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Peace in the Basque Country?

17 October 2011

Peace in the Basque Country?

By Gwynne Dyer

Neither the Spanish government nor the ETA terrorists were there, but a conference in the northern Spanish city of San Sebastian last weekend will probably lead to the end of ETA’s long and violent campaign for Basque independence. “We believe it is time to end, and it is possible to end, the last armed confrontation in Europe,” said former Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern after the conference.

Among the other guests was Gerry Adams, once the spokesman of Sinn Fein, the political wing of the Provisional Irish Republican Army, which fought its own 28-year war for the separation of Northern Ireland from the United Kingdom. Former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan was also there, together with a number of other luminaries. The aim was to give ETA an excuse to come in from the cold.

When ETA (Euskadi Ta Askatasuna – Basque Homeland and Liberty) began its campaign in 1959, Spain was ruled by a dictator, Francisco Franco, and the Basques were an oppressed people. Half a century and 850 killings later, Spain is a democracy and the Basques are free and prosperous. That wasn’t ETA’s doing at all, but it’s hard for ETA’s militants to admit that all the killings and all their sacrifices were unnecessary and irrelevant.

Most of the militants are ready to quite now: they haven’t killed anybody for over two years. But in the past there were always some ETA members who were determined to carry on the war. ETA has declared ten ceasefires in the past 30 years, and broken nine of them with terrorist attacks. Why should the one it declared last January be any different?

The Spanish government, wary of being fooled again, greeted this year’s offer with deep suspicion, but some important things have changed. Popular support for Herri Batasuna, ETA’s political wing, had dwindled to around ten percent of the vote before the party was finally banned as a terrorist front in 2002.

Moreover, the Basque-speaking provinces on the other side of the frontier, in south-western France, are no longer a safe haven for ETA’s militants. France used to leave them alone in order to avoid attacks on French territory, but for more than a decade now Paris has cooperated closely with Madrid in hunting them down.

The results have been startlingly successful. ETA is on its sixth leader in three years, the previous five having been arrested one after another by the Spanish or French police. The organisation is obviously riddled with informants, and it is clearly time to give up the fight.

But ETA’s members still have their pride, and so every ceasefire offer they make is hedged with demands for face-saving concessions. For example, the most recent ceasefire declaration proposed that a “permanent and general ceasefire” should be verified by international observers – an obvious attempt to internationalise what has always until now been an internal matter for Spain.

So how do you get these proud and desperate individuals to give up the fight? It’s all about symbolism, which is why so many international leaders and ex-leaders came to San Sebastian last weekend to appeal to ETA to make a public declaration of the “definitive cessation of all armed action”. If all those important international figures beg it to stop, maybe it can graciously concede at last.

That was the theory behind the conference, which was also attended by many local politicians including radical Basque nationalists. ETA has probably already agreed in private to respond favourably to their plea – these events are generally choreographed in advance. Its declaration of a definitive and unconditional ceasefire may come as soon as this week.

It will then be up to Basque nationalists to continue their struggle for a separate state by non-violent means, and they are likely to find that hard. Only about half the population of Spain’s four Basque provinces is actually descended from ethnic Basques (the rest are Spanish incomers and their descendants), and less than a quarter of the population can actually speak Basque.

Nor do they have much to complain about. The Basque provinces have the highest per capita income of any region of Spain, and more autonomy than any other region. Indeed, provided that they remained part of the European Union (which the nationalists swear that they would), then full “independence” would not really give them much more freedom of action than they have now.

The Basques are an ancient people with a language almost nobody else understands, and it is a pity that European history did not give them a separate state. But it didn’t, and it is very unlikely that a majority of the population in the Basque provinces would now vote for independence if there were a referendum on the subject.

It’s rather like the situation of the French-speaking majority in Quebec (apart from the history of fascist repression and the 850 dead, of course). Few Quebec francophones love the Canadian federal government, but it doesn’t do them any harm. They run their own show, they are prosperous, and who knows what problems independence might bring? So in two referendums fifteen years apart (1980 and 1995), they voted no to independence.

Spain should probably allow a referendum, but the war will end soon whether Madrid promises that or not. So it almost certainly won’t.


To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 10, 12 and 14. (“That was…this week”; “Nor…now”; and “It’s rather…independence”)

Basque Terrorism: As Good As It Gets

18 August 2009

Basque Terrorism: As Good As It Gets

By Gwynne Dyer

It’s still a nest of terrorists around here, but nobody worries about it much. These days, when you hear a helicopter at night it’s only the medevac chopper bringing some urgent case down to the main hospital at Bayonne on the coast.

In the bad old days, the helicopter you heard would have been using infrared detectors to spot Basque terrorists heading across the mountains at night into Spain. This south-western corner of France is just as Basque as the much larger Basque-speaking provinc es of Spain, but ETA (Euskadi ta Askatasuna – Basque Land and Liberty) always used France as a safe rear area and did its actual killing across the frontier.

The terrorists are still around, and they enjoy a certain amount of local support. Last Saturday was the summer festival in our local town, Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port (or Donibane Garazi, in Basque), and everybody for miles around was drinking and dancing in the square below the citadel, waiting for it to get dark enough for the fireworks to begin. Suddenly banners were unfurled on the city walls: “Kidnapped? Tortured? Murdered? Where is Jon?”

So you ask, and it turns out that everybody knows who Jon is. He’s a local man, universally believed to be an ETA member, who got on a train to Toulouse but never arrived. Everybody also believes that he was carrying a large sum of money for ETA, which leads nasty cynics like myself to contemplate several alternative possible reasons for his disappearance, but local opinion is convinced that it was the state that got him.

Yet local opinion is not really very upset about it. Most people don’t care much whether the French police seized or killed Jon, or if somebody else robbed and killed him, or even if he just decided to disappear and live on the proceeds. It’s all part of the game that some play on the fringes of society, and they are welcome to play it as long as they don’t frighten the horses.

Across the border in Spain, where the killing happens, people take ETA much more seriously, and there is less sympathy for the killers among Spanish Basques than among French Basques. But there is also irreducible hard core of support for the extreme nationalist option. Spain does not let political parties that openly support terrorism run in national elections, but when a radical Basque party was allowed to run in the June elections for the European parliament it got 140,000 votes.

That’s only five percent of the population in those provinces. The terrorist struggle for Basque independence has so few supporters because the Basque provinces of Spain already have almost complete control over their own affairs. But that tiny minority of hard-liners is enough to sustain the armed struggle forever.

The “struggle” has killed 825 people over the past forty years, including three police killed by ETA bombs and sixty people injured by a truck bomb in Burgos this summer. There have been three cease-fires over the years, the last in 2006, but they never lead to a final deal because there is a small but steady supply of young people who cannot resist the lure of extremism. It gives meaning to their little lives.

But even on the Spanish side of the frontier, where there are deaths from terrorism every year, few people see it as a dominant factor in their lives. It’s just background noise, like the daily toll from traffic accidents.

The French police now cooperate closely with their Spanish counterparts in trying to catch the ETA militants who shelter in the French Basque provinces, but even when they didn’t, nobody in Spain suggested invading France to stamp out the terrorist sanctuaries. That would be grotesquely disproportionate, like invading Afghanistan to protect Americans from Arab terrorists.

The ETA story, like that of the IRA in Northern Ireland, teaches us three things. The first is that you don’t need a territorial “base” to carry out terrorist attacks; an isolated farmhouse or an anonymous city apartment will do. The second is that you should treat terrorism like any other crime: use the police to track the perpetrators down, and don’t inflate the whole problem enormously by getting the army involved.

The third is that you must not expect a decisive victory. When we talk about a “war on crime”, we do not expect all the criminals to come out one day with their hands up, after which there will be no more crime. Success is defined in terms of keeping the crime RATE down. Success in anti-terrorist operations has to be seen in similar terms, and anybody who promises you more is lying.

Eight years of the “war on terror” have created a huge military, corporate and bureaucratic lobby in the United States whose livelihood depends on a highly militarised approach to terrorism, so it will be a long time before a saner strategy prevails in Washington. Britain’s learning curve in Northern Ireland was thirty years long, and Russia has learned nothing yet in Chechnya. But people generally do the right thing in the end – after they have exhausted all the alternatives.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 8 and 9. (“The struggle…accidents”)

Spain’s Response

11 March 2004

Spain’s Response

By Gwynne Dyer

Taking the relative size of Spain and the United States into account, Thursday’s terrorist atrocities in Madrid amounted to about half a 9/11: almost 200 dead and over 1,400 injured in a population of less than 40 million. Spain’s people and government are very angry, and they want to see the terrorists punished. They also want to be safe — but not at any cost.

There are claims that the attacks were the work of al-Qaeda, although at the time of writing the Spanish government still believes that the bombs were planted by the Basque separatist group ETA. Let us assume for the moment that it really was ETA’s doing. Here are three things that the Spanish government will not do, no matter who is running it after Sunday’s election.

First, it will not declare ‘war’ on the ETA terrorists and send the Spanish army in to occupy the Basque provinces of northern Spain. Dealing with terrorists will remain a job for the police and intelligence services, operating within the normal confines of Spanish law.

Secondly, it will not arrest thousands of Basques suspected of supporting ETA and whisk them away to a prison camp in some out-of-the-way place where they will be beyond the reach of the Spanish courts, and can be held indefinitely without any proof of wrongdoing.

Thirdly, it will not invade and occupy the neighbouring Basque-speaking provinces of France, just across the Pyrenees, even though Basque militants over the years have made much use of that sanctuary to rest, re-arm, and plan new attacks.

In other words, the Spanish government will not lose its balance. A terrible thing has happened, but it knows that responding with illegal violence and repression would just drive lots of innocent and law-abiding Basques into the terrorists’ camp. It also knows that while Thursday’s attacks killed about one in 200,000 of the Spanish population — compared to one in 100,000 Americans who died in 9/11 — that is still not a tragedy big enough to justify turning the whole country upside down.

Why does the entire Spanish political class, right and left alike, think like this? Because in 36 years of dealing with relentless ETA terrorist attacks, they have learned a good deal about fighting terrorism. There were serious abuses of civil rights by governments in Madrid at times, and at one point there was even a ‘dirty war’ of targeted assassinations against ETA leaders, but as time passed almost everybody in Spanish public life realised that the important thing in fighting terrorists is to KEEP LIFE AS NORMAL AS POSSIBLE. Do not overreact, do not break your own laws, and never, never let the terrorists seem more important or dangerous than they really are.

Right now, the rest of Europe is hoping that the attack in Madrid really was carried out by ETA and not by al-Qaeda, because in that case it is a purely Spanish problem. If it should turn out to be al-Qaeda, however, they will not turn their countries upside down in a vain attempt to make them safe. They will tighten security where it can be done without disrupting daily life — and they should probably do a bit of that even if it wasn’t al-Qaeda this time – but they understand that you cannot prevent every terrorist attack, and should not make that the standard by which you measure a policy’s success.

They will respond this way because they have learned that you can live with terrorism. Indeed, you may have to live with it for long periods from time to time, and get on with the rest of your life regardless, because terrorism is the natural weapon of weak but fanatically determined groups. There will always be some of those around, and some of their attacks are bound to get through.

Terrorism is a technique, not an ideology. It is equally available to the extreme left and the extreme right, to religious and to secular fanatics, to national minorities of every kind — and Europe has seen them all. Britain had the IRA, Germany had the Baader-Meinhof Gang and their friends, Italy had the Red Brigades and the right-wing counter-terror, and France has had various waves of terrorism going all the way back to the Algerian war. But terrorism is not a very effective technique: none of those groups succeeded.

What the target countries have learned from this long and miserable experience is patience. They have realised that if you just ride it out and don’t panic, the terrorist campaign will eventually peter out as circumstances and intellectual fashions change, or at worst as a new generation rebels against the ideological obsessions of their parents. Meanwhile, do what you sensibly can to stop the attacks, and for the rest, endure. The statistics are on your side: you are dozens of times likelier to die in a car crash than to be killed by terrorists.

European governments don’t ever put it this bluntly to their citizens, but in fact the citizens know it anyway. That is why most ordinary Europeans see al-Qaeda and its Islamist allies as just another wave of terrorist fanatics, less familiar ideologically but no different in essence. Most of their national military, police and civil bureaucracies see things the same way, even in countries like Spain, Italy and Britain where the national leaders have enthusiastically signed up for President Bush’s crusade against evil. So even after their own mini-9/11, if that’s what it was, the Europeans are not going to panic.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 8 and 9. (“Right now…through”)

An Error in the Basque Country

2 September 2002

An Error in the Basque Country

By Gwynne Dyer

What’s happening in Spain doesn’t make sense. Last week, as the police dragged members of the recently ‘illegalised’ Basque separatist party Batasuna from their party offices in Bilbao, the evicted activists chanted “pim, pam, pum” (bang, bang, bang) — in effect a threat that their military wing, ETA, would take revenge on the police. And last weekend ETA duly hijacked a van and left it parked under an elevated Bilbao freeway with a 40 kg (88 lb.) bomb aboard (though the police managed to defuse the bomb in time).

At least it made a change from ETA’s recent tactic of targeting foreign tourists by burying bombs on Spanish beaches. But why would a significant number of the two million Basques, who have freedom, prosperity, and more autonomy than any other comparable region in Europe, feel sympathy for these terrorists? Why would ten to fifteen percent of Spain’s Basque citizens regularly vote for Batasuna, a political party that they know is only a front for the terrorists?

The terrorist organisation ETA (Euzkadi ta Azkatasuna — Basque Land and Liberty) first emerged in the early 1970s, in the dying days of the long Franco dictatorship, but it really got going only after democracy had been restored in Spain: fewer than a dozen of the 836 killings attributed to ETA were committed before Franco’s death. It can never achieve its goal of independence through the ballot-box: 85-90 percent of the electorate in the Basque region vote for moderate Basque nationalists or mainstream Spanish parties. But there is still that other ten or fifteen percent.

There is no comparable constituency for terror and murder elsewhere in Western Europe. The long and bitter quarrel between the Flemish and French-speakers of Belgium has never got beyond insults and fisticuffs. The Swiss, despite their four languages, are models of tolerant coexistence. Even in Northern Ireland, the killing has stopped at last. It doesn’t make sense that the Basques, or a substantial number of them at least, are still at it.

But neither do the Spanish government’s actions make much sense. More than a quarter-century of tough security measures has not ended ETA’s struggle, so it’s obvious that there must ultimately be a political solution. For which you need a political partner.

For all of that quarter-century there has been a legal political party, now called Batasuna, which collected funds for ETA, acted as its spokesman, and ran candidates for office throughout the Basque provinces, while always formally denying its links with the banned organisation. Leaving this front organisation in existence (while trying to curb its illegal activities) made sense, because it gave the Spanish government somebody legal to talk to, and make deals with if ETA ever got tired of killing.

Unfortunately, since the election of Jose Maria Aznar’s Popular Party government in 1996, there has been nobody in Madrid who wants to talk. An eighteen-month ceasefire by ETA, ending two years ago, achieved nothing because Spanish government made no response whatever. And the ‘war on terrorism’ launched by Washington after last September’s attacks in the US has emboldened Aznar’s government to ban Batasuna entirely.

It is a two-pronged assault, political and legal. Last June the Spanish parliament passed a ‘law of political parties’ which provides for the banning of parties that are complicit in terrorism, and on 26 August it passed a law banning Batasuna and confiscating all its property. Even before that, the crusading judge Baltasar Garzon had amassed enough evidence of the close links between Batasuna and ETA to get a court order suspending Batasuna for three years.

Over the coming weeks, not only will Batasuna’s political offices be shut down, but even the corner bars in every Basque town where the militants gather (and which serve as a cash cow for the organisation) will be closed. Demonstrations and public meetings under Batasuna’s banner will be banned. Many Basque nationalists who are not involved consciously implicated in terror will be arrested during these events, and some will go to jail. The bombs and assassinations, of course, will continue.

In Madrid, all the major parties agree that this is a wise move. In the Basque country itself, however, the doubts are huge. The regional government, led by the moderate, non-violent Basque Nationalist Party, is deploying its police against Batasuna only with the gravest misgivings: “This operation takes us further from peace,” said Basque interior minister Jose Jon Imaz as he gave the necessary orders.

Is he right? The experience of Northern Ireland suggests that he is. For over thirty years the Irish Republican Army waged a savage terrorist war in Northern Ireland; the death toll was three times higher in a place with a quarter of the population of the Basque provinces. But through it all the British government refused to ban the Sinn Fein, the IRA’s political front and the moral equivalent of Batasuna, because the substantial proportion of the Catholic population who backed its goals and methods should not be stripped of all political representation.

The pay-off was the Good Friday agreement in Belfast four years ago, the decisive step that ended the decades of violence and brought the Catholic minority’s biggest political grouping back into the political process. They first had to be convinced that they could not win their goal by force of arms, of course, but even after that they had to be allowed a face-saving way back into the normal political process. Spain, unfortunately, is moving in the other direction.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6, 8 and 9. (“For…killing”; and “It is…continue”)