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Separatist Movements May Be Fading in Europe

With the recent declaration of a permanent cease-fire by the Basque terrorist group ETA, many believe Europe's regional independence struggles are dying out. But regional aspirations remain strong. Local languages, foods and music are flowering across the 25-member bloc. Regions are collaborating in development plans, and flexing new lobbying clout at the European Union, in Brussels.

Board the Eusko Tren in San Sebastian and you may be peeking at Europe's future. The commuter train whisks pasts fields of cows and flowering fruit trees. It pauses in stations whose names are posted in both Castilian and in the ancient Basque language of Euskera.

The journey ends an hour later in the sleepy French border town of Hendaye - the first phase of grand ambitions to build a 45-kilometer rail system across the Basque region linking Bayonne in France to San Sebastian, Spain.

Dreams of connecting 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 the Basque group known as ETA, which the State Department lists as a terrorist organization.

In March, ETA declared a permanent cease-fire. And some Basques, like Gorka Landaburu, believes this truce underscores a new reality: that language, culture and infrastructure are shaping the Basque identity, not bombs and bullets.

A prominent Basque journalist based in San Sebastian, Landaburu says he believes separatist ideas - like those of ETA - are disappearing in Spain's Basque region, and across Europe. But he says that does not mean Basques are going to renounce their culture and way of life, they are simply going to integrate more into Europe.

The ETA is not the only terrorist group fading from the European landscape. The Irish Republican Army has renounced violence, home-grown terrorists groups in Italy, Britain and Germany are all but snuffed out, and those in Corsica are marginalized and fractured by infighting.

Some regional politicians, like Desmond Clifford, argue independence struggles make little sense today in Europe. Clifford heads the government office for Wales at the European Union, in Brussels.

"One of the questions people raise is what can independence in this day and age mean any more? Even national governments in many senses do not entirely control their own destiny," said Clifford. "Because we are members of the European Union. Because we are members of NATO - which takes care of important areas of decision making for strategic defense. We are part of the World Trade Organization. Increasingly, the United Nations and international courts are becoming important."

Today, the arguable catchword for many euro-regions is advertising, not autonomy.

Bavaria brands itself as Germany's laptops and lederhosen state - to promote both its industrial might and its cultural traditions. France's Champagne region has exclusive rights to the bubbly - its rivals must call their beverages sparkling wine.

Other regions are also lobbying the European Union for special label protection for products ranging from Chablis wine from France, Stilton cheese from England and Kalamata olives from Greece.

Regions are not just competing against each other. Wales, for example, shares ideas on ways to preserve traditional languages with Catalonia in Spain, and Brittany in France. Spanish and French Basque regions are establishing joint business ventures, including in foreign markets.

Martin Jones has been observing recent trends, as a Brussels-based expert on regional development for a private consultancy firm.

"If you look at regions like Northern Ireland and the Basque country - they had a history of violence in the past," he said. "The focus is changing because people have had enough of that. They are looking at different ways to assert their identity through peaceful means - and things like language, food, culture - they are all a big part of that."

Europe's regional renaissance is perhaps best manifested through its languages. Not so long ago, many local dialects appeared to be heading for the linguistic dust bin. No longer.

The Basque language, Euskera, was once repressed under Spanish dictator Francisco Franco. Now, it is an official language in Spain's Basque country, and a mandatory subject in public schools. There is a Euskera-only TV station and a Euskera language newspaper.

Eneko Goya, a lawmaker for the ruling regional Basque Nationalist Party, says Basques understand the importance of preserving their language. We Basques are the only ones in the world who speak the Euskera, Goya says. People realize if they lose the language, it will disappear altogether.

The Riviera principality of Monaco also teaches its local language - Monegasque - in public schools, and literature in the language is flourishing. Catalan is an official language in Spain's prosperous Catalonia province. Irish becomes an official EU language next year.

And for the first time in decades, says Clifford of the Welsh office, the number of Welsh speakers in Wales is rising, thanks to aggressive education and promotion efforts.

"There is a consensus that the development of the Welsh language is important to the prosperity of Wales as a whole - not just those who speak the Welsh language," he said. "Not least because it marks us out in a global world."

Other regional languages have been less successful.

Knowledge is declining of Gaelic in Scotland, and of a number of French dialects.