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A Basque peace opportunity

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Two years after the horrific explosions which killed 191 people on packed rush-hour trains in Madrid – blasts for which the armed Basque nationalist organisation Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (Basque Homeland and Freedom / ETA) was initially blamed – the Basque separatist organisation declared a permanent ceasefire on 22 March 2006. Intense political developments in Spain since that worst-ever terror attack on European soil – on 11 March 2004 ("11-M") - have produced a unique opportunity for the country to resolve the Basque conflict. 11-M and, now, "22-M" are likely to be remembered as key dates in bringing about the decline of homegrown terrorism in Spain.

But, could this really be the end of ETA? Or is it more truly "the beginning of the end"?

Diego Muro is a lecturer in European studies at King's College London

Also by Diego Muro in openDemocracy:

" ETA after Madrid: the beginning of the end? " (March 2004)

The timing of the ceasefire has taken most politicians and opinion-makers by surprise. After all, Spain's attention has focused in recent months on its other northern nation, Catalonia, and the reform of its autonomy statute (due to be approved in the Cortes [parliament] in April). Nationalism is also hegemonic in wealthy Catalonia but, unlike the Basque case, Catalan elites have traditionally been involved in Spanish politics and have helped to develop the "state of autonomies" into a quasi-federal system. The "Catalan way" has proved much more effective than the troublesome "Basque way".

Despite killing more than 800 people since its first assassination of a member of the civil guard at a checkpoint in 1968, ETA has not brought the goal of creating an "independent Basque socialist state" any closer to reality. It could even be argued that its thirty-eight-year campaign has been counterproductive, pushing the project to establish a Basque homeland (Euskal Herria)composed of the seven historic Basque provinces even further into the future ("Euskal Herria" includes the three core provinces of the Basque country, plus Navarre and the three French provinces where Basques live; "Euskadi" refers to the Basque country alone).

ETA began life during the long dictatorship of Francisco Franco (1939-75); initially devised as a study group by young middle-class nationalists in 1959, it evolved into an armed group in the 1960s after its members concluded that Francoism had to be fought on its own terms.

Since then, ETA's long, bloody history has included the 1973 car-bomb assassination of Franco's prime minister and expected heir, Admiral Luis Carrero Blanco; the 1997 kidnapping and murder of Miguel Angel Blanco, a local councillor in the Basque region; the 1987 car-bomb in the underground car park of a Barcelona hypermarket, which left twenty-one people dead; and the 1995 failed car-bomb attempt on the life of conservative Partido Popular (Popular Party) leader – and later prime minister – Josè Maria Aznar.

Now, with its declaration of a ceasefire (due to take effect on 24 March), ETA emphasised the goal of achieving "true democracy in the Basque Country, overcoming long years of violence and constructing a peace based on justice." In a second statement on 23 March, ETA called for peace talks with both Spain and France – which has a Basque population on its side of the countries' border – and urged the two countries not to miss a historic opportunity to resolve western Europe's last armed separatist conflict.

The issues ETA wishes to be negotiated are sure to include the fate of hundreds of ETA members held in Spanish prisons. In a strategy of keeping the prisoners far from their supporters, the inmates have been spread around the country, in some cases sent to jails in the Canary Islands or to Herrera de la Mancha. Family members and others have long protested against the "policy of dispersion", arguing that having to travel hundreds of miles to see their relatives creates an unfair burden.

The recent decline of radical Basque nationalism has been accentuated at both the military and political levels. ETA has not killed anyone since May 2003 and its leaders have been arrested repeatedly in coordinated operations of the Spanish and French police and security forces. Long gone are the days when the French authorities refused to extradite ETA members on the ground that ETA was an internal Spanish problem. In fact, it is the cooperation in the areas of justice and home affairs at European Union level that has contributed to pistols remaining silent for over 1,000 days.

At the political level, the complex network of organisations that make up radical Basque nationalism have been charged and prosecuted relentlessly in Spanish courts since 1997. Several political groups, youth associations, amnesty NGOs and even newspapers have been accused of supporting ETA and, on some occasions, have been banned. The most controversial measure was the criminalisation of the political party Batasuna in 2003, which left ETA with no political voice.

Radical nationalists have been trying to regain the political initiative from the Spanish authorities. In November 2005, the leader of Batasuna, Arnaldo Otegi, launched a peace offer at a rally in San Sebastian, in the Basque region. The offer was a response to prime minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero's offer (endorsed by parliament) of negotiations if ETA gave up its armed struggle. Both declarations are the consequence of popular irritation with the use of violence after the traumatic experience of the Madrid bombings. The indiscriminate cruelty of the terror attacks on 11-M has made it even more difficult for ETA to justify the use of extreme violence as a tactic.

It is impossible at this point to establish whether the permanent ceasefire is genuine or merely a tactical retreat by ETA. What is clear is that it opens the possibility for a peace process, one which may be facilitated by the presence in the Basque Country of individuals such as Father Alec Reid, a long-time confidant of Sinn Fein, the political arm of the Irish Republican Army, and a go-between with the British government.

The Irish example can also act as a reminder that problematic issues such as decommissioning of weapons and amnesties for ETA prisoners will only be achieved by continuous dialogue. It is the responsibility of all Basque political forces, including Batasuna, to contribute to this process. Bearing a heavy responsibility, too, are the two main Spanish parties, the ruling Partido Socialista Obrero Espanol (Spanish Socialist Workers Party / PSOE) and the opposition Popular Party, which must agree on a strategy that resolves Spain's greatest political anomaly.


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