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Inspired by Canada?

19 Biarritz_07Basques seek to reform their status in Spain

by Robert Scarcia

Below the radar screens of Canadians, an ancient European people clustered around the Atlantic Ocean and the Pyrenees in northeastern Spain is finding inspiration in our constitutional experience. The people in question are the Basques (see box, p. 122), and their Canadian sources of inspiration are two articles of the British North America Act and a decision of the Supreme Court. The stamp of these Canadian ideas can be seen in the Ibarretxe Plan, a proposed reform of the Basque Statute of Autonomy whose architect, Juan José Ibarretxe (Ee-bar-ay-chay), member of the Basque Nationalist Party, heads the Basque Provinces’ centre-left coalition government (see box).

The core idea is to follow the principle set out in articles 91 and 92 of the Canadian Constitution, to use lists to divide powers between the political centre and the periphery. Unlike the BNA Act, the plan does not list the powers of both levels: it sets out a list of proposed Spanish central government competences, leaving the rest to the Basque Provinces government. Madrid would retain full competence over citizenship, refugees, defence, the monetary system, intellectual and industrial property, tariffs and the merchant marine. Foreign affairs would be Madrid’s affair except that the Basques would have to be consulted when specific Basque interests are at stake. Broadly speaking, the Basque Provinces government would control all other non-listed policies, including the management and administration of education, health, Basque language, finances, industry, human resources and the judicial system.

The reform plan was adopted by the Basque Provinces regional parliament on December 30, 2004, though as expected it was rejected by the Spanish Congress a month later. Yet the issue is not dead: Spanish Prime Minister José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero has promised a broad reform of the relationship between the central state and the 17 regional entities. This reform would respect the existing asymmetry in which the Basque Provinces and Catalonia are singled out as “peripheral nationalities.”

In drawing historical and political parallels with Canada, I suggest that Canadians should “retourner l’ascenseur”: not just provide inspiration to Spain but also take inspiration from it.

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Robert Scarcia


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