Ceasfire declaration h guerrillas in Spain
GUERNICA, Spain, Mar 26: A ceasefire declaration this week by the ETA guerrillas not only offers the prospect of a peaceful solution to the conflict over the Basque Country. It also raises the question of what it is to be Basque.
Assuming the ceasefire holds -- and several previous truces have not -- Basque nationalists and Spanish politicians will almost certainly sit down at the negotiating table to chart a future for the troubled region.
When they do, they will be dealing with one of the most fascinating and culturally distinctive corners of Europe.
Basques are a people apart, with a proud history of defiance of outsiders and a keen sense of community and belonging.
They speak a language that baffles outsiders and has nothing in common with those of either Spain or France, the countries where the Basques live on both sides of the common frontier.
''They are said to understand one another,'' one 18th-century French commentator noted. ''But I don't believe they do at all.'' Travel from the arid heartland of Spain to the green hills of Euskadi, the Basque Country, and you can be forgiven for thinking you have entered another country. The food, the signposts, even the shape of the houses are all different.
''To be Basque is a way of being, it is to identify with a series of things, with culture, with language, with history,'' said Mikel, a 55-year-old psychologist from San Sebastian.
SMALL TOWN, BIG HISTORY
Nowhere is the symbolism of Basque identity as vivid as in Guernica, a small town with a big history.
It was here that Basque leaders used to gather in the shade of an oak tree that has become a symbol of regional freedom.
Even now, each newly-elected leader of the Basque parliament comes to Guernica to be sworn into office.
Guernica was immortalised in Pablo Picasso's famous 1937 mural of the same name, which depicted the aerial bombing of the town during the Spanish civil war by German forces backing General Francisco Franco's right-wing Nationalists. The town became a symbol of Basque opposition to Franco, who cracked down on Basque nationalism and banned the use of the Basque language, Euskara, in public.
Since the ban was lifted, the language has enjoyed a revival, and it is now spoken by around 600,000 people out of a Basque population in Spain of around 2.1 million.
The demography of Spain's Basque Country was changed in the 1950s and 60s by an influx of immigrants from the south, drawn to the industrial region by the prospect of jobs.
But many Basques continue to see themselves as not only culturally separate but even a distinct race -- pointing to a shared solid physique and an abnormally high proportion of rhesus-negative blood.
''You can't be Basque and Spanish at the same time,'' said Maddalen, a 21-year-old student from near San Sebastian. ''Those who feel that way are Spaniards who've come from elsewhere.''
INDEPENDENCE RULED OUT
Even if ETA and the Spanish government do get to the negotiating table after an ETA guerrilla campaign lasting almost 40 years, ETA's traditional demand for an independent state is unlikely to be realised. Analysts say there is simply no way the governments of Spain and France would agree to it.
Mikel said he would be in favour of a referendum on independence, but this is something the Spanish government has already ruled out.
Spain's three recognised Basque provinces make up the Basque Autonomous Region, which even now enjoys a high degree of autonomy in the form of its own parliament, police force, tax-raising powers, health and education services.
While around 50 per cent of Basques are nationalist in the broadest sense, only around 10 per cent vote for radical parties.
Ultimately, Euskadi appears destined to remain an autonomous region within Spain, albeit with its own parliament, language, customs, traditional sports, regional dress and its own flag, the red, green and white ''Ikurrina''.
''The Ikurrina should have equal status with the Spanish flag in Europe,'' said Itsaso, a Basque student.
''However,'' she acknowledged, ''I don't think life would change much if it did.''