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More ‘Friends’ than ‘Foes’: Basque Nationalism and the Immigrant Question

0 Comments 🕔02.Dec 2015

This article is part of our feature Framing Migration.

Bolivian dancers in Bilbao. Photo credit: Jacqueline Poggi.


by Sanjay Jeram

Despite being associated in the international media with terrorism, the Basque Country of Spain is a modern, wealthy, and outward-looking society. Without a doubt, though, nationalism and debates about sovereignty are part and parcel of politics and daily life in the Basque Country. Good governance and economic growth, however, were never much hampered by the political dominance of the sovereignty-seeking Partido Nacionalista Vasco (PNV) and influence of the separatist izquierda abertzale. The economic crisis that began in 2008 hit Spain extremely hard; years of construction-fueled growth came crashing to a halt, resulting in unemployment rates of more than 25 percent in the majority of Spain’s regions. The Basque Country, though, with its industrial economic base – 26 percent compared with the Spanish average of 16 percent – has fared much better, with unemployment below 15 percent and a modest 12 percent debt-to-GDP-ratio. This has translated into more job opportunities in both high- and low-skill sectors than the Spanish average. With job opportunities came more and more foreign immigrants; the Basque Country had a foreign population of less than 2 percent in 2001, but by 2010 that number exceeded 7 percent, according to official statistics – and the real number is higher. Amid the rising anti-diversity tide in Spain and Europe, it seemed unlikely that political parties seeking to preserve a stateless culture would be apt to consider immigrants from countries such as Morocco, Romania, and Bolivia as “friends” rather than “foes.” Why, then, have the PNV and other Basque nationalists bucked the trend and advanced a positive position on immigration and diversity? The underlying economic reasons are important, but there is a deeper story about nation-building without a state: defining “who we are not” can be more important than defining “who we are.”

From a bird’s-eye view, the recent politicization of immigration in Spain can be neatly explained by economics: when times are tough, politicians blame immigrants and the public takes the bait hook, line, and sinker. A relative latecomer to the immigration game, Spain made up for lost time with an average net inflow of foreign-born individuals of 500,000 for the 2000–2009 period, which in absolute terms placed Spain second to only the United States among OECD countries.[1] During the boom years prior to the crash, demand for immigrant labor in the service and construction sectors was high, generating a “hidden consensus” between the right-leaning Popular Party (PP) and Socialists to permit large-scale immigration of both the legal and illegal variants. Both parties implicitly allowed the number of unauthorized migrants to rise and carried out unpopular sweeping legalizations in 2001 and 2005.

Nevertheless, ideological conflicts between the PP and the Socialists on the immigration issue have erupted since the turn of the century. The PP formed a majority government in 2000 and reversed many of the liberalizing reforms made by the preceding Socialist government, which had granted undocumented immigrants many social and civil rights. It has been argued that the PP “securitized” the immigration issue from 2000 to 2004, attempting to harness latent anti-immigrant public opinion for electoral gains even when the Spanish economy was flourishing.[2] During the 2008 Spanish electoral campaign, before the full weight of the crisis was acknowledged, the party announced its plan to make integration contracts obligatory for all foreigners, conditioning their access to benefits and long-term residence on knowledge of the Spanish language and culture. Accordingly, the argument that pre-crisis Spain was “relatively free of overt xenophobic behavior” is questionable.[3] The current “tough on immigration” posturing by the PP – including a plan to authorize on-the-spot deportations of migrants crossing at the Ceuta and Melilla border fences – can thus be seen as part of normal right-left politicking in Spain rather than a consequence of the crisis.


Basque PNV rally

A 2014 rally for the Basque PNV party. Photo credit: EAJ-PNV.


The stereotype that “nations without states” are inherently unwelcoming of immigrants is pervasive and difficult to combat. In Canada, the sovereignty-seeking Parti Québécois (PQ) learned this the hard way after its leader regrettably blamed “money and the ethnic vote” for the party’s narrow loss in the 1995 referendum on Quebec independence. In the following years, the PQ worked hard to win over new Quebeckers to the sovereigntist cause, a project that ostensibly ended with its controversial 2013 tabling of a bill to ban religious garb for workers in the public sector. When immigration rates rose in the Basque Country in the 2000s, there was good reason to assume that anti-immigrant political discourse was soon to follow. The “father” of Basque nationalism and the PNV, Sabino Arana, invoked race as the marker differentiating “true” Basques from maketos (meaning “one not from here”) more than 100 years ago, and the PNV still calls its headquarters Sabin Etxea (literally “Sabino’s House”). The PNV began opening its membership to non-ethnic Basques in 1932, but the modification of its militants’ “symbolic imaginary, which continued to orbit around race,” was not as rapid.[4] There was a gradual inclusion of well-integrated second- and third-generation Basque-born ethnic Spaniards in the national community from the 1950s onward, but this is hardly reason to assume that new migrants from North Africa, Eastern Europe, and Latin American would be welcomed with open arms.[5]

The Basque nationalist movement splintered in the 1950s when a group of frustrated PNV youth initiated Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (ETA). The ETA eclipsed the PNV for a time during the Franco dictatorship and vocalized a new conception of “Basqueness” based on voluntary participation in the nationalist struggle. After the Franco regime fell and autonomy for the Basque Country was established, the PNV once again became the primary conduit of Basque nationalist mobilization. The party dropped its referents to ethnicity, embracing a Basque civic identity based on residence, but this was easy to do while there were virtually no foreigners in the Basque Country. As the number of foreigners started to rise, so did the political interest in developing a Basque immigration policy.

In 2003, the Basque Ministry of Housing and Social Affairs released the first Basque Immigration Plan (PVI), signaling the government’s intent to be active in structuring the integration process of foreigners arriving in the Basque Country. The document contains a number of unique – and perhaps surprising – principles. First, the introduction to the PVI is critical of the European Union and Government of Spain for their “restrictive policies” that put immigrants in vulnerable situations by depriving them of basic rights and dignity. Second, a main ideological premise of the PVI is the concept of Basque citizenship based on jus domicile – citizenship by residence – to extend equality of civil, social, economic, and cultural rights to everyone regardless of their place of origin or legality, according to the Spanish immigration law. In short, the PVI is a progressive plan that broadens membership in the Basque nation rather than narrowly defining its boundaries.

The politics surrounding the plan were “quiet” when one considers the polemical nature of immigration and diversity in Europe post-9/11. The PNV was at the helm of a stable tripartite coalition with another sovereigntist party and a left-leaning coalition with “soft” nationalist credentials. The latter – Izquierda Unida (IU) – was in control of the relevant ministry that composed the PVI, but the PNV endorsed it and so too did the rest of the parties in the Basque Parliament, eventually. The right-leaning centralist Partido Popular (PP) raised concerns that the PVI was unnecessary because the Spanish state is in charge of immigration – simply a gentle reminder to nationalist forces that further steps toward regional control of migrant flows and borders would not be tolerated. Since 2003, the PVI has been renewed twice, and notably, the 2011–2013 framework initiated under a PP-Socialist coalition government closely resembled those of the tripartite nationalist governments.


Basque flags in Bayonne

Basque flags in the southern French city of Bayonne. Photo credit: Gadjodilo974.


The Basque political consensus on immigration issues did fray, however, on a few occasions. In 2010, the Socialist Basque Minister of Social Affairs axed a free legal service (Heldu) – opened in 2002 by the PNV-led government – that helped newcomers to the Basque Country navigate the complexities of Spanish immigration law. The PNV pounced on this issue, suggesting that the new government was attempting to stir up xenophobia for electoral purposes. Immigrant organizations lined up behind the PNV on the matter, claiming that Heldu helped more than 30,000 immigrants settle in the Basque Country and avoid marginalization. More recently, the PP mayor of Vitoria and parliamentarian, Javier Maroto, began a heated political debate by supporting changes to the Basque Country law governing its basic income guarantee (RGI). The PNV, Euskal Herria Bildu (EH Bildu) – the reincarnation of Batasuna, the former political wing of the ETA – and the Socialists have united in opposition to Maroto and the citizens’ platform currently working to invoke a popular legislative initiative based on Maroto’s suggestions, such as barring undocumented migrants from eligibility for RGI. EH Bildu – a party staunchly in favor of Basque sovereignty – has been the most outspoken, suggesting that the proposal foreshadows intentions of an all-out campaign by the PP against foreign and disadvantaged people. Emotions ran so high during a parliamentary debate that the Speaker dismissed an EH Bildu parliamentarian after he cursed at Maroto.

The pro-immigrant discourse of the PNV and EH Bildu contradicts the assumption that sub-state nations are “backwards” and “parochial,” but this is not a new finding. Michael Keating argued in his landmark book, Nations against the State, that the political elite of non-state nationalist movements is becoming more civic and progressive than their state contemporaries in order to establish their legitimacy on the international stage.[6] The important question, then, becomes whether or not the masses in the Basque Country are indeed supportive of immigration and diversity. More specifically, are those who desire more sovereignty more pro-immigrant than those who are content with the status quo? Ikuspegi (Basque Observatory of Immigration) has been collecting data for approximately a decade on the immigration issue in the Basque Country. There are obviously many questions one could ask to gauge public attitudes toward foreigners; fortunately, Ikuspegi has generated a “tolerance indicator” ranging from 0 to 100 for each respondent by combining questions that tap into individual feelings about issues such as the volume of immigration, access to social rights, and the effects of immigration on the native culture. The 2013 barometer reaches the conclusion that “there are certain groups displaying more tolerance, while others displaying less tolerance.”[7] The interesting finding for our purposes is that those who “feel only Basque or more Basque than Spanish” are significantly more tolerant toward foreigners than those who express a dual identity or a predominantly Spanish one. Furthermore, the characteristics of the “most tolerant” segment of society include “speaking Euskara (Basque language)” and professing “intense Basque nationalist” attitudes.[8] While the barometer does not offer data about voting intentions, it is fair to assume Euskara-speaking nationalists are more likely to vote for the PNV and EH Bildu than centralist parties.

Instrumentalists argue that elites “manipulate” the masses in order to drum up support for nationalism, fundamentally “inventing traditions” that they then claim to be essential to the nation’s identity. An instrumental interpretation of the nationalists’ predilection for defending immigrants’ rights in the Basque Country can, therefore, be vocalized like this: their sworn centralist enemies are “getting tough” on immigration, and so Basque elites are using the immigration issue to further demonstrate their national distinctiveness. A top-down model of national incitement is appealing to those dismissive of the sovereigntist intentions of the PNV and EH Bildu, but, as Azar Gat puts it, “how could manipulation be effective unless it appealed to a genuine and deep popular sentiment?”[9] An alternative interpretation is that the immigration issue has tapped into the deep sense of injustice many Basque nationalists still harbor on account of the fierce repression of Basque culture by the Spanish state during the Franco dictatorship. Today, for many nationalists, the centralist parties are, at best, indifferent to Spain’s multinational reality. Does it make sense for a nation that imagines itself as a minority under threat to then reject immigrants – many of whom were marginalized in their countries of origin? It appears that the answer for the Basque nation is a resounding no.


Sanjay Jeram is Assistant Professor at Brock University.


This article is part of our feature Framing Migration.


[1] Joaquín Arango, “Exceptional in Europe? Spain’s Experience with Immigration and Integration” (Washington, D.C.: Migration Policy Institute, 2013), 2.

[2] Kitty Calavita, Immigrants at the Margins: Law, Race, and Exclusion in Southern Europe (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005).

[3] It remains the case that no extreme far-right party has gained a foothold in Spanish politics. Omar G. Encarnación, “The Politics of Immigration: Why Spain is Different,” Mediterranean Quarterly 15 (2004): 169.

[4] Julen Zabalo, “Basque Nationalism’s Changing Discourse on the Nation,” Social Identities 14 (2008): 799.

[5] See Julen Zabalo, Txoli Mateos and Iker Iraola, “Conflicting Nationalist Traditions and Immigration: The Basque Case from 1950 to 1980,” Nations and Nationalism 19 (2013): 513–31.

[6] Michael Keating, Nations against the State: The New Politics of Nationalism in Quebec, Catalonia and Scotland (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 1996).

[7] Ikuspegi, Barómetro 2013: Percepción y actitudes hacia la inmigración extranjera (Bilbao: Servicio Editorial de la Universidad del País Vasco, 2014), 85.

[8] Ikuspegi, Barómetro 2013, 107.

[9] Azar Gat, The Long History and Deep Roots of Political Ethnicity and Nationalism (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 15.



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