The end of ETA? Beginning of Basque independence?

On October 20, 2011, the Basque separatist movement ETA announced that it was permanently laying down its arms. This would put an end to one of the last consequences of Franco’s dictatorship in Spain. Many Basques today still look hopefully to the future. Basque history, as we know it, does not go back further than the 1st century BC. During this period, the Basques resisted the Roman occupation and protected their territory against the advancing Romanization. Between the 3rd and 5th centuries they must have converted to Christianity. By the time of the Great Migration, the people spread across the Pyrenees and French Aquitaine. In the Middle Ages, however, the Basque area was increasingly reduced and eventually divided between the kingdoms of France and Spain.

‘The Basque Case’

However, a conscious Basque nationalism only had its origins in the 19th century with the founding of the ‘Partido Nacionalista Vasco’ (PNV) in 1895. Its founder, Sabino Arana (1865-1903), may also be considered the one who coined terms such as ‘ Euskadi’, which refers to the Basque Country, and ‘Euskera’ (the now official name for the Basque language). He also designed the flag of the Basque Country, the so-called ‘ikurriña’, originally as the party’s banner.

Arana was also the first to refer to ‘a country of the Basques’. According to him, on the Spanish side this consisted of Vizcaya, Guipúzcoa, Araba and Spanish Navarra and in France of Soule, Labourd and French Navarre. What is also striking about the PNV’s first views is how reactionary and religious-political they were. They were certainly not free from racism either. For example, Arana proclaimed that the Basques, as an authentic people, were superior to the Spanish. It has been proven that Basques are different. They speak a language that is not Indo-European and many have the very rare negative Rhesus factor in their blood group. But Arana especially pointed to the deep faith of the Basques, because this type of Basque nationalism found great resonance among the strictly religious and traditional rural population in the 1830s.

The PNV is still the most important movement within Basque nationalism. Until the 1960s it was even the only major Basque nationalist movement. During the current democracy, it has dominated the political panorama in the Basque Country for years. She is currently temporarily sidelined because the social democratic party, the PSOE, and the conservative party, PP, managed to find a majority together.

The founding of ETA

When the Basque Country fell completely into the hands of the rebels during the Spanish Civil War, the then autonomous PNV government first moved to the still free Spain and after the end of the war in 1939 to Paris. However, this government in exile was powerless to support the Basques in the Basque Country against the murderous oppression of the dictatorship. Strong dissatisfaction about this was soon expressed in the founding of ‘Euskadi Ta Askatasuna’ (ETA). It is striking that this happened on July 31, 1959, the same day on which the PNV was founded, but exactly 64 years earlier.

Initially, ETA would hardly use force: in 1961 there was only one failed attempt to derail a train. Not too much would happen until the late 1960s. But within the harsh climate of the last years of the Franco regime, the radical branch of ETA received more and more arguments. In 1968, ETA’s first attack was on a secret police chief in San Sebastian. Particularly famous is the attack on December 20, 1973, on Admiral Luis Carrero Blanco, appointed as Franco’s successor, in retaliation for the execution of Basque separatists. A film was later made of this fact.

After the death of the dictator

After Franco’s death, free elections were held in Spain for the first time in 1977. In December 1978, a new constitution was drafted and adopted by referendum. This new constitution emphasized the unity of the Spanish nation and the right to autonomy of the regions that make up Spain as a country. The Basque Country would of course also have its own government, and with broader powers than any regional government in the area had ever had before. Since 1982, the ‘Comunidad Autónoma del País Vasco’, the autonomous region of the Basque Country, has had its own government and parliament.

Nevertheless, ETA’s violent activities did not diminish after the death of Franco and the regained democracy. The fact that 53% of Basques abstained from voting in the aforementioned referendum and 40% abstained from the acceptance of the statute of autonomy gave the movement a good argument to continue to claim its own Basque state. For example, during the 1980s, the first years of the new Spanish democracy, ETA was particularly active with 180 victims. In 1989 there was an ETA bomb attack on the Spanish embassy in The Hague.

On March 22, 2006, the movement, increasingly threatened, announced a ceasefire, with the intention of initiating a new democratic process in the Basque Country. However, this would be broken again on December 30, 2006 with an attack in the parking area of the new terminal at Barajas Airport in Madrid. Two people were killed and there was also a lot of material damage.

Meanwhile, ETA itself was getting worse and worse. On several occasions, the entire top of the organization was arrested and certain cells that were in the process of becoming operational were eliminated. ETA’s former political arm, Herri Batasuna (HB), was also declared illegal. The Spanish government has long claimed that ETA’s military branch has been weakened to such an extent that it will only be a matter of time before they lay down their arms. On January 10, 2011, ETA announced a ‘permanent ceasefire’, but without definitively laying down its arms, which was requested by the government and also by many Basques. A few days before the final announcement of the laying down of arms by ETA, some well-known figures from international politics, such as Kofi Annan, Jimmy Carter and Tony Blair, indicated that this was the moment. So everyone hopes that it will really be true and that peace in the Basque Country will become a reality. ETA’s new political arm, Bildu, has now already set out its lines.

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