A federal lesson from Basque-land

Basque flag

Basque flag, San Sebastián (source: Travelpod)

By Bill Newton Dunn MEP 

Forty-eight hours in Bilbao last week surprised me. North-Eastern Spain is not depressed by ETA terrorism. It is a prosperous region with below average unemployment, and a city rejuvenated from rundown shipbuilding.  

A short visit to Guernica explained it. Famous for its 1930s bombing and immortalised by Picasso’s painting, Guernica is the seat of the Basque parliament. One of the oldest parliaments in the world, it predates by centuries the 30 year old Spanish federal constitution.  

The Basques wish to preserve their ancient autonomy. They have their own language and are the only region of Spain that is permitted to set its own tax levels and to collect them. Bilbao pays Madrid for federal Spanish services like currency, Foreign Affairs and Defence.  

The rest of Spain sees this as a dangerous precedent – because other regions such as Galicia and Catalonia would like similar freedoms.  

Coming away, I wondered whether this is a model for the UK? Federal benefits but local autonomy. So different from the UK’s muddled relationship with the EU.  

Cameron says unthinkingly, “No more powers to Brussels” without pausing to ask “are there areas where it could beneficial to share powers with other Europeans?” e.g. to fight mounting cross-border crime with a federal police force, a European FBI. Hague cannot explain why he says “never” to the Euro.  

The EU provides the federal services for Europe. The single currency. It is developing its diplomatic service (the External Action Service), Defence should follow – with unusable unaffordable Trident combined with French nuclear power into a European Defence which includes the non-Nato neutral countries.  

Mrs Thatcher deliberately misused the word “federal”, and ever since the debate about Europe has been poisoned inside the UK. Yet the UK fathered many federations around the world.  

Can we learn from Basque-land?  

Bill Newton Dunn is Liberal Democrat MEP for the East Midlands. This article first appeared in Liberal Democrat News, 9 July 2010. The opinions expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of Federal Union.


About the Author