Basque leader urges separation from Spain

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The Basque regional leader, Juan Jose Ibarretxe, defended a plan for negotiated independence from Spain in front of a hostile parliament in Madrid yesterday, prompting the most intense debate for decades over the constitutional definition of Spain.

The Basque regional leader, Juan Jose Ibarretxe, defended a plan for negotiated independence from Spain in front of a hostile parliament in Madrid yesterday, prompting the most intense debate for decades over the constitutional definition of Spain.

"I have come here to defend the right of the Basque people to define their future," Mr Ibarretxe said, as he put forward his plan for "free association" with Spain. "We come with our hand outstretched; don't spurn it. This is a democratic proposal, open to negotiation," he insisted.

The plan, which proposes a Basque legal system and representation in international bodies, is backed by the region's autonomous parliament, although an important regional minority opposes it.

Yesterday was the first time a Basque leader had addressed MPs in Madrid since the end of Franco's dictatorship 30 years ago and, for Spain's political class, it was an important moment. Mr Ibarretxe developed his blueprint as the only political option to end Eta separatist violence. "No one has damaged the Basque people more than the violent barbarity of Eta," he said. But the odds were stacked against Mr Ibarretxe, since Madrid's ruling Socialists and the opposition Popular Party opposed the plan as unconstitutional, and it was expected to be defeated by about 300 votes.

The Prime Minister, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, rejected the plan but opened the door to a broader agreement that could reconcile Basques' desire for more self-rule with Spain's definition as a regionally diverse state. "Your aspirations for greater areas of self-government are possible through dialogue," Mr Zapatero said.

The expected "no" vote "will not be a victory, and should not be interpreted by anybody as a defeat," Mr Zapatero said. Yesterday's debate "did not mark the end of the plan but the start of a new project for Euskadi and Spain as a whole".

The conciliatory tone of both main speakers yesterday was notable and perhaps suggests that a process of haggling and arm-twisting is now about to begin. Mr Zapatero wants all Basque parties to get together and hammer out a common position on the reform of their autonomy statute.

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