Even though more energy has been spent in fuelling the conflict by justifying each side’s position than in searching for solutions, there have been some attempts to find an exit to the Basque conflict. In addition to these, we must mention the two extreme possibilities, neither of which have been achieved so far: non-agreed independence, or total victory by the states.
The idea of non-agreed independence has materialised, especially, in moments when other intermediate proposals were deemed impossible. For instance, nationalist messages gained particular strength in the early 20th century under the Spanish dictatorship of Primo de Rivera, and also between 1936 and 1937, when the war left the army – and great amounts of power – in the hands of the Lehendakari (president of the Basque Country’s autonomous government), but only in the limited territories he controlled at that moment. Throughout those years, there were calls to proclaim independence, above all from the youth nationalist movement Jagi-Jagi. Finally, under Franco’s dictatorship the pro-independence proclamations increased. They first arose from the EAJ-PNV political party circles, who hoped for an allied victory in World War II, which might bring with it the downfall of Franco. Later, they came from ETA, who for some time proclaimed that revolution was the only way to obtain independence of the Basque Country. On the other side, these claims were met with total denial from the Spanish state, while the French state maintained a more cautious position, until recently, because Basque nationalism is far weaker there.
In view of these extreme positions and the political character of the conflict affecting the Basque Country, Spain and France, agreement is not easy. It is a territorial dispute between three actors, divided on two fronts: according to the Basque perspective, fostered by Basque nationalism, the Basque Country should form an independent territorial structure; on the other hand, the French and Spanish states defend the position that the part of the Basque Country that currently belongs to them should remain under their sovereignty. Another difficulty is that Basque nationalism seeks the complete sovereignty of all its territory as a strategic point; in other words, it claims secession from Spain and France and the political reunification of its territory. This demand for reunification represents a blockage in the event of a possible negotiation, because on the one hand, each state warns the other not to compromise the other’s sovereignty, and on the other hand, the possible solutions to be negotiated will always have a transitional character, unless Basque nationalism publicly denies its strategic objectives.
Despite these difficulties, there have been attempts to implement intermediate solutions, with varying degrees of success. The creation of a Basque département has been a historical vindication that started with the constitution of the departmental division system in France. In Spain, Basque nationalists were looking for ways of achieving administrative decentralisation during the 1910s and especially the 1930s, under the Second Spanish Republic. In fact, in October 1936, in the middle of the civil war, a statute of autonomy for the Basque Country was recognised. In the continental Basque Country, the claims for a département became stronger during the 1960s, together with autonomy claims and regional decentralisation proposals within the framework of the European Union (EU). Since the 1980s, autonomous governments for the provinces of Araba, Biscay and Gipuzkoa and another one for Navarre have been recognised by the Spanish state, while France has adopted decentralisation measures. In both cases, it is important to highlight that these reforms have not been specifically concerned with the Basque Country but extended to both states’ whole territory; i.e. Spain became a state of autonomies, and France adopted a more decentralised administrative system. The idea is to scrupulously avoid any kind of privilege or national recognition.
Finally, in recent years an alternative approach has been making its way and may become the axis of any solution to the conflict: the right to decide, or the need of the Basque people to express their opinion in a referendum on the shape of territorial organisation they wish to acquire. The ongoing conflict and the inability of political actors to solve it has given rise to claims for greater popular consultation on the Basque future. There is a need for a framework which would accept the right of the Basque citizens to decide about their future. In the next chapters we will analyse the shift towards such a democratic scenario.