Zapatero's peace talks fail to heal rift with Basques

The Spanish prime minister, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, sought yesterday to resolve a looming confrontation with Basque leaders, who appear closer to breaking away from Madrid than at any time in the post-Franco era.

The Spanish prime minister, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, sought yesterday to resolve a looming confrontation with Basque leaders, who appear closer to breaking away from Madrid than at any time in the post-Franco era.

In talks with Juan Jose Ibarretxe, the Basque regional president, Mr Zapatero repeated his rejection of Basque proposals to amend Spain's 1979 charter by turning the region into a "free state", with its own court system, and international representatives.

The plan was approved on 30 December by the Basque parliament. Mr Zapatero, backed by a majority of Spanish MPs, has described the proposals as unconstitutional, since the charter can be changed only by a majority of Spaniards, not a single autonomous region.

After a fierce war of words in the early part of the year, yesterday's meeting amounted to the first peace talks in advance of a March vote on the plans in Madrid. But there were few signs that the simmering crisis was defused by yesterday's face to face encounter.

Mr Ibarretxe is continuing to argue that a negotiated extension of Basque self-rule is the only way to end decades of separatist violence.

The blueprint for independence, was approved last month by Basque regional MPs and had support from those sympathetic to Eta armed separatists.

The plan is expected to be defeated in March because both the socialist government and the conservative opposition Popular Party oppose it. But Mr Ibarretxe plans anyway to put it to Basques in a regional referendum - which would set the region on a collision course with Madrid. Spain's constitution also bans regional referendums and if Mr Ibarretxe takes that step the government threaten to stop it in the courts.

By then however, the drive to autonomy in the Basque region may be unstoppable. Regional elections take place in May, and the conservative ruling Basque Nationalist Party (PNV) is likely to use Mr Ibarretxe's blueprint as its main campaign plank.

If the PNV wins an absolute majority, Mr Ibarretxe's hand will be immeasurably strengthened. Mr Zapatero could find himself in the excruciating position of defying the popular will of Spain's richest, most powerful and vociferous region.

Furthermore, Mr Zapatero's government enjoys only a relative majority, and needs support from MPs of regional parties, including - crucially - the independence-minded Catalan Republican Left (ERC). The ERC backs Mr Ibarretxe's plan as offering regional independence without violence.

The way Spain defines itself in relation to its autonomous regions is the most contentious and fragile part of a constitution that has proved remarkably flexible in the 25 years since it was approved, just three years after Franco's dictatorship ended. The document is now straining badly, with Catalans and Basques impatient to rewrite statutes that govern their autonomous status.

Mr Ibarretxe faces one strategic problem. While Catalans of all parties are expected to haggle over a new autonomy deal and come up with a united front to put to Madrid, Basques are deeply divided.

A huge minority of Basques don't want to be cast off from mainstream Spain. By the summer, Mr Zapatero may be turned to courting them instead of his guest yesterday.

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