Fall of Rajoy, end of ETA and ‘the independent route to democracy’: CommonSpace speaks to Basque-Scot Ander Larunbe Anderson

Ben Wray

CommonSpace editor Ben Wray attended a Basque festival in Pamplona (Iruñea) on 2 June called ‘the people’s alternative’, organised by Social Charter, a coalition of organisations including trade unions who have organised a charter of social rights for the Basque Country, to speak about sovereignty and self-government.

There, he caught up with Ander Larunbe Anderson – a Basque-Scottish activist who works for the SORTU International Department. SORTU is a political party within the Basque pro-independence left coalition EH Bildu, which received over 20 per cent of the vote in the 2016 Basque Parliament elections. Ben spoke to Ander about the political situation in Spain after prime minister Mariano Rajoy’s downfall, as well as his thoughts on Catalonia, the Basque Country, and the EU, as well as UK and Scottish politics.

Rajoy has gone after seven years in power – what is your assessment of how this came about and what it means?

The Basque pro-independence left’s reading of the situation is that there is a backlash operation going on from the central powers of the Spanish state. We believe there is an agreement amongst very powerful sectors of the state, including the deep state, that devolution went too far.

If we look back to the 1970’s after the dictatorship and when the so-called transition took place, several competing models emerged at the time. The model that came from Francoism was not for any form of devolution. At the time they had to give in and establish devolved “autonomous” parliaments, mainly because of the struggles of the Basques and Catalans, but now there is a feeling among the Spanish state that there is an opportunity to go back on that, to reel the line in, so to speak.

Our reading of the Spanish state right now is that it is immersed in a very, very serious crisis with several sides to it.

The territorial crisis – the devolved model after Franco is not working.

There’s an economic crisis, that’s obviously linked to the 2008 crash, but has specific Spanish characteristics that’s do with the lack of a real economy of production; the Spanish economy is practically limited to construction, tourism and finance. Spanish public debt is now roughly about 130 per cent of GDP.

And there is a very serious crisis of legitimacy that has affected major planks of the state, including the justice system, the parliamentary system – the breaking down of the traditional bi-partisan nature of Spanish politics (the emergence of Podemos, Ciudadanos, and so on).

The Spanish monarchy has also been in crisis in recent times – an enforced change in the monarchy a few years back – and systemic, dreadful levels of corruption.

So that is the background to Rajoy’s exit.

The trigger for the no confidence vote was a court ruling that said that Mariano Rajoy’s party (the PP) had had a set of secret accounting since at least 1989 (pretty much from the point it was created in its current form); that those accounts were fed by backhanders from private companies that got public contracts and that Rajoy’s testimony in court denying this was not believable.

It is just one of countless serious corruption scandals so he was clearly on a sticky wicket. The no confidence motion was supported by the Spanish Socialist party, Podemos, and Basque and Catalan nationalists. It remains to be see whether this combination can, or will wish to, sustain the new government in the medium term.

Do you expect a different approach from the new Socialist Party prime minister Pedro Sanchez?

We demand a different approach. We don’t hold much hope that it will actually take place. That is not because we like being negative, it’s just to look back at the way the Spanish Socialist Party has behaved historically, and certainly over the last couple of years regarding Catalonia, conflict resolution in the Basque Country, regarding Austerity, and so forth.

So we don’t hold much hope, but it’s very difficult to go into any kind of prediction, we don’t know what’s going to happen. The Socialist Party needs the support of Podemos and many others just to be able to pass laws, so it remains to be seen whether there will be a left-right, centrist-periphery cleavage going on in the Spanish Parliament, or whether the Socialist Party will seek to work with Ciudadanos. It’s up in the air.

What is the Basque take on the situation in Catalonia?

From the Basque pro-independence left, in the broadest sense, we were impressed by the way the Catalan people, over the years, has managed to lead the way, has managed to exert traction on the Catalan political class, and managed to carry out an impeccably democratic and peaceful independence process.

We stand in solidarity with the Catalan people. We are disappointed in the attitude and behaviour of the Basque Nationalist Party, the conservative nationalists [the party of government in the Basque Country].

The Catalan independence movement is a reflection of what we said almost 40 years ago, which is that this devolution model does not recognise the right to decide on independence. In fact it does not even recognise the nationhood of Catalans and Basques. The 1970’s regime in Spain does not work anymore.

What we would like to see is recognition of Catalan (and Basque) nationhood, and recognition of the right to legal a referendum, but in the absence of that we stand with the Catalans and we believe their referendum was legitimate.

Do you think Basques wanted the Basque Nationalist Party (PNV) to be more supportive of the Catalans?

That is our reading, yes. There are dynamics at work within the Basque Autonomous Community which make it difficult for the PNV, but we believe that the Basque Government should have a much firmer position in solidarity with Catalonia.

I’d say there is a frustration with PNV’s conciliatory attitude towards Madrid when the anti-democratic attitude of the Spanish Central Government has been so evident, we would have really liked a clearer and stronger stance from the Basque Government.

There was a right-wing demonstration in Pamplona today [2 June] against the Basque Language. Can you say a bit about that and the growth of a similar anti-Catalan language sentiment in Catalonia as an emerging cultural backlash politics?

This march was an attempt to use the issue of Basque language rights (i.e. it was a march against the upholding of these rights) to put pressure on the current Government of Navarra [which Pamplona is the capital of], which is sustained by a progressive agreement between four political parties, in the run-up to the elections next May. It is identity politics at its worst.

The Spanish right wing is wedded to a version of Spanish national identity that has a lot in common with the Francoist view: “one nation, one state, one language”. Even, for some, “one religion”. It is a deeply ingrained feeling. It extends to sections of the Spanish left too. On the surface of it, they purport to tolerate other languages, such as Basque or Catalan, but only as long as they are on the fringes, like a quirky folkloric footnote. As soon as they become a vehicle for real everyday life, from education to business to science, that tolerance wanes.

Ciudadanos began as a movement against teaching through the medium of Catalan in Catalonia. Now the polls have them down as the biggest party in voting intention in Spain. They are the latest iteration of Spanish nationalism.

ETA – the armed Basque nationalist group which was the most important participant in the Basque Conflict with the Spanish state which officially ended in 2011 – disbanded earlier this year. What is the significance of that?

The word “historic” is much-abused, but I can tell you this was a historic event that brings us definitively into a new historical phase. It is very good news. It is a game-changer.

The Basque Peace process is very unusual in that there has been no engagement whatsoever on the part of the Spanish state. On the contrary, the Spanish Government has repeatedly attempted to boycott and hinder the peace process. I know this sounds outlandish, but it is true.

Therefore, it is a unilateral peace process, led by civil society and with the input and backing of leaders of the international community and international peace-building NGOs.

The impact of ETA activity on political life in the Basque Country (and, more broadly, Spain and France) over the last 60 years should not be underestimated so it is clear that this is a new, different and better time in the Basque Country.

For the last 40 years, all Spanish governments insisted that “without violence, everything is possible” (referring to the national self-determination aspirations in the Basque Country). It is time to test that statement. However, events in Catalonia over the last few months and years do not bode well.

Can you say a bit about the strategy of EH Bildu in developing what you call ‘the independence process’?

The Independence Process is everything that helps to build up majorities in favour of sovereignty in the Basque Country. A social and political majority then must be reflected in the various institutions/administrations that make up the Country.

Of course we have to take the existing partition of the Basque Country into account (two devolved administrations inside Spain and one, recently created minimally-devolved one inside France).

These social-political-institutional majorities, if strong enough, can bring about a referendum whereby the people of the Basque Country can exercise their right to decide what kind of a relationship they want to have with the Spanish and French States and with the other parts of the Basque Country.

EH Bildu stands for an independent Basque Republic. But the final decision must be in the hands of the people.

It is a bit of an over-simplification, but if you picture the Catalan process, the Basques are going for something similar.

Ideally, there should be an agreed and binding referendum, but there is nothing in the history of Spain that allows us to conclude there will be one. So – in the words of a prominent Catalan independence campaigner and former Member of Catalan Parliament David Fernández – “if we are allowed no democratic route to independence, we will have to build an independent route to democracy”.

An anti-establishment right-wing populist coalition has just come to power in Italy – do you think about the situation in the EU and Eurozone at the moment?

It’s quite a worrying conjuncture in the EU. I think there’s reasons for concern. It would seem that the result of anti-Euro hostility, of heavy-handed policies from Brussels, is not a mobilisation from the left in Europe – interestingly what we are doing today in Pamplona is an attempt to do that from the left, and bring out in the open grassroots bottom-up alternatives to austerity, to neoliberal policies – but we are not seeing that Europe-wide.

It looks like the left is disorientated in Europe, and we’re seeing this turn to right-wing populists, what Joseph Stiglitz has called proto-fascism, and I think the EU is at a bit of a crossroads.

Are we going to go down the road of empowering the citizens of the EU, listening to their legitimate concerns, allow channels for those concerns to be expressed and made into policy? If we don’t we might find ourselves with an increasing atomisation and shift to the right. We’ve got Ciudadanos in Spain, the situation in Italy, Poland, Hungary – it needs to be resisted.

As part of your role in the international department of SORTU, you cover the island of the UK. What do you see when you look to the UK and Scotland right now?

One of the big issues obviously has been Brexit. Especially this hard Brexit, right-wing driven Brexit, coming from the conservative party leadership in London.

It’s reassuring to see in Scotland there is not a push for that type of Brexit, although we are aware there are issues – and we would have issues – with the EU, but it’s good to know it’s not going down that route.

I think quite a lot of people in the independence movement in the Basque Country see Scotland as a beacon. Obviously we are aware that there are ongoing debates about the speed at which things should be moving, about what needs done at the grassroots level, about the use or not of the mandate and so forth.

But what I’d say to people in Scotland is that when you are very close to something it is difficult to see the goods things that you have. The engagement that came about from 2014 that is ongoing – that has to be a good thing. The fact that Scotland is an officially recognised nation with the right to decide its own future, is something we aspire to in this part of the world. What happened in 2014 was an example to us of how things can be done in a grown up way.

There is worries here that we may not get the same legally agreed referendum on independence in the future as the UK Government strikes a more belligerent tone now. That’s something you are used to in the Basque country. What advice would you have for us about how to deal with that?

I’d baulk at giving advice, but what I’d say is – you’ve been there, you’ve had a referendum. Keep at it. It’s clear that in order to have any kind of democratic, peaceful process towards independence, there needs to be a perfect storm of grassroots activism and work on the ground, that has to have a reflection in organisations and political parties who can turn things into law, and that needs to happen all at the same time, and that is still not a guarantee you will get to where you are going. But if you don’t have any one of those parts, those pieces in the puzzle, it is going to be much harder.

Picture courtesy of Sortu