An Interview with Xabier Ormaetxea

Conducted in Summer 2006

Long time visitors of Buber’s Basque Page will recognize Xabier Ormaetxea. He was the driving force behind the Surname Research Project that was such a big part of Buber’s Basque Page in the early days. Those surname pages are still among the most popular areas of Buber’s Basque Page. However, beyond his great interest in genealogy, Xabier was also a member of the Basque Parliament for nearly 20 years. 

Here, Xabier describes the work of the Basque Government, why he is so interested in genealogy, and his current work helping orphans in the Ukraine.

Buber’s Basque Page: You spent 17 years in the Basque parliament as a representative of PNV. For those not familiar with the government in Euskadi, could you briefly describe what the main powers and responsibilities of the Basque government are?

About Xabier:

Xabier Ormaetxea was born in 1961. His is married with three children. His primary area of study has been law. He has been a member of the Basque National Party since 1976 when he was 15 years old. From 1988 to 2005, he was a member of the Basque Parliament over 5 legislative sessions. During that time, he was President of the Industry Commision three times and President of the Foreign Affairs Commission once. He was also the coordinator and vice-speaker of the Nationalist Parliamentary Group.

Outside of his political experience, Xabier has been the manager of a small public company and a lawyer. Amongst other things, Xabier is currently the founder and president of the Ekialde Foundation.

Xabier Ormaetxea: A complete answer to this question could take a big book. But I will try to do it briefly.

The most important thing in our autonomy system is the Economic agreement between Spain and the Basque Country. Almost all taxes are regulated and collected by the Basque Country. When the Spanish Parliament approves the yearly budget, the Basque Country pays to the Spanish Government 6.24% of the matters that are not under the rule of Basque institutions. BC pays 6.24% of Spanish budget concerning the Army, Foreign affairs, the Judicial system, Crown/Royal expenses etc. But we don’t pay for those matters that are ruled and administrated by the Basque Government, such as police, public health, education, culture, industry, agriculture, environment, transportation, etc. The Basque Government and Parliament has a great deal of autonomy in almost all matters that affect the daily life of citizens with full legislation and administration power. In some matters the Spanish Parliament can rule on the basic aspects, and legislative development is a power of the Basque Parliament.

I began talking about the so-called economic agreement, because the base of government everywhere is the capability of self-finance, and even when, from a legal point of view you do not officially have certain powers, if you have money you can act. An example is scientific and technological research; legally this is a power of the Spanish Government, and we Basques pay 6.24% of the Spanish budget in research, but Spain dedicates almost all of the investigation in other areas, so Basque institutions use their own funds to develop and maintain in the Basque Country a very good infrastructure of technological and scientific research. Even if we think we must have greater autonomy, we recognize that our autonomy today is very important and is probably bigger than that of the states in the USA or the German lender.

BBPThe Basque government has, historically, pushed for more powers. Recently, there was news that they were, again, pushing for more powers. What are the main powers that the Basque government is trying to obtain?

Xabier Ormaetxea: More powers are important for us, because we know that we can manage public matters better than Spain can. But before talking about those new powers we ask for other things that maybe are not powers but are even more important: The recognition of Basque Country as a people or nation formed by 7 regions or provinces ( 3 in France and 4 in Spain), living today in 3 different political statuses (Basque Autonomous Community, Navarre Foral Community, and the French Basque Country), that must be enabled to establish between themselves the relations that they themselves will decide.

The recognition of the right to self decide, or the right of self determination. To establish what we call an “armoring” of our autonomy system, so that the Spanish government cannot diminish it, as it has happened during the last few years using fraudulently the so-called basic legislation. And finally to create a new impartial system to solve the conflicts between the Spanish and Basque governments, because today the organs that decide in the cases of conflict of powers are always the Spanish courts.

About new powers that are particularly important: to have our own judicial system would be important for us as well as the recognition of certain international representation, such as, for instance, the possibility of have our own national sport selections, or more importantly to have the right of direct relations with European institutions. It is not logical that the Basque Government has full powers in certain matters such as fishing, agriculture, industry etc, but that the defense and representation of our interests and polices in those matters inside the European Union correspond to the Spanish government. To summarize our mentality, we are in favor of the creation of the United States of Europe, and we Basques want to be the “Rhode Island of Europe” and not a county of a bigger state.

BBPDuring your 17 years in Parliament, what were the biggest changes you observed in the Basque government?

Xabier Ormaetxea: There has not been very big changes. During those 17 years there have been two stages. The first was that of the coalition government between the socialist party and the Basque national party. During that stage, the advances in self government were not big, but we greatly improved the quality of our administration, and our health and education systems were put at level equal to the rest of Europe. In the second stage, the government was held by EA and IU, and the government has been trying to obtain a higher level of self-government. In any case, the constant of these 17 years has been to search for paths to obtain peace and put end to the terrorism of ETA, to increase our level of self-government and to obtain a recognition of our national status, to improve our economy and create better welfare for our citizens, and to maintain a high standard in good public administration.

BBPWhat projects were you yourself involved in? What were, for you, the most rewarding aspects of being in the Parliament?

Xabier Ormaetxea: I was president of the Industry Commission during 3 legislatures, and president of the foreign affairs commission in the last one. As president of the Industry Commission I was in close contact with all of the activity held in our country to reform and stimulate our Industry after the great crisis, and also with the process to improve our energy processing system. From the parliament we supported, as much as we could, the plans of the Government in both areas and now we can say that Basque Country was successful in that. Now, we have renewed Industrial activity, the health of our companies is better, we are leaders in Spain in applied technological research, our ratio of unemployment is lower that the average ratio of the European Union, and our gross income per inhabitant passed over the last 15 years from being only 85% of the European average to 115%.

As president of the foreign affairs commission, on the other hand, I cannot feel satisfied. I think our Country has not given enough importance and resources to that aspect; we have a lack of good planning and view of the future in that area. It is still one of our pending matters and we are loosing many opportunities.

Apart from my activity in those commissions, I also worked in the education commission, universities, and in many political debates. The most rewarding aspects of being in the Parliament are the possibility of being in touch with many different aspects of political activity, one day you study and work in the University, the next day you talk about the peace process, and the following about energy. You are learning and learning everyday, and you get a wide view of your country, its problems, and the efforts to improve in many different areas.

BBPI also recall that you were involved in helping the Kurdish parliament-in-exile meet in Euskadi. Are there typically strong ties between all of these governments without a nation?

Xabier Ormaetxea: Not ties, but yes a mutual sympathy, and of course a very good position to understand the historic revendications of peoples without a state. You use the word nation in a very different way from how we use it. For us, nation is the same as people. A nation is a group of people who share a common origin, culture, language, and of course a common will. State is an artificial structure created by different historical situations. We feel strong sympathy for any people that fight by democratic and pacific means to obtain its right of self-determination and are always ready to help them.

The Kurdish, Scottish, Flemish, Catalan, Tibetan, etc, and even Native American peoples, and many others around the world have the right to be themselves and decide their own future.

BBP: I was wondering how the developments in Catalonia affect things in Euskadi. Recently in the news, there was discussion of the Statute of Autonomy that Catalonia passed. What is the “relationship” between Euskadi and Catalonia? It seems that they sort of play off of one another, with one area achieving some small step towards more autonomy and the other using that to demand more. Is this a purely informal relationship, or is this coordinated to some degree?

Xabier Ormaetxea: There has always existed a mutual sympathy between Catalonia and the Basque Country, and we can’t deny that we are always watching what the other is doing. There has always been attempts to establish a coordinated effort between the main national parties, and of course there are periodic contacts, common manifestos, etc., but unfortunately we cannot talk about a real coordinated action. Each one has its own interests and strategies and plays its cards the best it can depending on the political situation in either the Basque Country or Catalonia: the necessity of pacts with the Spanish ruling party and the requirements of existing pacts with the Spanish ruling party.

But above all these differences there exists an unwritten pact between us: no matter if we agree with or not, we will support your decisions that concern your own country. Our demands of stronger autonomy have been promoted in very different manners: Basques began the process in a more radical way, and with stronger demands, with the total opposition of the Spanish parties, while Catalans have done it less radically and with some help from the Spanish Socialist Party (while the Catalan socialist party is more Catalan, the Basque socialist party is much less Basque). Finally they accepted a very diminished version of what they approved in their parliament; their pragmatic way of acting made them accept it. Our process is different and now very linked to the peace process; our revendications are more radical. Let’s see what the final result will be, because we still think that our old statute of autonomy is better than their new one (mainly because we solved long ago our tax-finance autonomy).

BBPYou have been very involved since your retirement from the Basque parliament in helping orphanages in the Ukraine. What got you involved in this effort? How are you helping these kids?

Xabier Ormaetxea: I have always been interested in foreign relations, especially in foreign cooperation of development. When I was president of the Foreign affairs commission of the Basque parliament, I saw that Ukraine was a very interesting country for many reasons. It is a big country trying to recover its national identity after many years of Russification. It is a very interesting country for economic reasons with an important technical and industrial tradition, and the Ukraine must make a very important decision about its future in the European Union, or in the region of Russian influence.

When I visited the Ukraine for first time I formed a very special friendship with an outstanding man, the Roman Catholic Bishop of Kiev Stanislaw Shirokoradiuk who is also president of Caritas-Spes Ukraine. I got involved in their charity projects and decided to create a Foundation (Ekialde, which means east in Basque) to help Ukrainian children. Many Europeans are used to seeing the poverty and misery in Africa and South America but don’t know that we can also find it in the heart of Europe. What I can do in this aspect is little, but, believe me, this activity with children gives me much more satisfactions that any other thing I have ever done in my life, including politics.

BBPYou are currently working on your dissertation on Basque history. Which aspect of Basque history did you focus on? What have you learned during your research?

Xabier Ormaetxea: I focus on the part of the Basque XIX century during which we lost our fueros or semi-independence, and the defense of our ancient rights, mainly the period between the first and the third Carlist Wars ( 1833-1876). During this period the idea of historical rights began to appear in debates, books and articles. Most politicians of the time believed that it was possible to go back to the old situation with a new pact with Spain but that course of action was impossible and that is why Basque nationalism was born.

What I have learned is that the birth of Basque nationalism is the end of an historical process, and that the main ideological influences in the formulation of the bases of modern Basque Nationalism were not from Carlism as historians use to say, but from the so called Liberal Basquism or fuerism that elaborated political theories about the Historical rights.

BBPYou mention Liberal Basquism. Is this the same as a defense of the fueros, or is it something more? Can you elaborate on what you mean by Liberal Basquism?

Xabier Ormaetxea: Yes, it is usually believed that, during the Carlist Wars, the Carlists defended the Fueros, and the Liberals were against them, but this is not the case. On the liberal side, there were a very important group that today is known as the liberal-fueristas. They made an important defense of the Fueros, and elaborated a political theory about them that can be considered the antecedent of Basque nationalism. If one read their works, the final conclusion would be the right of independence and self-determination. They didn’t make that conclusion because they all thought that it was possible to come back to the Fueros. Sabino Arana was the man that realized that it was almost impossible to go back to the formula typical of the ancient regime and that self-determination or independence was the only possible way.

As Sabino was a Carlist, and since for him religion was very important, it has been believed that his political theory came from Carlism. I have clearly seen that he took obvious elements from the Carlists but he also used many theoretical elaborations of Basquist liberals, plus, more importantly, he added the new “principle of nationalities” that would play a main role in the Europe and the World of the XX century.

BBPWhen you and I first met, we began interacting because of genealogy. You have continued being very active, now especially in the Yahoo basque-genealogy group. Why is genealogy of such great interest to you? You often go out of your way to help Basques in the diaspora with their genealogy questions. Why do you think it is so important for the diaspora to learn about their ancestry?

Xabier Ormaetxea: We all have a need to have our own identity. There is a sentence of A. Lincoln that says (I will translate from Spanish) “I don’t care about who was my grandfather, I care about what will happen with his grandson.” Well I don’t agree with him; it is not a matter of choosing between the past and the future. We all need both, even if the future is more important.

We are like noble trees: the greater part of each of us is above the surface but we also have roots, and it is good to know our roots. I find it fascinating to research one’s genealogy and find so many ancestors. Each generation you go back, you double your ancestry; if you trace back 10 generations, you have 512 ancestors, and each generation you double that number.

For the diaspora, genealogy is interesting for that reason. It helps them to get their identity. In my case I enjoy helping them because it is a way to help them to know about their ancestors, and in many case to discover that they have Basque roots. For many people that never heard before about our people, genealogy has been a way to know about our existence.

BBPFinally, how do you, with your years of experience in the government, view the future of the Basque Country? Where will the political process end?

Xabier Ormaetxea: I cannot know. I am a dreamer and will never abandon my dream of an Independent Basque Country in a United Europe; that will be my goal for the rest of my life. But in any case, it is enough for me to know that our people will continue existing, and that we can create a better country for our citizens in all aspects. A political process never has an end; there will always be new frontiers to cross.

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