Is ETA about to declare a permanent ceasefire?
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On the verge of a nervous peace
January 6, 2011 | Madrid
One measure of the decline of ETA, the Basque separatist terror group, is that even Basques no longer consider it much of a worry. The group’s fall into long periods of inactivity, punctuated by fitful bursts of violence, has combined with economic fears, notably about Spain’s runaway unemployment, to push it to the back of Basque minds.
That has not stopped speculation over what ETA plans to do next. Four months ago it declared a halt to “offensive armed actions”. Spanish press reports claim the group will soon upgrade this ceasefire to become “verifiable” and “permanent”. But its words are hard to trust. Florencio Domínguez, a Basque terrorism expert, points to the group’s long history of broken promises and failed truces.
Spain’s Socialist prime minister, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, will not need reminding of this. Four years ago, believing ETA was serious about peace during a previous ceasefire, he publicly declared his optimism. A day later an ETA bomb at Madrid’s Barajas airport killed two people and brought down a multi-storey car park. “All we want from ETA is a definitive end to violence. A total and absolute end, forever,” Mr Zapatero said in response to the latest rumours.
The prime minister has new Basque friends to bolster him. Since October his minority administration in Madrid has been propped up by the six deputies of the Basque Nationalist Party (PNV), who provide their support in return for various goodies from the government. Relations between Mr Zapatero and Iñigo Urkullu, the PNV leader, are blossoming. The two men reportedly speak several times a week. There is certainly much to discuss, not least reforms to Spain’s pensions and collective-bargaining arrangements that Mr Zapatero must drive through soon.
But the chemistry seems to work best when it comes to ETA. Backing Mr Zapatero, Mr Urkullu has said, “creates a basis for peace”. Both men believe that the time has come for the weakened group to realise that, after more than four decades of violence, the game is up. The Socialists and the PNV are adversaries rather than allies in the Basque parliament. But the solid relationship between the parties at national level stops ETA driving a wedge between nationalists and non-nationalists, wrapping itself in the Basque flag and claiming its members as martyrs for the wider nationalist-separatist cause.
The hawkish opposition People’s Party (PP), which fiercely opposed talks between Mr Zapatero’s government and ETA during the previous ceasefire, has kept quiet this time. That is largely because the government’s tough line is now closer to its own. But observers detect the moderating force of the PP’s leader in the Basque country, Antonio Basagoiti. Mariano Rajoy, the PP’s overall leader, may also be thinking of the incipient peace process he might inherit if he leads his party back to power next year, as opinion polls suggest he will.
Yet none of the mainstream parties have much influence on ETA’s actions. The group’s moves towards peace have more to do with splits inside the radical-separatist world than pressure from the outside. Leaders of Batasuna, ETA’s banned front party, mostly believe terrorism has had its day. They are also desperate to get back into politics, to recover the town halls they once ran and to exercise their political weight on behalf of the 10% or more of Basque voters who back them. Even some imprisoned ETA members have said they want the group to lay down its arms. Municipal elections are due in May. Either ETA abandons violence by then, or a large number of radical Basque separatists will be tempted to abandon it.