- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 20, 2006

SAN SEBASTIAN, Spain — The Eusko Tren that glides out of this seaside city offers a window on Europe’s future. Classical music is piped through speakers as the small commuter train whisks past fields of cows and flowering fruit trees, pausing in stations whose names are posted in Castilian and Euskera, the Spanish and Basque languages.

The journey ends an hour later in the sleepy French border town of Hendaye the first phase of a project to build a 28-mile light-rail system linking Bayonne, in France’s Basque region, to San Sebastian in Spain’s Basque country.

Dreams of connecting the French and Spanish Basque territories have been around for centuries. They form the bedrock of a bloody, 38-year struggle for an independent nation by Basque Homeland and Freedom, widely known by its initials in Euskera, ETA.

In March, the Basque independence fighters declared a cease-fire that underscores a new reality: Infrastructure and idiom, not bombs and bullets, now shape Basque identity.

Across Europe, regional independence struggles have waned, but not regional aspirations. ETA, many hope, will follow the Irish Republican Army in matching its peace declarations with disarmament. Home-grown terrorist groups in Italy, Britain and Germany are history; Corsica’s fighters remain marginalized and fractured by clan rivalries.

Meanwhile, local languages, foods and music are flowering across the 25-member European Union. Regions are signing collaboration agreements to share health, transportation and education services. They are flexing new lobbying clout in Brussels, where there is an EU committee dedicated to their interests.

What is independence?

“What does independence mean anymore in this day and age?” asked Desmond Clifford, head of the Welsh government office at the European Union. “Even national governments don’t entirely control their own destiny, because we’re members of the European Union, because we’re members of NATO, because we’re part of the World Trade Organization, because the United Nations and international courts are becoming increasingly important.”

Now, arguably, the catchword for many Euro-regions is advertising, not autonomy. Bavaria calls itself Germany’s “laptops and lederhosen” state to promote its industrial skills and its cultural traditions.

The Champagne region of France owns legal rights to the name of the pale wine grown there, and competitors elsewhere now must call their beverages “sparkling wine.” Other regions are lobbying the European Union for label protection to products named for places from the liqueur of Cognac and white wine of Chablis to the cheese of Stilton, and olives of Kalamata.

Regions are not only competing with each other, they’re cooperating. Wales, for example, has established formal agreements with Catalonia and Brittany to help preserve traditional languages. It offers expertise on land reclamation to Silesia in Poland, which is wrestling with a similar transition away from a heavy-industry economy.

Spain’s Basque region is joining its French counterpart to establish joint ventures and university exchanges. Businessmen on both sides of the border are collaborating to gain access to Chinese and other foreign markets, and to promote Basque food and tourism.

Perhaps the strongest manifestation of Europe’s regional rebirth involves its plethora of minority languages. Not so long ago, many local dialects were heading for oblivion. No longer.

Euskera now official

Hounded to near extinction by the Franco government, Euskera is now an official language in Spain’s Basque country along with Castilian, and is a mandatory subject in public schools. It is broadcast on a Euskera-only TV station, and printed in a Basque daily newspaper. The regional government also sends teachers across the border to France to help establish Ikastolas — private language schools.

“We Basques are the only ones in the world who speak it,” said Eneko Goya, 34, a legislator in the region’s ruling Basque Nationalist Party, of a tongue spoken by 600,000 Basques. “People realize that if we lose the language, it will disappear altogether.”

In Monaco, Monegasque is being taught in schools, and literature in that language is flourishing. Catalan is also an official language in Spain’s prosperous Catalonia province and is spoken by most of its residents. Irish will become an official EU language next year. For the first time in decades, the number of Welsh speakers in Wales is rising, thanks to enthusiastic efforts in education and dissemination.

“There’s a consensus that developing Welsh language is important for the prosperity of Wales,” said Mr. Clifford of the Welsh government office at the European Union in Brussels. Other regional languages have been less successful. Surveys show the number of Scots speaking Gaelic is declining, and France’s Constitutional Council overturned a 2001 effort by the former Socialist government to recognize and promote about 75 local dialects stamped out by past rulers.

France’s centralized government has put a brake on other regional aspirations. In April, more than a dozen French regions complained to Brussels that EU funds earmarked for them were being managed by Paris. Moreover, the San Sebastian-Bilbao rail rink has barely gone beyond blueprint stage because of foot-dragging in the French capital.

“In Bilbao you talk to one person to get things done, while you need to talk to four or five people in France,” complained Teio Olhagaray, director of economic development for the Chamber of Commerce in Bayonne.

Autonomy bids falter

Regional efforts to gain greater political leverage also falter in some cases. Two months ago, the Spanish government approved a plan to give Catalonia more taxing and judicial powers, and even allowed the highly charged word “nation” to remain in the preamble of its autonomy document.

But pro-independence critics denounced the final treaty as watered down, and others complained that it will encourage other regional demands and risks fragmenting Spain. Last year the bicameral Spanish Cortes overwhelmingly rejected a request for more autonomy from the already powerful Basque government.

Independence seekers say there is no substitute for the real thing: Basque fish and cheese may earn polite praise from Brussels, but a Basque nation will be listened to.

“The only ones making the political and economic decisions [in the European Union] are the 25 member nations,” said Joseba Alvarez, spokesman for the Batasuna (Unity of the People) party, the banned political arm of ETA. “The regions have absolutely no say.” But separation and independence no longer resonate in Basque country, or anywhere else in Western Europe for that matter. Polls here suggest only about a third of Basques favor full separation from Spain.

“In my opinion, all these nationalist ideas are going to disappear with time and with reality,” said Gorka Ladaburu, a prominent Basque journalist based in San Sebastian. “But that doesn’t mean we’re going to renounce our language, or culture, or way of life. We’re simply going to integrate more into Europe.”

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