Step by step: how the Basque country is moving towards peace

Following the announcement of Basque separatist group Eta’s intention to disarm, Nicola Slawson examines the opportunity and challenges facing the delicate peace process ahead

Chris Maccabe is no stranger to conflict resolution. As the former political director of the British government’s Northern Ireland Office, he played a pivotal role in negotiations that led to the Good Friday agreement. Softly spoken with a Belfast accent, he compares the peace processes of his native Northern Ireland with that of the Basque country, where Basque separatist group Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (Eta) has started the process of permanent disarmament.

“No two processes are the same,” concedes Maccabe, who has worked in peace negotiations in the Middle East, Sri Lanka and Tanzania, before now playing a part in the Basque peace process. “From my experience of these sorts of things in Northern Ireland and elsewhere, the most difficult thing is starting the process,” he tells Positive News.

Eta, whose name stands for ‘Basque homeland and freedom’ formed in 1959 during the dictatorship of Francisco Franco and sought independence for the seven regions in northern Spain and south-west France that separatists claim as their own. The group is responsible for the deaths of more than 800 people, according to Spanish government figures.

“The most difficult thing is starting the process”

In 2011, Eta announced a permanent ceasefire and said it would begin working with Maccabe and the organisation he represents, the International Verification Commission (IVC), which was formed to ensure Eta maintains the ceasefire.

However, the Spanish government has refused to officially recognise the work of the IVC. Following the IVC’s announcement this year of Eta’s plan to disarm, the minister for home affairs, Jorge Fernández Díaz, responded: “With all due respect, we do not need these international verifications. If Eta wants to lay down its arms, it should hand them over. We will not be party to dramatisation and theatrics.”

Soon after the announcement and release of a video showing the IVC with masked Eta members, Maccabe and his colleagues were summoned to the high court in Madrid to answer questions about their Eta contacts.

Maccabe is careful not to comment on the legal proceedings, but explains why a similar circumstance did not arise during the Northern Ireland process. “The difference is we don’t have legal immunity. [In Northern Ireland] there was a special act of parliament that gave [the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning] immunity in the circumstances of handling or looking at arms.”

However, despite the lack of support from the Spanish government, the IVC has received backing from the Basque government, churches, trade unions and business groups, which Maccabe says has proved crucial in moving the process forward.

For much of the Spanish press and the victims’ organisations though, things are not moving fast enough. There is also concern that the arms that were said to be decommissioned have not been removed from Eta.

Juanfer Calderín, a spokesperson for Covite, the Basque Victims of Terrorism Association, says: “If Eta really wants to give up and disarm, [it] can do it by telling the authorities the location of the weapons. But what Eta did was a fake disarmament that actually did not occur. As [the IVC] announced at the [high] court, Eta members took the weapons with them after the video was recorded. This is frustrating for victims of terrorism and for society, who only want Eta to disappear and leave everyone to live in peace.”

Maccabe says full disarmament would never happen overnight and stresses the importance of the process unfolding in a way that allows for as many people as possible to be carried with it: “The victims and government will say they want everything. But the principle of starting something is that it makes it more difficult to go back to before the start.

“From my experience, organisations have difficulties persuading [their members]. In Northern Ireland, there was some fragmentation. We’ve still got dissident IRA people here. Sinn Féin and the IRA were very keen to take it at a speed that would allow them to hold the organisation together.”

Armed conflict has been integral to Eta since its inception. Its emblem shows a snake, which represents politics, wrapped around an axe – representing armed struggle. This is combined with the motto ‘Bietan jarrai’, which translates as, ‘keep up on both’.

“The first step was always going to be the most difficult because if people were going to break away then they would do it at the first step,” says Maccabe. “Whether it’s one bullet, a hundred bullets or a hundred rifles, it’s the principle,” he adds.

Barish Tugrul, a visiting fellow at the University of the Basque Country, who is currently writing a PhD thesis on the conflict, agrees, saying that full disarmament will be gradual, but certain. “This process has no turnaround. Return to the armed struggle is impossible, both militarily and politically,” he tells Positive News.

“This process has no turnaround. Return to the armed struggle is impossible, both militarily and politically”

Tugrul has interviewed various Eta members in order to gain a full understanding of the conflict, including several former members of its terrorist arm, who he spoke to after the IVC announced Eta’s intention to disarm. They agreed to be interviewed on record, on the condition their identities were protected.

A woman, now 43, who joined Eta during her twenties and was subsequently jailed for 21 years, told Tugrul that full disarmament is inevitable: “Having witnessed the path of recent years, it was so clear to me that the moment would have to come.” Still, she says many Eta members felt the time came around too quickly and there had not been enough communication. “When the moment comes, you feel a bit like an orphan,” she says. “I’m not sure if it is the correct way, but I think it is the only one.”

Another former Eta militant adds: “Today, we understand that the political-military strategy does not provide the success that we wanted to achieve, and this has to be adapted to another type of strategy.”

It could be argued that Eta is less relevant now than ever, having been significantly weakened by anti-terrorism operations and with the region already enjoying significant autonomy. The Basque country now has its own government, taxation system and police force.

However, many there still feel these measures do not go far enough. A recent study in the Basque country called Euskobarómetro (Basque-barometer) shows that 33 per cent of Basques would say yes to independence and 32 per cent would like further autonomy from the Spanish government. Sixty per cent rejected Eta entirely whereas 13 per cent agreed with Eta’s ends, but not its means.

Tugrul points out that a key issue determining the future of the process is that around 500 Eta members are currently in prison, dispersed throughout Spanish and French territory, hundreds of kilometres away from their homeland, families, friends and social environment. There are calls for them to be moved to prisons in the Basque country – flags and banners hang from balconies and windows across the region, while a protest in Bilbao in January attracted 100,000 people, according to the Spanish press. Tugrul says that because Eta cannot leave behind the convicted terrorists, whom it regards as ‘political prisoners’, it is searching for a way to urge the Spanish government to move them to prisons in the Basque country.

But the government is not naive, Tugrul says. “They know that if they get all Basque prisoners closer to the Basque country, the second issue which they’d have to deal with would be the subject of independence.” He adds that the issue of political violence is an emotive one for Spanish nationalist parties campaigning during election periods. “Some, including jailed former Basque politician Arnaldo Otegi, have suggested that nationalists prefer a weak, inactive Eta than a political environment without the presence of Eta.”

Adversarial positions on either side make it “harder to convince others of the right to have a unique cultural identity,” says Jeroen Zandberg, a spokesperson for the Unrepresented Nationals and Peoples Organisation, which represents indigenous peoples, minorities and unrecognised or occupied territories, in order to protect and promote human and cultural rights, as well as find non-violent solutions to conflicts.

Moving to a peaceful dialogue wouldn’t just mean the end of violence but would “open up greater possibilities for the Basque people to work towards a positive and strong cultural and political identity,” says Zandberg. He explains: “Since ordinary people don’t have the intention or the means to participate in violence, this leads to the majority of the people being left out of the debate on the direction of the political struggle.”

He concludes: “With the Basque armed conflict subsiding and giving way to peaceful dialogue, every Basque person will be able to participate in the process of developing a new relationship with the Spanish authorities that will eventually provide a durable and positive Basque identity and a sense of belonging to all who identify with it.”