The Conflict in the Basque Country Part 1

The Basque separatist movement ETA (Euskadi Ta Askatasuna – Basque Homeland and Freedom) was formed in 1959 by a group of radical students in protest of the Spanish dictator Francisco Franco’s oppression of the country’s Basque minority. The goal was to create an independent Basque state. The fight turned into pure terrorist activity with kidnappings, threats and political assassinations. The Basque Country today has extensive autonomy within the Spanish state and ETA has been weakened. In 2011, ETA introduced a ceasefire and seven years later, the separatist movement was disbanded after relinquishing its weapons in 2017.

General Franco died in 1975 and the Basque provinces of northern Spain eventually gained extensive autonomy with their own government. However, ETA continued to fight for democratic Spain in order to achieve an independent Basque Country. Since the group carried out its first assassination in 1968, members of the underground ETA cells have killed more than 800 people, both representatives of power and civilians.

All Spanish governments have pursued an uncompromising line, sometimes using illegal methods, against the separatist group. More and more ETA members have been arrested in recent years and the group has weakened considerably. In 2003, the political branch of the movement was banned from participating in regional elections, which also constituted a blow to the organization. But not even when ETA was at its strongest in the years after Franco’s death, more than 15-20 percent of the Basques supported the party in the regional elections.

The movement declared in the spring of 2006 that it would stop the violence and try to achieve its goals in a political way. Attempts to start a peace process stalled, however, and at the end of the year, ETA took up arms again. However, the goal of ETA’s struggle, a separate nation for the Basques in Spain and southwestern France, seems to remain a dream.

In the autumn of 2010, ETA again announced a ceasefire, and in January 2011, the ceasefire was declared permanent. The political branch distanced itself from all violence, and following an appeal to the Constitutional Court, the new separatist electoral alliance Bildu was allowed to run in the local elections in May. Bildu surprisingly won 26 percent of the vote and won the most seats in the Basque Country. The leaders of the alliance believed that the Basques had chosen the political path to independence and that ETA was a thing of the past.

In the autumn of 2011, ETA announced in a written communiqué that it would definitely cease its military activity, but the disarmament was delayed until 2017. The following year, ETA apologized for the suffering it had caused, and the group was completely disbanded in May 2018.

For decades, the small extreme separatist group ETA waged a bloody terror to achieve what may seem like an unrealistic goal. The violent conflict should have ended long before 2011, when a “definitive” ceasefire was announced. Seven years later, the separatist movement was completely dissolved .

The Basque Country is located on the Bay of Biscay in northern Spain. The capital is Vitoria, but Bilbao is the largest city in the Basque Country. The population includes almost three million people. Both Spanish and Basque are official languages.

Since the late 1970s, the Basque Country has had far-reaching autonomy, but several parties and groups have demanded full independence, including the Basque Country and Freedom ( Euskadi Ta Askatasuna, ETA), which since the 1960s have used violent methods to achieve their goals.

ETA’s goal is an independent Basque Country, which also includes the Navarre region and the Basque region of France – the movement is therefore nationalist or separatist. The Basques who had formed the Basque Nationalist Party as early as 1894  (Eusko Alderi Jeltzalea / Partido Nacionalista Vasco, EAJ / PNV) had similar dreams, but today their nationalism has been replaced by regionalism.

PNV recognizes the Spanish state and works politically to achieve as much as possible of the original goals. After the fall of General Francisco Franco’s dictatorship in 1975, the PNV negotiated the most comprehensive autonomy in Spain, while ETA carried out its terrorist acts.

Most Basques in Spain would like to see all Basques live in a common region, but they realize that change must take place peacefully. The constitution that created the Basque region states that Navarre has the right to join the Basque Country “if it so wishes”.

However, a connection to Navarra is unthinkable; those with a Basque identity dominate only in northern Navarre and in the whole region they constitute a minority of about 15 percent. This can feel heavy for Basque nationalists because one of the most important places in their history writing is the capital of Navarre, Pamplona (as the Basques call Iruña).

The Basque identity in the French territory is not as pronounced as in Spain, and the Basques in France have no equivalent to the regional autonomy of Spain. In 1996, more than 160 French mayors signed a petition calling for limited autonomy, but the only result was the formation of a “Basque Development Council”, an advisory body controlled in practice by French politicians.

The methods of violence that have attracted such attention have been used almost entirely in Spain, while the Basque people in southwestern France have been fairly silent. The French Basque region has often served as a haven for Spanish ETA members. In recent years, police cooperation between France and Spain has been strengthened, which has led to several arrests in both Spain and France.

Conflict in the Basque Country