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The original Europeans

  • 18 May 2007

Some years ago, deep in the Sahara Desert, I asked a traveller where he came from. He said Catalonia. I made some comment about Spain, whereupon he said, ‘I don’t think you heard me. I said that I am Catalan, from Barcelona. I am not Spanish.’ And then he stormed off. A few years later, I met Fernando in Madrid. When I asked him where he was from, he said, ‘I was born in the Basque Country but I am not an ETA terrorist. I am Spanish and I am proud to be Spanish’. More than any other country in Europe, Spain is a nation defined by regional sensibilities, by the battle for coexistence between a state and its constituent elements. This was most starkly illustrated in a 1997 survey by the Vizcaya Chamber of Commerce (Vizcaya is the region of the Spanish Basque Country surrounding Bilbao). Some 80 per cent of the native Basque children who were questioned stated that their primary identity was Basque. A further 12 per cent said that they felt European, while just eight per cent considered themselves Spanish. Among children whose parents had migrated to the Basque Country, 48 per cent said that they were Basque, 28 per cent saw themselves as European and 24 per cent said that they were Spanish. Indeed, the Basque Country is the area of Spain where regional identity is strongest. It is also here that the survival, or otherwise, of Spain will be determined. The Basques are quite possibly the oldest people in Europe. Their history has no legend of origins, no migration myth to explain how they came to live in the north of the Iberian Peninsula. The Basque language, Euskera—described by the 19th-century dictionary of the Royal Spanish Academy as ‘so confusing and obscure that it can hardly be understood’—pre-dates the Indo-European invasion of Europe in around 900 BC. It is an orphan language so distinct that no linguistic relative has been found. It is for this reason that Basques consider themselves to be the original Europeans. The Basques were here when the Romans occupied Iberia and the Roman province of Vasconia gave the Basques the name by which they are known. The Basques, who have historically called themselves Euskaldun (speakers of Euskera) who inhabit Euskal Herria (the land of the Euskera-speakers), fought against the Vikings, against the Muslim armies which occupied Iberia for 800 years and against the Christian