IS THE BASQUE COUNTRY A EUROPEAN PROBLEM?
James Skinner on ETA
23rd, 1981, an unknown Lieutenant Colonel of the Guardia Civil (Spanish
Civil Guards) broke into the Spanish Parliament in Madrid, and held
its members hostage for almost twenty-four hours. His aim was to discredit
the transitional government, established after the death of General
Franco by inciting the army into a new military takeover. Thanks to
the immediate appearance on television of the recently crowned King
Juan Carlos - unfairly dubbed by the international media as El
Breve (the Brief) - who appealed for calm and a return to barracks
of all armed forces, the uprising failed.
Since that infamous historical event, Spains embryonic democracy
has gone from strength to strength. A fresh constitution formulated
in 1978 converted the country into a constitutional monarchy, separating
the state and the dominant Catholic Church and allowing the formation
of 17 autonomous communities. In 1982, the once outlawed Socialist Party
(PSOE) won the national elections with a clear majority. A new era of
labour and social reforms unknown for over forty years as well as international
acceptance and recognition paved the way for a born again
European power. In that same year Spain joined NATO and four years later
was accepted as a full member of the European Common Market. The culmination
came in 1992 with the staggering successes of EXPO 92 in Seville
and the staging of the Olympic games in Barcelona. But not all Spaniards
accepted the post-Franco statutory reforms.
Ever since the end of the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) and the establishment
of Francos dictatorship, one of the governments aims was
to quash any ideas of regional independence, especially emanating from
the Basque and Catalonia regions. Brutal repression, including the prohibited
use of their languages, more or less continued throughout the forty
years of the regime. It was reasonable to expect a backlash to these
measures with the formation of clandestine nationalist movements. Although
Catalonias underground organisations such as Terra Lliure
dissolved in 1991 never caused any real harm, the Basque region
was another matter. In 1959, the military arm of the Basque National
Party (PNV) vowed armed warfare against the State. Euzkadi Ta Azkatasuna,
better known as ETA was formed.
They began their campaigns with public sabotage, but by the end of the
1960s had moved on to assassinations. Most of their finances were
derived through robberies, kidnappings and revolutionary taxes
extorted from Basque businessmen. They managed to maintain considerable
sympathy both in and out of the Basque region as they were seen as freedom
fighters against an obsolescent fascist regime. Their ultimate achievement
was the blowing up of Admiral Luis Carrero Blanco, Francos
supposed successor in December of 1973. However, after the death of
Franco, in 1975, and the establishment of a democratic state, the escalation
of violence by ETA in the following decades multiplied tenfold. Why?
The answer lies in the fundamental ideology of self-determination by
the Basque people. Ever since 1894, when the Basque Nationalist Party
(PNV) was formed, their goal to become an independent nation has never
ceased. Although the PNV has now become a moderate political party,
adopting non-violent policies, ETA refused to renounce its armed struggle
for freedom. It therefore formed its own separatist party, Herri Batasuna,
ironically accepted as a legal party within the Spanish constitution,
and vowed to continue the fight against the Spanish state.
The Basques are not the only sector of Spain seeking independence. In
July 1998, four nationalist parties, the BNG (Galicia, northwest Spain),
the PNV (Basque country) CIU and CDC (Catalonia) signed an agreement
to combat the bipartisan political situation governing Spain. Their
objectives were simple: survival of nationalism, auto-government according
to the will of their citizens (regional), implementation of their language
above Castilian, and, low and behold, the fight against terrorism. The
peculiarity of this alliance was that their different ideologies were
placed on the backburner. The BNG, for example is a Marxist left wing
organisation whilst the CIU is of right wing tendencies. ETA ignored
them all. The killings continued.
By now, and despite their obvious differences, both major parties in
Spain, the PSOE (socialists), lead by Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero and
the PP (conservatives) by Jose Maria Aznar, were becoming increasingly
anxious to curtail the violence in the Basque region. Basque regional
elections were due in June this year and both parties were using the
continuing violence and insecurity as their key weapon to win the same.
To their surprise, the PNV won with an overwhelming majority and Juan
Jose Ibarretxe was once again instated as President of the Basque Region.
The political mood, however, began to change. For the first time, the
central government of Spain, as well as the main socialist opposition
party recognised the need for new, open and unbiased dialogue with the
Basque nationalists. Meanwhile, the new president of the Basque country
announced that the fight against terrorism was the main priority above
the self-government of the region.
In the meantime, three events yet again shook the nation.
On July 15th, ETA carried out two simultaneous assassinations. Mikel
Uribe, a police chief was gunned down in Leaburu (Guipuzcoa) whilst
Jose Javier Mugica, a town councillor of the small village of Leiza
(Navarra) was blown to bits by a car bomb. The population had barely
recovered from these murders when a week later, a young twenty-year
old nursery school teacher, member of ETA, accidentally killed herself
whilst preparing a home made bomb in Torrevieja (Alicante). Explosives
were later found in Malaga airport. Alarm bells began to ring in all
quarters as ETAs campaign had apparently spread to the heart of
the Spanish tourist area. The time had come for an urgent meeting between
Ibarretxe and Aznar.
On July 30th, both leaders met at the Presidential Palace of the Moncloa
in Madrid. The outcome was obvious. Although Ibarretxe urged for further
autonomy - transfer of Social Security finances and labour control -
and Aznar countered with rhetoric statements the Spanish constitution
is paramount the leaders achieved an historic agreement. They
pledged mutual cooperation to combat ETAs terrorism. It remains
to be seen whether ETA takes the hint. But what does all this mean to
the rest of Europe?
Could we be facing yet another Yugoslavia style problem? Although ETAs
violence is nowhere near as fierce as that suffered in the 1990s
by the Balkan states, could Spain be moving towards an eventual break-up
into a series of separate states? ETA may eventually lose its battle
for total independence of the Basque region through the use of force,
but democratic moves by the non-violent nationalists (PNV) may eventually
reach this goal. If this occurs, its only a matter of time before Catalonia,
Galicia and possibly Valencia jump on the band wagon and seek their
own freedom from Madrid. The European Union would have no other alternative
but to accept the new nations and their languages as well as an increase
in European parliamentary representation. There is, however one shadow
looming above this whole scenario.
The new Basque nation in years to come, could have as its President
an ex militant of ETA with blood on his hands. Milosovich or Pinochet
all over again? Who knows.
© James Skinner 2001
On August 5th as a warning signal to Madrid thousands marched in support
of ETA, reflecting a tacit acceptance of the violence. Released Basque
seperatists talk of imposing the Basque language in all schools and
excluding the language of Madrid. The same influences are at work in
the Basque region of France. The concept of getting to them young, whilst
in school, seperating a population by language, is a successful political
ploy and one can look to the region from Bayonne to Bilbao becoming
unstable and violent with mass refugee movements in the coming years.
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