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Last Updated: Thursday, 25 September, 2003, 20:59 GMT 21:59 UK
Basques seek 'Puerto Rico' deal

By Katya Adler
BBC, Bilbao

The Basque National Party has come up with a new vision for the future of the region, which marks a radical departure from its normally moderate position.

Basque nationalist Prime Minister Juan Jose Ibarretxe presents his plan to the Basque parliament on Friday.

But it has already caused a storm in the conservative Spanish Government, which accuses Mr Ibarretxe of attempting to re-write the Spanish constitution.

Batasuna rally
The PNV has been accused of courting radical separatists
The majority of Basques say they would like to decide their future independently of the central government in Madrid.

But they also say they fear the Plan Ibarretxe goes too far.

The prime minister is calling for the Basque country to introduce its own citizenship laws and foreign policy.

He envisages the three Basque regions existing in a free association with Spain on an equal footing - rather like Puerto Rico's relationship with the United States.

Jose Maria Echavaria, a foreign policy spokesman for the Basque National Party (PNV), told me that the plan offered the definitive way forward for the Basque country.

'Best place in the world'

PNV critics, though, say the opposite - and they accuse it of courting Basque radical separatists with the plan.

My life has turned upside down
Barbara Duhrkop
Socialist Party MEP
Some even go so far as to accuse the PNV of acting as the mouthpiece of the violent separatist group ETA in this case.

Mr Echavaria said this was a ridiculous idea, and assured me repeatedly that the PNV is - and always has been - committed to peace and prosperity in the Basque region.

And it certainly is a wealthy region.

Bilbao - the de facto Basque capital - is a charming city, its winding streets filled with de luxe cafes and restaurants and enticing-looking shop windows.

Opinion polls show the majority of Basques believe they live in the best place in the world.

But it is a different experience for the 5,000 people who live under 24-hour armed guard there.

'Immoral'

One of these is Barbara Duhrkop, the chairwoman of the Spanish Socialists in the European Parliament.

If the Basque Country is granted any more autonomy it'll break the Spanish constitution and break away from Spain altogether
Leopoldo Barreda
Popular Party
Her husband was killed 16 years ago by ETA and since then she and her three children can go nowhere without their bodyguards.

"It's a nightmare," Mrs Durhkop says, over a cup of coffee in her office.

"I can't take a break from politics to ride my horse on my own, can't go to the same supermarket twice in one week. My life has turned upside down."

"Immoral" is the word she uses to describe the Plan Ibarretxe.

"It's a disgrace that the several-hundred-page document doesn't once mention ETA and the 800 people who have died so far during its 30-year struggle for Basque independence," she says.

This is one issue the Socialist Party - in opposition in Spain - agrees on with the ruling conservative Popular Party (PP).

The latter's offices in Bilbao are reminiscent of Fort Knox - four security checks before you finally meet one of the PP's leading figures in the Basque Country - Leopoldo Barreda.

He says the Plan Ibarretxe is quite simply anti-Basque.

Independence issue

"The Basque Country already has so much autonomy," he says.

"If it's granted any more it'll break the Spanish constitution and break away from Spain altogether. And that is not in the interest of the majority of Basque citizens."

Psychologist Julian Ibanes and family
Trying to live a normal existence is simply denial, says psychologist Ibanes
But while for many the Plan Ibarretxe goes too far, for others it does not go far enough.

Jone Goirizelaia Ordorika is a legal expert working for Batasuna, the party recently outlawed on the grounds that it was ETA's political mouthpiece.

She is disparaging about the plan, accusing the Basque Nationalist Party of sitting all too often on the fence.

"The plan doesn't even expressly demand independence," she complains.

So much for the politicians. Meanwhile many Basques say they just want to live their lives quietly in a peaceful democracy.

Bombs and normality

But psychologist Julian Ibanes says that in the Basque Country it can never be that straightforward.

"We in the Basque country just want to live as fathers, mothers, professional people and, certainly here in Bilbao, you can pretend to live a normal day-to-day existence," he says.

"But this is pure and simple denial. Deep down you know it's just a matter of time before the next bomb, the next shoot-out," he says.

"This all has a profound effect on people who live here."




SEE ALSO:
Challenge to Basque party ban
10 Sep 03  |  Europe
Batasuna banned permanently
17 Mar 03  |  Europe
Basque groups on US terror list
07 May 03  |  Europe
ETA's bloody record
02 Dec 99  |  Europe
ETA: Key events
22 Nov 00  |  Europe


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