- -  Day # 115  + +

EU > Spain > Bilbao

Things Basque

Bilbao, ES (View on map)

The further enlargement of the European Union is a hot topic these days. What exactly defines the common heritage of Europe except its geographical position? How many more countries should be allowed in and which criteria do they need to match? Regardless of this complicated discussion, the EU may be forced to increase the number of participants when existing members split up. Scotland (UK), Flanders (Belgium) and Basque Country (France and Spain) are only a few of the regions cherishing independence dreams. Bilbao sounds like the perfect place to learn more about the Basque question in particular, and separatism in general.

Asier (25):

..explains in which way Basks are different from the Spanish
Asier (25, photo) is one out of many people who are happy and proud to be Basque, rather than Spanish or French. I will kindly use his enthusiasm to try and understand the Basque freedom ideal. Fortunately, his story goes well beyond what international news sources tend to cover, and well beyond the infamous terrorist organisation ETA as well. Below words are derived from today`s interview with this Basque gentleman.

Basques like to refer to their territory as Euskal Herria, which means both Basque Soil and Basque People. Euskal Herria has no official borders. Its limits are based on cultural similarity instead of following the division of Spain into autonomous regions. When speaking about the Basque country, a Basque person is likely to include the entire autonomous region of Pa?s Vasco, plus a part of the autonomous region of bordering Navarra, plus a part of the French region Aquitaine. Current negotiations about independence mainly focus on the autonomous region Pa?s Vasco, but the Basques are not afraid of taking it step by step. They would be happy to add the remaining territory after achieving independence for the entire Euskal Herria.

The differences between Euskal Herria and the rest of Spain are easily noticed. The territory is rather mountainous and much greener than Spain. The climate is milder and the people are much more reserved than their Spanish counterparts. Although the Bask language is mostly spoken on the countryside and not so much in the city, all traffic signs are bilingual. San Sebastian is locally known as Donostia, Pamplona as Iru?a and Bilbao as Bilbo. While primary education can be followed in Bask these days, university lectures are predominantly provided in Spanish, making Bask country more accessible for exchange students than for example Catalunya, where monolingual courses Catalan are the norm.

Culturally, Euskal Herria may seem like some sort of Irish enclave in southern Europe. Mythology is organised around creatures that look like the Irish leprechauns. Local instruments produce sounds like uil?an pipes and fiddles, and the rhythm of the music would be very suitable for Irish dance performances too. Many Basque symbols could easily be mistaken for Celtic ones. The Basks also tend to sympathise with the Irish struggle for independence from the UK in the early 1900s. Northern Ireland is less favourite as an example, mainly because of the violence associated with it. Also, the Northern Ireland has not achieved independence yet, thereby disqualifying itself as an example. Many Basque people now follow the events in Scotland and take inspiration from their progress towards independence. In a similar way, people keep an eye out on the situation in Israel or even Kosovo.

Socially, the Basques are more like Finns but without saunas. The majority carefully respects red traffic lights, which pedestrians all over Spain are not very good at. The same goes for nature: Basque people are proud of it, as the Finns are of theirs, while the rest of Spain could hardly care less. Basque people are on average more introvert than their Spanish neighbours. It is even a common to hear complaints about the second biggest Basque problem - terrorist organisation ETA being the first - that it`s very hard for young Basque people to find a boyfriend or girlfriend.

Spanish rule
The Basque aspirations to independence were not born yesterday. Basque country was even very close to independence before the Civil War started. While the communists and the fascists were fighting over how Spain should be ruled, the Bask was violently shot apart. A combined effort of fascist leader Franco and Nazi-leader Hitler, inaugurated a period of suppression and Spanification of the Basque country. The village of Guernica was bombed down to the ground, which not only hurt the local population but moreover served as a good way for Germany to secretly testing its arms before officially starting the Second World War.

The suppression of the Spanish part of the Basque country proved to be fertile ground for a more violent approach in the fight for freedom. ETA, the Basque liberation army, gained popularity and planned numerous attacks on politicians and strategic targets. Car bombs served, and still serve today, as a sad expression of liberation attempts. The 1970s and 1980s demonstrated the destructive power of ETA, which a supermarket bombing in Barcelona as a sad highlight. While the ETA usually announces its attacks a few hours before explosion, security forces are not always able to evacuate venues in time. A recent car bomb at Madrid airport unintentionally killed two people who were sleeping in their cars. Security personnel had overlooked their presence, resulting in their tragic death.

No matter how strong and wide-spread the freedom ideal, ETA only enjoys little support from the local population at present. Most of the activism is limited to pasting stickers saying `independence` on bus stops, simply being fanatic about Euskal Herria not belonging to Spain. Supermarkets proudly distinguish between products from Spain and national, locally grown, products. Bilbao`s town does not wave any flags, which in their view is the best way to avoid putting the Spanish national flag on display. Obviously, local symbols like the Basque flag and Basque typography are embraced by organisations and individuals alike.

Over recent years, political efforts seem more fruitful and many people now consider the ETA attacks counterproductive to the process. As older members of the organisation have been forced to quit their activities, the younger generation is less sophisticated and less accurate when it comes to planning the attacks. Nevertheless, nobody would like to appear on the ETA list of targets. It may prove bad for your health.

Sustainable independence
Apart from culturally rich, Basque country is also more advanced than the rest of Spain when looking at the economy. The coastal region accommodates healthy industries and the climate offers better conditions for agriculture ? with citrus fruits and tomatoes. Local firms like Eroski (supermarkets) and BBVA (bank) have activities far beyond Basque territory. The Basques are rightly proud of their Pintxos: very small, two-bite culinary adventures that are on sale in pubs and bars. They combine a variety of different ingredients and inspire people to do pintxo-crawls. Going from one place to another, eating a pintxo and drinking wine in every place before moving on. Just one out of many reasons to visit Basque country and to personally evaluate the differences between Spain and Basque country.

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