SPAIN may be facing a constitutional crisis as the result of a vote last week in the Basque Parliament in favour of the creation of a Basque State “freely associated” with Spain. If the idea were to be approved by the Basque people in a referendum planned for later this year it would strike a blow at the quasi-federal model that has served Spain so well since it was approved by the people in 1978.

Prime Minister Zapatero is meeting the Basque premier Juan Jose Ibarretxe later this week or early next when it is expected that he will tell the regional leader that his proposal for a form of sovereignty for the Basque country is unacceptable under the Spanish constitution. Sr Zapatero's plan is to allow the Basque initiative to be put before the Spanish Congress where it would almost certainly be defeated by the combined votes of the government and opposition Partido Popular. If that outcome failed to deter Sr Ibarretxe the government could turn to the Constitutional Court as a last resort. However, not even that prospect is likely to stop the Basque leader who has said that “nothing and no one” will prevent him from going ahead with a referendum, perhaps as early April before the local elections in the Basque country in May.

Although Sr Ibarretxe insists that the concept of “free association” does not entail outright independence from Spain it is not clear how the Basque people as a whole would react to a proposition which, even if feasible, would undoubtedly distance them from the Spanish state and, for instance, entail establishing their own representation in foreign countries. After nine relatively trouble-free months on the home front premier Zapatero now faces his first difficult domestic issue.