spain - at risk of breaking up?

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    Is Spain about to break-up? We all know about the Basque Separatists, but the attached article from today's The Age (22/12) makes for interesting reading, and for renewed speculation concerning whether all (not just the Basque regions) of Spain could be at risk of breaking up.

    Basque plan raises fear of break-up of Spain
    By Anthony Ham
    Age correspondent
    December 22, 2004

    As the European Union expands its borders, one of its largest member states, Spain, may be beginning to unravel.

    Under the 1978 constitution, Spain's 17 autonomous communities enjoy more powers of self-government than anywhere in Europe. The Basque Autonomous Community of Euskadi has the greatest autonomy, with its own premier, legislature, police force and Supreme Court and control over housing, education, health, social services and some taxation.

    And yet the separatist impulse remains high.

    On Monday, the Basque regional parliament's Institutional Commission approved a plan for even greater autonomy, which some analysts believe may lead to the Basque country's independence from Spain.

    The plan still has to be passed by the Basque Parliament on December 30. However, the surprise decision by Sozialista Abertzaleak, widely acknowledged as the political wing of the militant separatist group ETA, to abstain from voting means the proposal's passage is all but certain.

    As a result, an unprecedented political and constitutional crisis now looms.

    The central pillar of the proposal, known as the Ibarretxe Plan after Basque Premier Juan Jose Ibarretxe, is a Basque Community "freely associated" with Spain on the basis of "shared sovereignty". As well as introducing joint Spanish and Basque citizenship, the plan provides for an independent Basque judiciary, diplomatic representation abroad, the right to call referendums on issues of self-determination and almost complete administrative control over the Basque country.

    Critics of the plan condemn the Basque Government for adopting by stealth ETA's aims of independence. Indeed, Sozialista Abertzaleak leader Arnaldo Otegi has claimed that the "best bits of the plan are those that have been copied from us".

    Mariano Rajoy, leader of the main Spanish opposition Popular Party, has denounced the Ibarretxe Plan as "secessionist" and "treason".

    We are certainly willing to participate in a project together, but that project is called Spain.
    - Jordi Sevilla, government ministerThe centrist Madrid newspaper El Mundo likened it to "the unilateral declarations of Slovenia and Croatia, which ended with the disintegration of Yugoslavia".

    For its part, the Socialist Government of Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero - which holds an 8.5 per cent lead in national opinion polls - has countered with promises of regional reforms. These include making the national Senate more representative of Spain's regions and reforming the arcane system of regional financing. But Mr Zapatero has also warned the autonomous regions that they have "very little margin to extend their authority".

    Spain's Public Administrations Minister Jordi Sevilla said: "We are certainly willing to participate in a project together, but that project is called Spain."

    Amid political claim and counter-claim, both sides have adopted the role of represent-ative of the Basque people.

    A survey by the Basque Government claims that 78 per cent of Basques want a referendum on the plan, 81 per cent believe Madrid must respect the decision of any such referendum and 67 per cent support the Ibarretxe Plan. An opinion poll quoted by the Spanish Government counters that 40 per cent of Basques oppose independence and a mere 30 per cent want it.

    Mr Ibarretxe has promised to resolve the uncertainty by holding a referendum before Basque regional elections in May. But such a referendum would need approval by an unthinkable 60 per cent of Spain's Parliament.

    A legal challenge in Spain's Constitutional Court is also a near certainty. Jurists on both sides of the debate acknowledge that the Ibarretxe Plan almost certainly contravenes the constitution, whose founding premise is "the indissoluble unity of the Spanish nation".

    If a referendum succeeds, many Spaniards fear that Catalonia and possibly Galicia and other regions may follow.

    Mr Ibarretxe has described the coming months as "the most important in the history of democracy in the Basque country". The same could be said for the future of Spain.

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