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The Fueros: Origin of the Basques' special status


Concept and origin of the Fueros

In historical terms, the word Fuero usually refers to the foundational charters of cities and boroughs. These charters were designed to concentrate families in specific places and often included a number of privileges and exemptions. But where the Basque provinces and Navarra are concerned, the term Fueros does not refer to local dispensations but to a series of general laws that these territories laid down for themselves at a time when they enjoyed a large degree of autonomy. These Fueros consisted of a set of ordinances in public and private law which regulated the way the Basque Provinces and Navarra were administered.

The Fueros took shape as a body of law arising from a series of customs and habitual practices that were themselves a reflection of a specific way of thinking and feeling. Perhaps one of the most distinctive features of the Fueros as a whole is their flexibility in the face of changing social conditions. As one expert put it: "A fuero isn't something that suddenly appears, like a new constitution; rather, it is something that is shaped gradually, grounded in history itself. So foral [the adjective derives from fuero] formulas cannot be discarded as inadequate; they are formed continually, are constantly renewed, and do not attempt to base their ultimate justification on preceding formulations. So each formulation is another landmark on the path to their final completion."

  The term fuero has often been associated with privilege. But it should be said that the two have nothing in common. The Fueros do not derive from a supreme authority, but from the repeated practices of a community. To be able to draft such Fueros a community has to be autonomous, i.e., it must have the capacity to endow itself with the legal framework within which it carries on all its activities. So the Fueros are best defined not as a gratia, but rather as a ius.

These principles, defended by prestigious jurists, were repeated by Javier Pérez Anaiz in his El Concierto Económico: evolución, caracteres y fundamentos de la financiación vasca [Economic Agreement: evolution, nature and foundations of the system of Basque financing] published by the Basque Institute of Public Administration (IVAP) in 1992.

So it can be fairly said that the Fueros are an exceptional distinguishing feature of the Basque Country. Each territory (Bizkaia, Alava, Gipuzkoa and Navarra, in Spain; Benavarre, Laburdi and Zuberoa in France) has its own history and has shaped its own law, with a number of similarities and common forms.

Essentially, the legal system we know today as the Fueros were based on the juntas or assemblies of local inhabitants, represented at the Juntas Generales, or General Assembly, supreme governing body for each territory. In the case of Bizkaia, the General Assembly was held at the Casa de Juntas (House of Assembly) in Guernica, by the age-old oak which has been the symbol of the freedom of the Basques since the 15th century.

  The Basque Autonomous Community comprises three territories, Bizkaia, Alava and Gipuzkoa. The territories, first recorded as such in the 8th century, were incorporated into the Crown of Castile from the year 1200, although without giving up their traditional institutions. So successive kings or lords swore to observe the Fueros, to respect the territories' internal organisation, and acknowledged their rights as a free zone, their exemption from crown taxes and from soldiering—except in defence of their own territory.

In the 19th century, a series of partial eliminations and incomplete restorations of the Fueros meant the Basques gradually lost their distinguishing features of their legal status; this process was completed after military defeats in the three Carlist wars. Under a law promulgated on July 21, 1876, the Fueros were abolished, except for one, modified part, which survived as the Contratos or Conciertos Económicos [Economic Agreements], and which established the relationship for tax purposes and the financing of services. Sixty years later, on October 1, 1936, the Spanish Republican Cortes, or Parliament, approved a Statute of Autonomy that made the first Basque Government possible. Since the Statute was passed some months after the beginning of the Spanish Civil War, the Basque Government's influence was limited to the zone unoccupied by rebel troops. The arrival of democracy in Spain brought with it the Statute of Autonomy of Guernica, approved by referendum in 1979 in which the Basques, as an expression of their nationality and as a means to self-government, formed their own Autonomous Community. This basic institutional regulation includes, among other things, the competences exclusive to the Basque Country.

Fecha de la última modificación: 30/06/2009