The Surge in Basque Identity

Patrick Welsh 16 February 2014

The Franco years were not kind to the Basque language and Basque identity. A full summary of Franquist policy and its effects upon the minority communities of Spain is impossible for so brief a post, but what can be said is that once-thriving languages in 1900 were endangered by 1975. The Basque language was one of the hardest hit. When the Franco period ended in the mid-1970s, King Juan Carlos I decided to devolve power from a dictatorship to a democracy, and various regions began to agitate for greater autonomy or even total independence. What emerged was the Spanish Constitution of 1978, an attempt to resolve the tension between the central state and historical communities. 

The 1980s was a decade of counter-Franco culture. The left, led by the Socialists, dominated Spanish politics. Separatism for regional governments was in vogue. And, in a more extreme form, the Basque terrorist group ETA increased the scale and frequency of their attacks. But while the 80s and 90s were characterized by profound reversals from the Franco era, it was also marked by diminishing - not growing - support for regional autonomy. 

Part of this had to do with a booming Spanish economy, a trend that continued till 2006-07. Who would want to leave Spain when Spain was a European leader in GDP growth? Who would want to leave Spain when the Euro currency was strong? Who would want to leave Spain when independence is such a hassle?

Predictably, the Spanish Era of Good Feelings has drawn to a close with the Financial Crises of 2007-08. Spanish GDP declined dramatically and now stagnates. The Euro currency has become an albatross around Spain's neck, responsible for huge increases in domestic debt, slashed social safety nets, and obscene unemployment figures. Now independence looks particularly attractive. The Basque Country and Navarre won financial independence in 1980 with Ley 9/1980 and they, unlike Spain as a whole, enjoy moderate levels of unemployment, stable debt, and credit ratings in the A-levels. Suddenly independence doesn't look like such a bad thing to GDP leaders like Catalonia, which cedes roughly ~8.5% of their regional wealth to Spain every year in taxes. Independence for Catalonia is a nightmare for tax-dependent regions like Extremadura. 

Earlier I wrote about how Euroskepticism is on the rise in Europe, even in the old bastions of Euro-supporters like Spain. This shocked virtually zero experts. The Financial Crises was predicted to cause a crisis of faith in the European Union. More surprising was how long it took for Spaniards to give up. 

What this raises, though, is a question of identities. In 2011 I told some colleagues that what we are going to see is a change in identities among the historical communities of Spain. Regional identity will surge; European identity will decline; and Spanish identity will hit rock-bottom. Back then, however, people were pointing to Spain as datum points against me. "But you're wrong. Pick any region and take a survey. You'll see Euro-identity is high and Spanish identity flagging just a tad." Spains continuously high support numbers at the time didn't surprise me. The impact of the Financial Crises had only recently peaked. The ingredients to foment social change had only recently been mixed. My prescription was to just wait.

Now we see one of the bigger indicators of regional identity: language use. As reported by Deia, for the first time since the installment of Generalissimo Franco, the Basque language is spoken by a majority of Bilbao citizens. Bilbao, the capital of The Basque Country, has historically been one of the worst spots to speak Basque (save for Navarre). While plenty of people on the streets knows how to ask for directions, or at least ask for something in a restaurant, in reality Basque represented a secondary language under Spanish. Peripheral communities and towns around Bilbao were the pillars of Basque language and culture.

The change in language trends does not surprise me. Granted, it's probably over-reported a bit. If a linguist bothered to operate a rigorous test, they would probably find respondents were overly enthusiastic in reporting their communicative ability. That's pretty tangential to the real point we should take home: people want to feel Basque, as opposed to Spanish. It's a change in identity and its impact will be felt in the parliamentary hallways one day ceterus paribus