The Dissolution of ETA
[A process of reconciliation between the Basque terrorist organization and the Spanish government]
December 3, 2019
52 years, 829 deaths, countless failed negotiations. The rise and fall of ETA, a terrorist group in Spain’s Basque country, is as complex as any other story of peace-making between two bitterly divided groups. To understand how an extremist terrorist organization, whose desires of dialogue have been characterized as “expressed in kilos of explosives,” not only reached compromise, but eventually dissolved itself, it is essential to recognize the socio-political factors that led to ETA’s birth, growth, and demise. The history of ETA and the Spanish government serves as a blueprint for empathizing with each perspective in any conflict, even at the most extreme levels, and examining the avenues through which they reconcile their radical differences highlight important steps to negotiation. However, what makes this case unique is the evolution of what was considered “ETA” and the reasons behind the various stages of its development. In this paper, I will detail the historical motivations of the organization’s conception, summarize the legal and political consequences of both parties’ actions, and analyze the roadmap to peace-making through eleven key steps to negotiation to answer the question, “how did two rivals with such hardline stances toward compromise navigate this divide toward peace?”
Spain has always been a country of disparate identities and cultures, a quality most evident in the Basque and Catalonia regions where the inhabitants possess their own distinct languages. It is this culture, that lies at the very heart of what ETA, or Euskadi Ta Askatasuna meaning Basque homeland and liberty, has always fought for: independence and self-determination. The terrorist group first formed in 1958, in response to a policy under the repressive Francisco Franco dictatorship that prohibited the use of any non-Spanish languages in the country. The Basque language, or Euskera, is one of the few languages with no definitively known origin and has represented a major source of pride to native Basques; almost half of the region’s population were considered Basque-speakers before the Franco regime. The birth of ETA was just one part of a much larger movement in the Basque region, one that was meant as a symbol of resistance against Franco. Accordingly, at its onset, ETA received widespread support from the Basque public, as their campaign toward independence symbolized an “us versus Franco” mentality — and at first it indeed was.
The terrorist group’s first known attack occurred in 1961 when it attempted to derail trains carrying Franco supporters to commemorative celebrations in one of the Basque region’s largest cities, San Sebastián. Following that first attack, ETA’s focus largely remained on expansion and provoking the Franco dictatorship to grant Basque independence through a series of kidnappings, car bombings, bank robberies, and shootings. These aggressions culminated with the most notable and consequential attack in 1973, when ETA bombers assassinated Spain’s Prime Minister, Luis Carrero Blanco, who had been handpicked by Franco to serve as his successor. The execution of Blanco directly sparked a series of events that led to democratization of Spanish politics in 1977 (the void in power eventually ended in the hands of Adolfo Suarez, a moderate who held the first general elections since 1936) and also prompted the first phase of ETA’s evolution. After twenty years of operating as a separatist terrorist organization, ETA formed a far-left coalition under the name Herri Batasuna (HB), meaning “popular unity” in Basque.
This chapter of ETA’s development has been characterized as the most violent period in its history. Although the extremist group had been successful in its crusade against Franco, the Spanish constitution of 1978 presented numerous problems with which ETA, and the Basque region as a whole, took issue. The new constitution essentially established that the Basque region was culturally an autonomous community, but did not possess political autonomous powers. While this agreement brought the issue of nationalism to the Spanish political stage, ETA, HB, and 15% of the Basque electorate saw it as a slap in the face, and the group became even more extreme. The ultra-left organization adopted a mantra of “la socialización de sufrimiento,” which meant suffering should not affect just a few groups, but everyone. In the three years following the new constitution, ETA was responsible for 242 fatalities, the deadliest period in its history.
During the period from 1981 to 2001, peace-making progress between ETA and the Spanish government was largely non-existent. Even though violence and protests continued, the government could not agree on a unified strategy to deal with ETA, and the organization would not entertain any negotiations without Basque independence as a starting point. However, the attacks of 9/11 changed this, proliferating anti-terrorist attitudes among the international community and toughened Spain’s approach toward ETA. The ten years that followed highlight the difficulty of stable compromise on both sides as well as the importance of outside factors such as propaganda, neutral mediators, and public opinion that mitigated such a stark philosophical divide.
Roadmap to the Negotiation Table
If ETA had had its way, there would never have been negotiations in the first place. For all else, the one constant with ETA had been the principal mission for Basque independence, evidenced by the all-or-nothing hardline stance it drew in regard to its demands. How then did this radical organization go from car bombs to compromise? The three most important currencies the terrorist group possessed were time, political legitimacy, and public opinion, and it was clear that by the turn of the century, ETA and the Spanish government began to recognize that both parties were running out of each.
Before we fast-forward to the post-2000 status quo between these two rival parties, the preceding 42 years are important in explaining how ETA was able to leverage itself onto the influential platform it enjoyed after the transition to Spanish democracy. The largest contributor to the rise of the terrorist organization was the passiveness and disjointedness that characterized the Spanish government’s decision-making toward the terrorist group. To do so, it helps to divide this period into the Franco and post-Franco Spanish governments, which each represented distinct ideals.
The first period, from 1958 to 1975, represents ETA’s formation and organization in response to the Franco policies of cultural repression. The slow process of structural development is evident when looking at ETA’s terrorist receipts: although their first attack was in 1961, it was not until 1968 that the group claimed its first victim, a Guardia Civil officer who attempted to halt one of ETA’s members during a routine traffic stop. The 1970 trial saw six members tied to this shooting get sentenced to death, yet both the domestic and international response tells a different story about how seriously those around the world took ETA at the time. A 1970 New York Times article best exhibits this paradox. It reads, “They [the defendants] are fierce nationalists, dreaming of autonomy for a Basque state,” and continues, “Whatever the Government intends to do, it has clearly decided that the trial itself should be conducted with unusual latitude for the defense.” The newspaper’s flowery description of the terrorists as simply “fierce nationalists” coupled by the Spanish government’s unprecedented capitulation to a public forum, offer an insight into the lack of a perceived threat in ETA. However, this event would quickly be seen as a monumental underestimation. Days later, ETA kidnapped the German consul and exchanged him for the defendants, and the organization would not look back.
The victory against the Spanish government emboldened ETA to expand, but quietly. The two years following the trial came and went without a trace of their movements. During this time, ETA planned their two of their most important operations that would set up the assassination of Carrero Blanco. The first, on January 16, 1973, was the kidnapping of businessman Felipe Huarte, for whom ETA demanded 50 million pesetas (roughly $350,000 today) and concessions to striking workers at Huarte’s factory. The ransom was met on the 26th and just five days later, ETA moved on to their next attack. On January 31, the group raided a powder magazine, making off with 3,000 kilograms of explosives, which would be used in the December 20th car bombing of Carrero Blanco.
The calculated nature of ETA is well-displayed by this model of a long period of inaction, accompanied by the rapid succession of successful attacks, followed by more inaction, culminating with its most effective strike that established them as a decisive player in Spanish politics. The passive approach the Franco government employed toward ETA allowed the group to expand, and the ensuing political legitimacy it obtained bred a sense of optimism that Basque independence would be achieved under a democratic government. This expectation, however, only radicalized the terrorist group and its supporters with every day that passed without an agreement. Because the new government’s method of handling ETA mirrored that of Franco’s, the momentum ETA had during the transition to democracy continued to increase under a similarly hands-off administration.
This second period, from 1975 to 2000, saw ETA reach its peak in both popularity and violence. The spike in popularity can be attributed to ETA’s brilliant use of propaganda. Inspired by the defiance of Gandhi’s Salt March for Indian independence and the large-scale demonstration of Martin Luther King’s March on Washington, ETA rallied its own “Marcha de la libertad” in 1977, that lasted 45 days, spanning over 1,000 miles in the Basque region. These public manifestations generated a “loud minority” complex within the Basque country that made support for the terrorist group seem greater than it truly was (roughly 15% at the time), and created a culture of political silence among Basques who did not back ETA, but feared backlash.
The rise of ETA’s popularity coincided with what would be remembered as the most violent years in the immediate aftermath of the transition, sparking a series of vigorous counter-measures against the powerful band of terrorists. The first was the birth of GAL, an anti-terrorist paramilitary group established and financed illegally by the Spanish government. The criminal group would end up being responsible for 28 murders between 1983 and 1987 and was active until high ranking officials were brought to trial after investigative journals uncovered the scandal. The GAL’s primary purpose was to attack ETA members and Basque nationalists, and despite some success, the group’s involvement in what would be called the “dirty war” would overall stimulate more violence and increased allegiance toward ETA. A 1984 CIA report highlights this swell of support in a poll that indicated 61% of Spaniards saw the government’s assassinations of ETA members by the GAL as “not-justified” with only 17% responding as “justified.”
The report continues to enumerate the vast majority of those in the Basque region (97%), and Spain as a whole (86%), who favored direct negotiations between Madrid’s central government and ETA. However, legal contraints and precedents dealing with terrorism restricted the latitude with which government might have wished to operate. Thus, the preferred method of fighting terrorism with counter-terrorist aggression underscored the government’s stubborness in adjusting the law to handle ETA. The misguidedness in this approach is evident both domestically within the disjointed Spanish government, which was unable to create any effective and legal strategies during this period, and internationally as the CIA report concludes with a prediction that states, “as long as Madrid and Paris adhere to their current policies and actions….recent government counterterrorist successes suggest that it may only be a matter of a few more years before organized Basque terrorism is fully routed.” The policies and legal codes that outline the process of mitigating terrorism merit close examination in understanding how ETA was able to sustain its authority and what needed to change in order for the Spanish government to become willing to negotiate.
Spain’s Legal Construction Toward Terrorism and the 1978 Constitution
The laws and precedents that dictated the Spanish government’s initial approach to ETA evolved in order to meet the pressing need of handling the Basque radicals. Under the Adolfo Suarez’s socialist government, Spain retained a strict policy that prohibited negotiating with terrorists, but addressed the calls for independence in the Basque and Catalonia regions in the new 1978 constitution. While it recognized the right to autonomy of these nationalities, it maintained the “indissoluble unity of the Spanish nation.” The intentional ambiguity of this provision meant cultural autonomy without political autonomy, which led Basque nationalists to abstain from the constitutional referendum, which then drew just 31% support in the region. This measure was the most significant factor in mobilizing public support for ETA and provided the motivation for the organization to intensify pressure on the government through violence.
As ETA’s popularity began to surge, the Spanish government implemented a number of laws designed to cripple the growing organization. The years 1977 and 1978 saw the passage of two decree laws under Suarez that allowed the government to assist in “unfettered house searches” and authorized wiretaps and mail intercepts. Another in 1980 broadened the definition of what constitutes a terrorist crime. Moreover, when Felipe Gonzalez took over in 1982, his administration passed what can be considered the first unified strategy against ETA. The “Zen” plan explicitly allowed Spain to adjudicate terrorists outside of the country and gave judges more latitude in determining punishments. However, more importantly, this policy implicitly authorized the use of torture against terrorist and incentivized “cooperation” for reduced sentencing.
These laws were met with varying degrees of success, yet the persistence of ETA’s violence brought about the enactment of the 1988 Ajuria Enea Pact. It stated, “In no case may terrorism be justified as a condition, compensation or exchange for Basque independence.” Its significance reshaped ETA’s entire identity: before there were several Basque parties in support of Basque independence, however, because the agreement was signed by all Basque political parties besides ETA-affiliated Herri Batasuna, the terrorist organization assumed a cult-like following as the only “true defenders” of unconditional Basque independence. Although this approach of separating the Basque nationalists from the extremists would later play a crucial role in peace talks, the immediate fallout saw Herri Batasuna reach its peak of political support in the Basque regional elections, netting 18.2% of the 1990 vote.
However, the most decisive law in reducing ETA’s authority came soon after the 9/11 attacks and subsequent hardline approach taken toward terrorists. In 2002, Spain passed La ley de partidos políticos which allowed the government to judicially pursue any parties directly affiliated with terrorists, and later that same year, the supreme court banned Herri Batasuna after it was proven that it had been financing ETA. This instrumental legislation took away the critical platform that ETA had employed for maintaining political legitimacy and public support, which had consistently hovered around 15% within the Basque regions.
Getting to the Table: Birth of Negotiations (1998 – 2003)
The concept of enemies working together often oscillates between weighing the need versus the desire for negotiations. The very word, negotiation, implies a certain motive for common understanding or compromise, both of which were equally objectionable for ETA and the Spanish government. From the government’s perspective, the very idea of negotiating with terrorists ran counter to its fundamental ideology and figured that they could strongarm ETA into submission. From ETA’s point of view, their demands had been consistent from the organization’s inception, and anything less than unconditional Basque independence would be seen as contrary to its basic mission. So, it becomes understandable to see that in the 25 years since the birth of a Spanish democracy, the two sides negotiated a total of three times, resulting in brief, ineffective ceasefires. The turn of the century, however, represented a landmark change in the way in which terrorism would be handled on the domestic and international levels.
Step #1 to Negotiation: Blueprint of Acceptable Peace Terms. The only meaningful negotiation that took place pre-2000 occurred in 1998. A series of confidential agreements prompted twenty-three nationalist and leftist parties, including Herri Batasuna, to announce the Estella-Lizarra Declaration, which closely followed the blueprint of peace negotiations between Northern Ireland and the British government, and ETA declared a ceasefire. The Irish Good Friday Agreement laid the groundwork for the nationalist parties to form an Ireland forum to study the implication of this peace process and how it would apply to the Basque country’s desire for its own autonomy. The announcement shocked the Spanish political system and despite Prime Minister José Aznar’s strong feelings against negotiating with terrorists, he authorized a meeting between his administration and ETA. However, a single meeting in Switzerland found that the organization was no more disposed to compromise on its core demands, and soon after, ETA ended its ceasefire. Although this conference relegated both sides to square one in the negotiation process, at the very least, it established a baseline for diplomatic interaction between ETA and the Spanish government that signaled a mutual desire for reaching an agreement.
Step #2 to Negotiation: International Attitudes Toward Terrorism. The Mexican standoff that existed from then on, ultimately saw the Spanish government blink. The United States’ fierce response to the 9/11 attacks proliferated an anti-terrorist philosophy that forced Prime Minister José Aznar to reassess the approach his administration had taken toward ETA. The following year, the government’s ban of Herri Batasuna, a stripping of the terrorist organization’s political platform, represented the first chess move in forcing ETA to come to the negotiating table. In conjunction with this move, a peaceful organization for Basque Nationalism, Elkarri, played a key role in expediting this process that same year. The 9/11 attacks and more importantly, the U.S.’ no-nonsense response ultimately spurred the Spanish government into cracking down much more heavily on the terrorism that had plagued Spain for decades, resulting in increased arrests and a renewed, hardline policy against terrorist groups.
Step #3 to Negotiation: Third-Party Mediators. Although the Spanish government took the first steps to reducing ETA’s legitimacy, the rival parties were no closer to establishing a genuine dialogue for reaching peace. Elkarri assumed this position, as a third party wanting to get others involved in closing this gap. Despite the fact that ETA and Spain refused this role, the pacifist group invited international conflict experts, who had been following the conflict since the early 1990s, to the Basque region to meet with officials. While this aspect of the negotiations often goes overlooked, it is undoubtedly one of the most important events in resolving the conflict. In late 2003, the Henry Dunant Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue successfully established contact with ETA that would be crucial in bringing members of the organization to the negotiating table.
Handling Hostility: How to open the dialogue? (2004 – 2007)
The year 2004 serves as another “before-and-after” landmark for analyzing the peace process between the Spanish government and ETA. The major changes this year ushered in revolved around public opinion toward both parties that was ever-evolving. While the previous six years had offered glimmers of hope in negotiations, the calls for action continued to grow louder.
Step #4 to Negotiation: Public Pressure. This fourth step to negotiation motivation applied to both the government and terrorist organizations alike, and forced the two sides to reconsider their rigid approaches to the idea of peace talks. With ETA, popularity began to diminish rapidly in the wake of 9/11. After hitting its second-highest poll numbers in 1998 (17.9%), its public support plummeted to just 10% in 2001, and recovered only slightly to its 12.4% figure in 2005. Moreover, the culture of political silence began to fade within the Basque country and by 2008, Basque people were taking to the streets, publicly demonstrating against ETA’s continued violence. The cracks in what had once been a solid base of support, showed ETA’s leaders that its key currencies of time, political legitimacy and public opinion were waning.
On the other side, the Spanish government also felt increased public pressure. The 2004 Madrid bombings is still the deadliest terrorist attack in Spanish history killing 193 people and it came days before Spain’s general election. Aznar’s administration quickly, and erroneously, declared ETA to be responsible. Aznar’s party, Partido Popular, had prominently featured its successes against ETA in its campaign and hoped to leverage a falsely-attributed attack to invigorate support for reelection. However, as evidence indicating Isalamic extremists as the perpetrators of the bombing accumulated, there was an irreconcilable sense among the public that it had been lied to, and José Aznar was voted out of power in the ensuing election in a landslide defeat.
Step #5 to Negotiation: Changing Attitudes. The 2004 election introduced a new Prime Minister to Spain, and accordingly, a new way of handling ETA. José Luís Rodríguez Zapatero’s approach to the terrorists represented a stark difference from that of Aznar. In a 2005 state of the nation address, Zapatero proposed his policy of ending terrorism in Spain, even if it meant negotiating with terrorists. Though his plan was met with fierce opposition from other officials, it was clear that the Spanish people wanted to see the end of violence over anything. Surveys from 2002 and 2005 show that the percentage of those in favor of negotiation with ETA if it ceased violence had increased from 39 to 50. Parliament approved this new strategy of dialogue with the separatist organization, which paved the way for an avenue toward peace talks.
Step #6 to Negotiation: Willing Initiators of Talks. Despite Spain’s amendment to its official stance toward negotiation, there was still much to lose in any negotiations on both sides. Zapatero’s administration worried about the public backlash of another attack after a failed negotiation, while members of ETA feared not only the hypocrisy it would be accused of by compromising any core demands, but also the prospect of being arrested. To alleviate this tension, two provisions were established: the first being that all talks would occur in secret, and second, that political proxies would initiate the first stages of negotiations.
On behalf of ETA, the former left-wing leader of the now-dissolved Herri Batasuna, Arnaldo Otegi, was sent to Switzerland to meet with Jesús Eguiguren, a Basque representative in the Spanish government, and Alfredo Pérez Rubalacba, Minister of the Interior. From 2005 to 2007, these two sides met with regularity; Otegi would communicate what had transpired in meeting with leaders of ETA, while the two members of Parliament would do the same with Zapatero. However, despite these consistent meetings, progress in reaching an agreement of any kind was non-existent, as all the while ETA kept up terrorist attacks and the Spanish government continued its arrests of the organization’s members.
Step #7 to Negotiation: Separating the oil from the vinegar. Though the Herri Batasuna political party had disbanded, its members were still closely aligned with ETA, with some, like Otegi, operating on behalf of the organization’s independence negotiations. While the Spanish government was not pleased to deal with ETA indirectly, a noticeable decline in terrorist activity in 2005 and 2006 indicated that the approach was working. No agreement had yet been reached, but in March of 2006, Zapatero’s administration seemingly hinted that they would try to bring a deal for Basque independence before Parliament; in turn, ETA announced a ceasefire.
As the year drew to a close, no agreement had been reached and it was clear that ETA’s patience had run out. On December 30, 2006, the bombing of the Madrid-Barajas airport abruptly ended the nine-month ceasefire and killed two, while injuring more than 50 others. The frustration of the Spanish government led to the immediate end of all negotiations, declaring that ETA could no longer be trusted to abide by a ceasefire. Moreover, Zapatero’s administration imprisoned Otegi, though he would later be released, and stated that they would no longer engage in negotiations through ETA-affiliated proxies. This drew a clear line in the sand for ex-Batasuna members to decide whether or not to continue their backing of ETA, which meant dividing their loyalty between passionate nationalism or radical extremism. This strategy took a large toll on the terrorist organization’s support structure and swung the tide of momentum from ETA to Zapatero’s administration.
Navigating the Divide: What is Compromise? (2007 – 2011)
The Spanish government’s forcing of ETA’s hand brought its top officials directly to the negotiating table. Though it seemed as if ETA was on the brink of collapse following Zapatero’s tough reaction to the Madrid bombing, a variety of factors would drag out this peace process, even as the urgency to negotiate continued to grow.
Step #8 to Negotiation: A Trustworthy Medium. Following the attack, ETA members were justifiably hesitant about meeting the very officials who could put their leadership behind bars. However, the role the Henry Dunant Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue played was key in facilitating this conference. Though the peacemaking organization had contacted ETA four years earlier, it was not until 2007 that members of the group gathered in Geneva for face-to-face meetings with the aforementioned members of Spanish Parliament. The two sides went in with an understanding that there would be no arrests and the belief that they could reach some sort of middle ground in negotiations. The position of the conflict mediators themselves also provided an important element in mitigating the differences of these two sides. Martin Griffiths, director of the foundation during the negotiations, monitored the talks and would try to reason with members of both sides. At one point, Griffiths observed the mounting frustration of Jesús Eguiguren and paused a negotiation to go on a walk with the government representative saying, “you’ve changed, you’re aggressive and angry and not justified in your fears.” This form of behind-the-scenes intervention was crucial in keeping both parties at the negotiating table despite the fundamental differences in their demands for peace.
Step #9 to Negotiation: Sitting at the Table. While the strength of ETA was beginning to soften, its leaders still maintained a hardline stance in regard to unconditional Basque independence. This is best exemplified through Eguiguren’s proposal to ETA, that would have extended more political rights than ever offered before to the Basque region, however this was met with a firm response from ETA that they could not accept anything less than full autonomy and gave the government a two-year timeline to do so. Such a momentous policy change within the framework would have required a total bypass of the democratic system and Spain quickly refused. However, its significance represented the first small step in direct negotiation between the two sides.
Step #10 to Negotiation: Changing Power Dynamics. In interviews with Eguiguren and Alfredo Rubalcaba years after the negotiations took place, they admitted that the only reason the Spanish government was willing to reopen negotiations with ETA after the airport bombing was because the organization had become much weaker than initially thought. At the beginning of the decade, it was estimated that ETA had around 1,000 members. However, between 2006 and 2011, the government made 543 arrests of ETA’s members and its affiliates, and determined that by 2010, there were fewer than 50. Despite ETA’s severely reduced team, the threat of terrorist attacks still loomed large, and even throughout these later years, the organization was still able to successfully carry out a few attacks, but from 2008 to 2011, it was only responsible for eight deaths, a sign that its structural power was fading.
Whereas ETA’s rise had come on account of the government’s passive approach, the group held off its decline through its perceived power that made the government wary of how to fiercely handle it without provoking another terrorist attack. However, once the reality of its crumbling authority became apparent, it became a matter of weeks, rather than years, until ETA would be forced to submit to the Spanish government. On September 10, 2010, the organization declared another ceasefire, this time stating that it wished to achieve its ends through peaceful, diplomatic means. While many regarded the announcement positively, Spain’s interior counsel of the Basque region considered the statement, “absolutely insufficient,” yet another sign that the government held the cards in the negotiations.
Step #11 to Negotiation: Reconciling the Past. On January 10, 2011, ETA declared what would be its final and permanent ceasefire. Of course, as the terrorist group had already declared seven ceasefires in the past, the majority of those were violated without warning, so the government was well justified in its skepticism toward the declaration. To rectify the widespread distrust, the organization followed up with another statement on October 21, announcing a whole-scale cessation of armed activity. ETA, along with international leaders including former U.S. President, Jimmy Carter, and former UK Prime Minister, Tony Blair, signed a final declaration signifying the importance of the conference.
The significance of ETA’s acknowledgement of its past aggressions highlighted the need to address the past to advance toward the future. In this case, the 2011 Spanish administration’s approach largely mirrored that of the 1975 newly democratic government toward the Franco dictatorship. Just as King Juan Carlos I put forth through the Pacto del Olvido in moving on from the fiercely polarized Spanish feelings in the aftermath of the civil war, Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, declared that his party would focus on honoring victims of the violence, rather than rehashing the past. The Pacto del Olvido (Pact of forgetting) was crucial in reconstructing a united Spanish identity rather than arguing the “who’s right” and “who’s wrong” of the Spanish civil war and Rajoy’s decision to largely do the same is evidenced by the steep drop of the number of ETA-affiliated prisoners. At the time ETA announced the permanent ceasefire, this figure was 703 and has declined significantly in every subsequent year, reaching 267 in 2018.
In weighing the push and pull factors on both sides, ETA and the Spanish government, we begin to see how the three main currencies, time, political legitimacy, and public opinion, play key roles in incentivizing compromise. However, because these resources oscillated in their value to each party, especially when the two sides were unsure of what the other was capable of, the importance of the eleven steps to negotiation is evidenced by the way in which the change in one variable necessitates the substitution, or addition, of another variable. This domino effect underscores the fragility of these negotiations, and furthermore, underscores the unlikelihood of this peace-making process, making its resolution especially useful for future conflicts to learn from the Spanish government and ETA.
As a case study, the negotiation and peace processes between ETA and the Spanish government is broadly applicable to other cases of conflict given that these two were able to reconcile such stark differences with stubborn attitudes. However, more importantly, it poses two key questions as to how this complex relationship will be remembered for posterity: should any government negotiate with terrorists? and what does ETA’s unsuccessful attempt for independence mean for the continued yearnings of Basque and Catalonian independence?
The first question is multi-layered and requires that one reflect and ask, “Did ETA and the Spanish government really negotiate?” and if yes, “Can this instance of successful negotiations with terrorists provide confidence that other instances might also work?” Well, in addressing whether or not the two sides negotiated, I think it is fair to say that they did. While the Spanish government never made any explicit concessions to ETA’s demands, their back-channel meetings and constant correspondence certainly constitute negotiation, which in this particular case I think was a positive. When these talks began, effectively in 1998, Spain was able to buy itself some peace time during ceasefires, gather more information on ETA’s organizational structure, recruit members away from ETA and formulate strategies against the group all while still arresting members of ETA and largely keeping all of its movements hidden from the public. The downside clearly lies in the fact that ETA still managed to kill over 60 people since the start of these negotiations, however without these initial steps taken by the Spanish government, it is easy to imagine that figure being much greater. Because of this, I argue that the age-old mantra of “we do not negotiate with terrorists” should be modified to, “we do not make concessions to terrorists.”
Although Spain’s strategy for dealing with ETA had many flaws, it is impossible to imagine any resolution with the extremist group without the aid of the aforementioned currencies of time, political legitimacy, and public opinion, all of which tilted more toward the government’s favor the longer these negotiations took place. However, despite the success of the Spanish government’s stalling strategy, I think it is much harder to justify future instances of cooperation with terrorist groups because of the precedent it sets. Take for example, if a similarly far-right group in Catalonia arose after the government hypothetically granted the Basque region independence. If they demanded the same concessions under the threat of terrorism and Spain said no, they would have a clear incentive to continue that violence until the government allowed their own independence as well. In summation, discussions with terrorist groups can be fruitful as long as governments hold a firm stance against conceding to their interests.
The second question, that of the prospect of independence for the Basque and Catalonia regions is much more difficult to answer as the issue has become far more complex since the dissolution of ETA. While the ETA’s hopeful route to Basque independence was through terrorism, the Catalonian effort was spearheaded by the Catalonia regional government, which held an official independence referendum in 2017. Though this method has been carried out much more legitimately, it has been similarly mismanaged in regard to the Spanish government’s response to Catalonia’s bid to succeed.
The central government in Madrid declared the referendum illegal, temporarily dissolved the regional government and just recently sentenced many of the Catalonian leaders to lengthy prison sentences, sparking widespread protests throughout the region. The Spanish elections this past May saw the center-left PSOE party bounce the conservative Partido Popular from power which brought some hope to Catalonian independence supporters, however Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez ruled out any pro-independence dialogue with the Catalonian leaders. Although Catalonia has gone about the issue of independence in a much more civil manner, it already seems as though its effort will be even less successful than the historically-violent attempts made by ETA. Many of the political leaders of the Catalonian independence movement are already in jail and aside from periodic demonstrations in Barcelona, there does not seem to be any coordinated strategy toward independence — another example of the Spanish government’s stalling method in dealing with this type of issue.
From the Spanish government’s perspective, the cost of losing Catalonia is unimaginable; if the region were to secede, the damage of losing the roughly 20% GDP contribution it brings is estimated to be worse than if California were to secede from the United States. Unfortunately, it seems that Catalonia’s pursuit will be ignored until the cries for independence die down which seem equally as unlikely as the probability that Spain will eventually reverse their stance against the independence referendum. I expect that this next chapter of a showdown over regional independence is just beginning, and as the Spanish government continues to stall behind the guise of empty negotiations, the frustrations within Catalonia will begin to mount, potentially sparking the birth of another independence-driven terrorist organization. Yet, as we have already seen with ETA, this strategy, though it puts pressure on the government to act, didn’t work. However, interestingly enough, one of ETA’s last statements before officially dissolving last year was in support of Catalonia’s bid for independence. In a Basque newspaper, the group said that Madrid had “trampled on the rights” of the Catalan people. If the pro-independence hopefuls in Catalonia are looking to the government’s handling of ETA as a blueprint, they would be best-served by putting their efforts toward obtaining as much time, political legitimacy and public opinion they can rally together, because ultimately these factors will determine when and who will eventually fold in this fight over independence.