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 quit 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 10 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 10 per cent 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 southwestern 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 organization 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 internationalize 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.
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.
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 15 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.
Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.