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Spain Rejects Proposal On Basque Independence

Regional Leader Takes Case to Parliament

By Pamela Rolfe
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, February 2, 2005; Page A17

MADRID, Feb. 2 -- Spain's parliament overwhelmingly rejected a plan early Wednesday to give near total independence to the Basque region, following a lengthy floor debate in which the president of the restive region made the case for the step.

Juan Jose Ibarretxe, the Basque leader, watched as the legislators, including Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, rejected the plan 313 to 29 as unconstitutional and contrary to the will of most Spaniards. There were two abstentions.

"If we live together, we should decide together," Zapatero told Ibarretxe during the 7 1/2-hour session in parliament, which was conducted under tight security at a time of heightened public interest in the issue.

Ibarretxe, the first regional president to be allowed to take part in a national parliament debate, calls the plan the only way to end more than three decades of bombings and assassinations by the separatist group ETA. But there is broad sentiment among the Spanish public that the Basques have enough autonomy already.

Ibarretxe has vowed not to back down in the face of the parliamentary vote, saying he will call a public referendum in the Basque region to "consult" the population on his plan. That would be a direct challenge to the Spanish constitution, which empowers only the central government to direct a referendum.

The package, known as the Ibarretxe plan, was approved by the Basque regional parliament on Dec. 30 by a 51 percent majority composed primarily of Ibarretxe's Basque Nationalist Party and members of the outlawed party Batasuna, widely seen as the political wing of ETA.

The plan would create separate judicial and financial systems for the regional government. But opinion polls suggest that the Spanish population considers the plan tantamount to secession because it provides for a separate citizenship and defines the Basque region as "freely associated" with Spain. The Spanish constitution prohibits secession.

Spain's two main parties, the ruling Socialist Workers' Party and the opposition Popular Party, voted as a bloc against the plan, along with most minority parties. Only small parties that seek varying degrees of autonomy for their own home regions supported the plan.

Zapatero offered a conciliatory gesture to Ibarretxe, saying he would be willing to revise the Basque region's autonomy structure. The key is negotiation with the Basque population that was not reflected in the 51 percent vote for the plan in the regional parliament.

"One can't construct a new order of living together based on the imposition of 51 percent of the population," Zapatero said. "Let's seek 70 percent, 80 percent, 100 percent" in support of the plan. "I'm completely open to dialogue."

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