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”)