court outlawed both lists for belonging "to the entourage of ETA and Batasuna". The leftist patriots then asked their supporters to opt for a void vote, a choice that obtained 100,000 ballots -8% of the Basque electorate.

Imatge: Giant ikurriña -the basque flag- displayed during San Fermín festival in 2008 (Galtzagorri Mendietan).