When Spain’s dictator Generalissimo Francisco Franco died in 1975, Catalonia and the Basque Country had good reason to celebrate. Both were minority nations whose languages, culture and identity the victor of the Spanish civil war of 1936-39 had tried to expunge and then homogenise. The advent of democracy and return of Catalan and Basque home rule promised both regions a new era of freedom.

Yet their subsequent experiences have been very different. The Basques went through four decades of violent separatism, spearheaded by the terrorist group Eta, but now appear to be pretty content with their lot.

The Catalans rubbed along peacefully for most of that time — only to make a sudden dash for independence in 2017 that confronted Spain with the spectre of break-up and plunged it into maybe the worst crisis since Franco’s death.

Why this sudden role reversal? And how is it going to play out? Any answer is contentious. That is the nature of identity politics. But talk to players in both regions and a picture does emerge.

I lived for long periods in the Basque Country under late Francoism, and both there and in Catalonia during the post-Franco transition, when I joined the FT.

When I later moved to Madrid, I concluded that many in Spain’s elite knew less about the Basques than they did about the Apaches — to whom one corporate titan I sat next to one day actually compared them. He was a Catalan, though a big cheese in Madrid.

Only later did I work out that this was not just casual disdain for the Basques but a different Catalan way of looking at the Spanish state. Catalans like to stride the Madrid stage. Basques want control at home, and to play their Madrid role well enough to ensure that.

“The Basques think, ‘You’re in charge in your house, and I’m in charge in mine.’ For the Catalans it’s, ‘I’m in charge in my house — but I also want to transform Spain.’ That is something the Madrid political class have never accepted,” says Oriol Bartomeus, a prominent Catalan political scientist.

But in the halcyon days of the transition to democracy, the almost festive nature of Catalan politics seemed a genteel contrast to the constant Basque convulsion. On Catalonia’s national day, or Diada, in 1977, more than a million people marched peacefully in Barcelona, in a striking display of multi-party unity. Not just nationalists but the local socialists and communists, who styled themselves Catalanist, called for restored self-government, showcasing the lead role Catalans would play in the transition to democracy and drafting a new constitution.

The Basque Country, or Euskadi, that year resembled a war zone. On the Basque national day of Aberri Eguna, the Spanish police behaved like an occupying force, firing rubber bullets at demonstrators, reporters, open windows, anything that moved. Their defenders argue that they had to contend with Eta, whose messianic campaign of violence soon contrived to hijack much of Basque and Spanish political space.

Within a couple of years, both Basques and Catalans had been granted home rule under Spain’s 1978 constitution via “statutes of autonomy” that would later be extended to all Spain’s 17 regions. This nationalising of nationalism, dubbed café para todos (coffee for everyone), was to help the Spanish right digest the unpalatable recognition of Catalan and Basque rights, by diluting this ingredient of the new order as an across-the-board administrative decentralisation.

For much of Spain and its many admirers across Europe, this looked like a happy compromise, finding a home for minorities inside a plurinational state.

From 1980 to 2003, Catalonia’s government, the Generalitat, was run by the mainstream nationalists of Convergència i Unió, with Jordi Pujol as its president. The Pujol method was to proffer CiU support in the Spanish parliament in Madrid, provided the government devolved more power and funds to the Generalitat.

This ostensible fusion of statesmanship and opportunism seemed to work so long as the Spanish ruling party of the day — whether the centre-left Socialists (PSOE) or centre-right Popular party (PP) — needed nationalist votes for a parliamentary majority. The mainstream Basque Nationalist party (PNV), with fewer MPs in Madrid, did much the same.

Yet Catalonia and the Basque Country are political microclimates within Spain. With nationalists occupying the conservative space, the PP has never had the remotest chance of winning there, whereas the Basque and Catalan branches of the Socialists are alternative parties of government. The electoral record since Franco shows that the PSOE has to carry Catalonia to win in Madrid.

The PP, by contrast, sought to maximise its vote in the rest of Spain by being sharply antagonistic about Catalonia and the Basques. This tactic backfired in March 2004, after the devastating jihadist attack on Madrid’s train system, which killed 193 people on the eve of a general election.

The PP government of José María Aznar insisted this was the work of Eta even after the evidence pointed clearly at Islamists. Voters were outraged at this cynicism and the PP crashed out of office until 2011.

In the interim, the Socialists led the Generalitat and, in 2006, upgraded the “statute of autonomy” to recognise Catalans as a “nation”, and incorporate some powers the Basques had secured.

Even though the parliaments in Madrid and Barcelona endorsed the enhanced charter and Catalans voted for it in a referendum, the PP opposed it. In 2010, Spain’s Constitutional Tribunal, on which the PP was well represented, eviscerated key articles in what always looked a speciously political rather than legal judgment.

Separatism in Catalonia leapt from the margins to the mainstream, especially after the CiU — back in power in Barcelona but mired in corruption and discredited by support for PP austerity policies — tried to harness the secession surge by leading it.

In October 2017, the separatists controlling the Generalitat not only defied the Constitutional Tribunal but broke the rules of the Catalan parliament and held an illegal plebiscite on independence — under heavy attack by Spanish riot police. Twelve Catalan leaders are awaiting sentence for “sedition and rebellion” at the Supreme Court in Madrid.

The PSOE won April’s general election even though the right — including a neo-Francoist split from the PP — played the Catalan card with relentless aggression. Pedro Sánchez, the Socialist prime minister, wants to move towards a federalist “nation of nations” with greater clarity on devolved power and funding.

Catalonia, meanwhile, is split down the middle. “We have been deluged with a flood of lies by [the Catalan CiU party] swimming in oceanic corruption,” says Javier Cercas, acclaimed Catalan novelist and unionist, whose family originated in southern Spain. “This severe intoxication will take generations to fix.”

Not necessarily, says Bartomeus, the political scientist, whose data-mining shows that the big swing towards Catalan separatism in 2012 came from the older generation and CiU. Enthusiasm for independence among the more numerous younger cohorts, who he describes as “ephemeral fanatics”, could easily fizzle out.

Prime Minister Sánchez has appointed Catalans to lead parliament: Meritxell Batet, his point-woman on the secession conundrum who led this year’s Socialist revival in Catalonia, is president of Congress, while Manuel Cruz, as leader of the Senate, has powers over home rule norms. Sánchez has called them “Catalans in the service of Spain and Spaniards in the service of Catalonia”.

“If there is a real negotiation, most Catalan separatists will settle for more fiscal autonomy,” says a former Socialist official, also a Catalan. That would bring the Catalans more into line with the Basques, who collect their own taxes and remit less to Madrid.

But the differences between ordinary Spaniards and Catalans weigh heavily. So, too, does the former’s longstanding tendency to cut the Basques more slack than the Catalans.

“Spanish intellectuals have never really felt the Basques to be alien in identity but more like wayward cousins,” says Andreu Mas-Colell, a former Harvard economics professor who was the Generalitat’s economy minister when it turned separatist. “But they felt that the Catalan intelligentsia was deeply alien, because it rejected the embrace of a culture they felt was first class.”

More than a dozen people I have spoken to underline that Basque contentment owes a lot to Eta finally ending its armed campaign in 2011. “The Basques have the great advantage of rediscovering freedom, of losing their fear,” says Jordi Alberich, former head of the Cercle d’Economia think-tank in Barcelona.

Laura Mintegi, a novelist and academic who was the radical nationalist Bildu party’s candidate for Basque president in 2012, says: “Is everybody happy? We’re exhausted. We’re in a de-mining operation. But reconciliation is going much faster than we thought. We’re seeing it. Partly, too, because we’re seeing ourselves in the Catalan mirror.”

Basque home rule, she adds, “has allowed us to have the tools of state that leave us a short way from independence. The Catalans do not have the same tools.”

Andoni Ortuzar, president of the PNV, a job as powerful in its way as president of the Basque government, or Lehendakari, says: “The average Basque need meet the Spanish state on three occasions: to get a driving licence, a passport or a pension. The rest is what we, the Basque institutions, give them.”

The Basques negotiated a “constitutional shield” in 1979-80, says Ortuzar: fiscal autonomy with fixed transfers of 6.24 per cent of local tax receipts to Madrid; an amendment to the constitution saying that acceptance of home rule did not mean renouncing “historic rights”; and a “transition clause” providing for Navarre — an adjoining province divided between Basque nationalists and Spanish unionists — to become part of Euskadi by consent.

“The Catalans have always negotiated on an opportunist and conjunctural basis, which cannot protect you against recentralising waves,” Ortuzar adds. Catalonia’s CiU, moreover, “was a party of cadres and caudillos” like Pujol, not a mass movement and institution like the PNV, which has more authority than the government — “one of the secrets of our success”, he says with a smile.

He recalls that the Basques had their Catalan moment when a former Lehendakari, Juan José Ibarretxe, drew up a plan for Euskadi to become a sovereign state in association with Spain. The Spanish parliament ruled it out in 2005 and the PNV withdrew the plan.

“We did not go backwards, we simply stopped. We were caught between two impulses: what your heart wants, a sovereign state, and what your head tells you is realistic now,” says Ortuzar. “We respected Basque law and Spanish law. We like guarantees and to keep what we have. We are not up for leaps in the dark.”

Aitor Esteban, the PNV leader in Madrid’s parliament and by common consent one of its star orators, wants a sovereign Basque state. But he regards the Catalan secession adventure as “a big error”, almost “clownish” and highly divisive: “They had nothing like a majority.”

Esteban adds: “Basques have a very diverse if small society and we have to carry it forward together. We’re not going to divide it in two.”

The Catalan secessionists, he thinks, had “no real sense of the structures of the Spanish state”, or of EU leaders’ likely reaction. He points out, too, that, with a fraction of Catalonia’s MPs, the PNV gets far more infrastructure funding out of Madrid. “We have played our cards well,” says Esteban.

Spain needs to play its cards well too, because the desire for independence of these two culturally distinct nations is not going to go away.

A leading Basque paediatrician I have known since our teens, who proudly acknowledges the achievements of self-government, puts it this way: “Of course we have governed differently [under home rule]. We are different people. We do things our way. We really want to get on with our neighbours but we want to have control of our own affairs. This is our country — and they still behave as though it’s theirs.”

Mintegi adds: “If you look carefully the grass is very dry — all it needs is a spark to catch fire.”

David Gardner is the FT’s international affairs editor

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