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Basque Country is Spain’s antidote to Catalan secession

BILBAO (Spain)

As Spain and Catalonia head towards a constitutional collision over the region’s claim to independence, lawmakers on both sides of the crisis are pointing to a way out: north, to Basque Country.

Among the verdant mountains of Basque Country, which borders France, a once-violent campaign for independence has petered out, with generous fiscal autonomy from Madrid helping to keep popular agitation for independence in check.

“We don’t have that economic resentment,” Aitor Esteban, organiser for the Basque National Party in Spain’s parliament, said in an interview at party headquarters in Bilbao.

“People don’t feel that need to act upon a grievance about money; that makes a big difference.”

The Catalan government is not calling for a Basque-style deal, insisting instead on independence after declaring overwhelming support for secession in an Oct. 1 referendum banned by Madrid.

But the most moderate lawmakers in the region’s ruling coalition privately say they could drop independence claims if they were given the tax autonomy that Basque Country enjoys.

In Madrid, some socialists have suggested it could serve as a model for a compromise that would defuse Spain’s biggest political crisis since a failed coup in 1981, although the cost to the central government would be significant.

Basque staged modest protests over Madrid’s violent crackdown on Catalonia’s referendum, but the crisis has failed to rekindle secessionist fervour on the streets of Bilbao, the Basque capital nestled on the banks of the Nervion.

Where once unionist politicians needed bodyguards and car bombings were a constant fear, tourists now crowd the taverns of the old town and the world-famous Guggenheim museum.

Just 17 per cent of Basques want independence and less than half would like to hold a referendum on the issue, according to a poll carried out by the university of Deusto.

Basque militant group ETA effectively ended its armed resistance this year when it surrendered its weapons. The region now has one of the highest economic outputs per capita and one of the lowest unemployment rates in Spain.