A CONVERSATION WITH THE BASQUE PRESIDENT

In last October’s Basque elections, almost two-thirds of voters favored parties that, to varying degrees, could be described as Basque nationalists. Those parties took 48 of the 75 seats in the Basque parliament, the body that has governed the Basque Autonomous Community since 1980, when Basques held their first elections and formed their first government after four decades of rule under the dictatorship of Francisco Franco. 

A CONVERSATION WITH THE BASQUE PRESIDENTThe party that received the most votes was the Basque National Party (EAJ-PNV), allowing EAJ-PNV members of parliament to elect Iñigo Urkullu as Lehendakari, or president of the Basque Government. Urkullu is now leader of the approximately 2.2 million people that live in the Basque Autonomous Community, or Euskadi in the Basque language. The position carries with it a significant amount of influence because, among other reasons, Basques control more than 90 percent of their own tax revenue under a unique economic arrangement with Spain.  

Besides his direct political powers, Urkullu is also a symbolic leader for hundreds of thousands of Basques who live in the neighboring province of Navarre and French-Basque region, and for the millions of Basques and Basque descendants who have strong communities scattered across the globe — in the United States, Latin America, and as far away as Australia.

He takes over during a unique time of opportunities and challenges. Supported by its traditionally strong manufacturing and industrial base, the Basque economy is one of the strongest in Europe, and yet it hasn’t been immune from the effects of the severe financial crisis in Spain. But Urkullu is also the first Basque president to govern without the burden of civil war or military activity by the terrorist group ETA, which abandoned its armed campaign in October 2011 after more than 50 years in operation. Still, since his party enjoys only a simple majority, Urkullu will have to find ways of working with the other three main parties in the parliament, EH Bildu, Socialist Party, and Popular Party.  


How will your government differ from the Socialist-led government of the past four years? What are your priorities?
Rather than trying to be different, this government’s objective is to have a clear direction. That means in every area, and also in foreign affairs, naturally. We want to be better known and project ourselves better world-wide. We want to make a place for ourselves on the international stage. We want to get Euskadi recognized in the forums in which strategic debates are held and have our voice heard there.

This government has five objectives in foreign affairs. Firstly, we want to work for Euskadi’s sustainable development, promoting our productive sectors’ interests. Secondly, we want to take part in the construction of Europe. Our future is connected with Europe’s future. We want to grow as a European nation, and we have to get our voice heard in the forums in which our powers are debated.

Our third objective is to strengthen our ties with the Basque community around the world. Many of you are descended from people who had to leave Euskadi because of economic and political difficulties. And many others have moved abroad in recent years for professional reasons or as investigators or voluntary workers. Either as communities, or as individuals, you want to help to improve Euskadi’s image, and we want to work with you on this objective.

And this is linked with our fourth objective: getting Euskadi-Basque Country known world-wide. When coming on the world stage, our people and particular characteristics give us a lot of vitality. Our particular characteristics are the Basque language, self-government, and the Basque Economic Agreement [with Spain]. These are our tools and advantages to make ourselves known world-wide, to show our character to the world.

And finally, our fifth objective is to help build a more balanced world. Basque society has to make its commitment to solidarity clear. And that way we can help to build a fairer world. 

Those are going to be the main factors in our foreign policy and, to do all this, we are going to need every citizen, every private association, and every Basque company to work with our public organizations.


The Basque Country’s economy has performed well compared to much of Europe in recent years, but it’s still not at full speed. What ideas do you have to improve things, including the unemployment rate? Will the economy make it difficult to implement other policies?
Thanks to the economic policies followed in Euskadi over recent decades we have a stronger manufacturing and industrial structure than several other nearby economies. This has helped us to lessen the effects of the crisis: fewer jobs have been lost, there is less debt, public services are protected, and so on. Even so, Euskadi is in the middle of the crisis, and we are at a crossroads. The decisions we make now will affect Euskadi for the next 20 years. To face this situation, people are our priority and our commitment. Guaranteeing people’s welfare in difficult times.

How is that principle reflected in the government’s decisions? We are maintaining our health service, an education system of the highest quality, and all other basic social services. The fact that last year’s tax revenue was lower has forced us to make some modifications, but the three areas I’ve mentioned are untouchable as far as we’re concerned, and 74% of our budget goes into those services. When it comes down to it, we’re going to look after people until the worst of the crisis is over, and that includes services for people who are out of work.

And at the same time, although a little more slowly, we are going to lay the foundations for economic recovery. We’re going to have to slow down public investment, and we won’t be able to start any large-scale infrastructure projects, but we are going to start an in-depth plan for employment and a plan for financing small and medium-sized companies, amongst other things.


For Basques, how important are Scotland’s referendum on independence scheduled next year, and the effort by Catalans to hold their own vote on independence? Regardless of how either of those turn out, do you plan to push for a referendum on Basque independence?
It is important, obviously. And not just for Euskadi, also for the other dozens of nations that make up Europe. However, one shouldn’t confuse or compare the evolution of each nation’s history. Each nation must take its own steps. And, lastly, one should be careful about saying that independence is the way forward in all cases. There are big differences between what is happening in Scotland and what is happening in Catalonia, even though it’s all happening at the same time.

As nations, they are claiming their right to be recognized and their right to make their own decisions, but the response from each state has been completely different: on the one hand, the United Kingdom has recognized the Scots’ rights in that sense. Spain, on the other hand, has denied Catalonia those rights, and the difference between the two states has been made very obvious.

We don’t want to get into a sterile debate with Spain about whether we should become independent or not, but we are going to work for Spain to recognize our rights and respect them legally so that we will have the possibility of exercising those rights at some time in the future.

I also think that we should think again about the meaning of independence in current-day Europe. In fact, the states that make up Europe have less and less sovereignty, even if they are independent states.


What have been the biggest consequences so far of ETA’s ending its armed campaign in October 2011? What is the long-term significance of ETA’s decision?
ETA giving up its arms has been the best news for Basque society in recent decades. Euskadi needed and deserved peace. And that, in itself, is a great achievement: the time has arrived for Euskadi to start building its future without the threat of violence. Now all the citizens of Euskadi can live in complete freedom, and that is the biggest consequence. We can now tell people all over the world about Euskadi without any problems, without any of the damage that violence used to cause us. We can demonstrate that we are an honest, loyal, mature society.

Even so, peace has to be built day by day. To start with, ETA still has to make its final decision: as well as giving up arms, it has to announce that it’s disbanding. Basque society is still waiting for that to happen. Steps still have to be taken to establish peace firmly: recognizing the victims, justice, and the possibility of a joint understanding of our history, as far as that’s possible. Fortunately, it’s going to be easier for us to move forward now that we’re no longer threatened by violence. 


You’ve said it’s a priority of your government to “internationalize the Basque Country” and to “secure the recognition and participation of the Basque Country as a country in our right in the international community.” What do you have in mind with those statements, and what are some of your ideas to accomplish those goals?
Internationalization is often linked with the economy, but it isn’t just about business structures. It’s a process that affects the whole of society and it’s up to the government to build the bridges between all the stakeholders in order to develop that internationalization: the economy, culture, education, development cooperation, and so on. Euskadi is going to have to play a key role in this over the next few years, and all the stakeholders are needed there.

To start with, I’m having meetings with all the ambassadors in Spain and, recently, with regards to Europe, I’ve had meetings with the European Commission [the European Union’s executive body] and the President of the European Commission Durao Barroso, and with [European Council President] Van Rompuy in Brussels.

I mentioned this government’s objectives earlier, and this is where we have set our sights. We have strong, firm resources to be able to achieve these objectives: on the one hand, the Foreign Affairs High Secretariat, led by Marian Elorza. On the other hand, you, the Basque diaspora. You are indispensable in the process of internationalizing Euskadi. Third, as I mentioned before, the business world, people who work in culture, voluntary workers and so on. In fact, all Basque citizens’ contributions are valid in Euskadi’s internationalization process, in the project of making Euskadi-Basque Country known all over the world. One of our greatest challenges is bringing all those forces together. 

 

Why do you think the Basque diaspora is so important to the Basque Country’s future? Do you think the history of that diaspora should be part of the curriculum taught to Basque children?
The Basque diaspora is part of this nation. The Basque diaspora is one of the main players in making Euskadi so well-known all over the world. Euskadi’s good reputation, character, culture, and history. That diaspora has worked to make that known all over the world for years, and we definitely have to carry on protecting that treasure by working together.

It is important that children today know about the diaspora as you are part of our nation. You are a part of the history of the Basque Country, we are one and the same, even though we live on different continents, but we are one nation. What’s more, in this increasingly global world, in which our young people are no longer afraid to travel abroad, they have the chance to feel at home in many different places thanks to the diaspora. 

 

Earlier in your career you were a teacher. Did you ever imagine you would become Lehendakari?
To tell the truth, it wasn’t in my plans then and nor was it for a long time afterwards. But life, and politics, often put you in surprising places. Being Lehendakari is a great honor, but it isn’t an end in itself. You’re Lehendakari to lead Euskadi in the right way, that’s the objective, that’s what you have to keep in mind. Basque society chose me as Lehendakari, the people’s confidence put me here. My concern is responding to that confidence in the right way. 

 

How has everyday life changed for you and your family since you became Lehendakari? What’s been the hardest part to get used to?
As I’ve said, being Lehendakari is the biggest honor for a Basque, at least, that’s how I see it. It is an honor and, as such, a responsibility. We have to turn around the situation Euskadi’s in, and, as Lehendakari, I’m going to do all I can to achieve that. That means work, and enthusiasm too. Those are my tools. As far as my family’s concerned, there is no doubt that this new situation influences them. My family has always been my biggest support. I wouldn’t be able to go forward without their help. 

 

Now that you’re president of all Basques, who will you root for when Athletic Bilbao and Real Sociedad play? [Athletic, from Bilbao in Bizkaia province, and Real, from Donostia in Gipuzkoa province, are the bitterest of soccer rivals, putting Urkullu (a Bizkaian) in a difficult spot.]
There are many Basque football clubs, and I’d like to express my support to all of them. Even so, it’s true that the matches between Athletic and Real tend to be the most fiercely contested matches. I can’t deny, Bizkaian as I am, that until now my heart has been white and red. But I also support Real in the matches between them … May the best team win! Whoever wins, matches between Basque teams are always incredible football events, and long may that be so.