Traces of the territorial conflict in the Basque Country and Catalonia

The territorial conflict in Spain has had different protagonists over time. During the first two decades of democracy, the terrorism of ETA located the main fracture in the Basque Country. However, with the arrival of the new millennium, the tensions gradually shifted from the Basque Country to Catalonia. While the failure of the reform of the Basque Statute (the so-called Ibarretxe plan) in 2005 ended up imposing the pragmatic path in the PNV, the approval in Catalonia of the new Statute and the ruling of the Constitutional Court four years later triggered the turn of the main political actors in Catalonia towards more radical positions. In the fall of 2012, one year after the dissolution of the terrorist group ETA, Artur Mas opened the road to sovereignty in Catalonia, a process that culminated in the unilateral declaration of independence five years later.

The burden of the territorial conflict on Basque and Catalan public opinion is different. As I will show throughout the following analyses, the main trace of the conflict in Basque public opinion is silence. In Catalonia it is division. Basque voters are less separated in the way they socially approach or perceive the independence debate. However, a part of its population does not speak or does not want to talk about this issue. In Catalonia the latter occurs less, but the political divisions on the question of independence are deeper. Let’s see the analysis with the data of the EsadeEcPol and ICIP survey on “Polarization and Coexistence in Spain”.

First, as might be expected, support for independence in Catalonia is higher than in the Basque Country. While 13% of the Basques declare themselves “Totally in favor” of independence, that figure rises to 31% in Catalonia. The number of “indifferent” on this issue is somewhat higher among the Basques (15%) than among the Catalans (11%). In addition, among the former the percentage of those who “prefer not to answer” to this question is also higher (10% of the Basques, compared to 5% of the Catalans). This may indicate that a part of Basque society continues to be reluctant to express its opinion on this issue. The feeling of lack of freedom to talk about politics has been a characteristic feature of Basque public opinion (see Llera et al 2022).

Figure 1. support for independence

Secondly, at first glance, the status of the independence debate in both territories is not very different. As can be seen in Graph 2, when citizens are asked if they would be willing to join a conversation on the topic of independence at work or among family members, both in the Basque Country and in Catalonia, most of them would avoid the topic. in their professional environment and most would also join if it were a conversation between family members (the same results apply if it were a group of friends), although the predisposition to talk about the subject is higher in both settings (work and family) in Catalonia. The percentage of people who prefer not to answer is still somewhat higher in the Basque Country than in Catalonia.

Graph 2. Willingness to join a conversation about independence at work and in the family.



However, although the general percentages shown in Graph 2 are not radically different, in Catalonia there is a greater division regarding how voters socially approach, in private and in public, the question of independence. As can be seen in Graphs 3 and 4, in Catalonia the most favorable constituencies for independence – Junts and CUP – are also the ones that are most predisposed to enter into the debate if the issue of independence comes up in a work conversation or in the family. On the other hand, most of the non-independence voters prefer to avoid a conversation on the subject. In the case of the Basque Country, the differences between voters are not as intense, although a much higher percentage of those who do not declare their intention to vote prefer not to answer the question (60% in the Basque Country compared to 30% in Catalonia, data not shown).

Graph 3. Willingness to join a conversation about independence at workaccording to intention to vote in the Basque Country and in Catalonia.



Graph 4. Willingness to join a conversation about independence in the familyaccording to intention to vote in the Basque Country and in Catalonia.



Thirdly, there are important differences between Catalonia and the Basque Country in how citizens perceive the division on the territorial issue in their immediate surroundings. When asked what their partners, relatives, neighbours, friends or co-workers think about the issue of independence, in Catalonia there are more citizens who believe that their opinions are shared mainly in their professional or family circles (Graph 5). In the Basque Country, there are more citizens who think that their personal or professional environment does not have the same opinion regarding independence. However, a higher percentage of Basques say they do not know what their co-workers or relatives think about independence (the same occurs when they are asked about their neighbors, friends or partners).

Graph 5. Degree of agreement with what you think about the independence of your work/family environment



Finally, the differences between groups of voters are, once again, more intense in Catalonia (Graphs 6 and 7). The most nationalist Catalans live —or so they perceive it— in environments that mostly agree with them on the independence issue: those who vote for Junts or the CUP believe more than the rest (ERC voters included) than their professional or family circles They mostly think like them. The same is not the case in the Basque Country, where both the general perception of the degree of agreement in the community and the differences between voters regarding these perceptions are less than in Catalonia.

Graph 6. Willingness to join a conversation about independence at workaccording to intention to vote in the Basque Country and in Catalonia.



Graph 7. Willingness to join a conversation about independence in the familyaccording to intention to vote in the Basque Country and in Catalonia.



In short, the data indicates that in the Basque Country there is less division around the independence debate, although a part of the population is more reticent to talk about this issue. In Catalonia, on the other hand, the fracture between citizens is political, and it is reflected both in the way in which they approach the independence debate socially and in their perception of the degree of disagreement on this issue with the people with whom they live.

Traces of the territorial conflict in the Basque Country and Catalonia