By Danny Wood
BBC News, Madrid
Members of the Basque parliament have voted in favour of proposals for more autonomy from Spain.
Spanish leaders oppose the Basque independence plan
The plan, drawn up by the leader of the Basque government, Juan Jose Ibarretxe, calls for a referendum on independence.
This vote in the Basque parliament's institutional commission is the first important step for the Ibarretxe plan.
The autonomy plan calls for a separate judiciary, police force, financial system and a distinct citizenship for those with Basque ancestry.
The commission voted to support the proposal after more than a year of heated debate.
The document needs the endorsement of the regional parliament before it can go to a referendum.
But the initiative is strongly opposed by Spain's major parties. The leader of the opposition conservative Popular Party, Mariano Rajoy, has called the independence plan a betrayal of the state.
Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero says he is open to talks about the future of the Basque region's relationship with the rest of the country.
But his Socialist party has always been against any fundamental changes to the constitution.
Mr Ibarretxe and his regional government deny they want complete independence from Spain.
The second step for the plan is expected to be a vote in the Basque regional parliament on 30 December.