From the beginning, the position of both states was to completely deny the conflict, either by omission or by de-legitimising it, for instance by stating that Basque claims corresponded to privileges that the state could not accept under any circumstances. The controversy over the characterisation of Basque claims as being ‘privileges’ is one of the most highly debated themes in the literature on the Basque conflict. Proponents of Spanish and French nationalism have argued in one of two ways: either by denying the claim completely because the Basques have no right to specific privileges and it would be a comparative disadvantage for other regions; or by reducing the issue to a mere decentralisation claim, which should partly be valid for other regions as well, and later opposing the national nature of the claim, because that would mean a comparative disadvantage for other regions.

The first position has been the predominant one. Defenders of Castilian unity argued in their writings from the 17th to 19th centuries that the fueros of the Basque provinces were a reward from the king and therefore were subject to the royal will. Now that the middle ages and their territorial dispersion had been left behind, the new Castilian kingdom should be based on unity both in the territorial and political-legal spheres.

Following the French Revolution, any attempts to preserve the old institutions and customs against the uniformity movement were constantly accused of trying to maintain the privileges of the aristocracy. Since the sovereign was no longer the king but the people, legalpolitical privileges were considered an offence not to the royal desires, but to the equality of all the people. Under this principle, France denied the very existence of the Basque Country by denying it any way of forming its own institutions. The argument of a unitary state and the equality of all its citizens, which is still used nowadays, leaves little room for conflict resolution, since it makes two assertions difficult to resolve: firstly, that all French citizens are compulsorily French and all Spanish citizens are compulsorily Spanish; and secondly, that there cannot be legal differences between Spanish citizens or between French citizens.

The second idea regarding particular regional rights is more recent, and it is a variation of the first one. It is specially included in the current Spanish constitution (1978), where Spain is declared to be a state of autonomies. This means that all regions in Spain must belong to an autonomy, regardless of their size. A slight difference is accepted between the so-called ‘historical autonomies’ (four, among them the Basque Country) and the rest, but minimum requirements are established for all autonomies, and above all, there is an upper limit that no autonomy can surpass: the sovereignty is based on the Spanish nation and it is indissoluble, so no one autonomy can claim more powers than those given by the state.7 The state of autonomies, as it is constructed, would ensure harmony between the Spanish regions and every attempt by the historic autonomies to achieve greater power represents an attack on such harmony and, therefore, would be poorly received by the other autonomies, which would feel a comparative disadvantage.
Either way, the theory of privilege turns out to be very sterile, because who would accept the fact that one party may have some privileges that the others do not? Agreements may only be reached by overcoming this conception of territorial differences concerning legal-political matters, and the predominance of this way of understanding the conflict has only served to drag it out further.

The creation of the new Basque resistance


7 A good example for this is the Spanish parliament’s opposition to even discussing the New Autonomy Proposal approved in the Basque Autonomous Community Parliament, which was completely rejected on 1st February 2005.