ETA makes a statement…and no one hears it
Since it called its ceasefire, ETA has been able to do only two things: refrain from using violence and issue communiqués.
Today the group issued yet another statement and, as expected, no one seems to care. The communiqué contained only one new piece of information: “ETA would like to inform that it has designated a delegation to initiate a direct dialogue with the Governments of Spain and France.” (I don’t envy whoever has been named to this delegation. In 1999 and 2007 the interlocutors between ETA and the Spanish Government ended up getting arrested soon after the talks broke down.)
This announcement will not have any real effect, at least in the short term. In fact, the conservative Spanish Government of Mariano Rajoy quickly rejected the invitation to talks.
There is a very slim possibility that the newly-elected French president Francois Hollande could begin talks with ETA. After all, the group’s base of operations is in France and a number of its members are currently in French prisons. But such talks too seem unlikely. First, ETA has little to offer France but its weapons, which would put the group at a serious disadvantage if it were to eventually enter into talks with the Spanish Government. Second, the French Government has no real incentive to unilaterally talk with ETA. Though Hollande could present himself as a peacemaker, he’d be royally pissing off a neighbor and ally. And, of course, France doesn’t really care about the Basques, especially its own.
So what can be done?
ETA could try to push talks through violence, as the IRA did successfilly in 1996 with their bombing campaign in England. But the likelihood of this working is extremely low. ETA tried to gain leverage through violence when talks with the government stalled in 2006. The bombing of a parking garage at the Madrid Barajas airport – which killed two despite a warning call and evacuations – killed the moribund peace process.
The main reason, however, that the group will not likely engage in some kind of violent action is that its “supporters” – the nonviolent Basque left and its sympathizers – would not excuse or forgive a return to violence. This has been a sentiment that I have heard time and again from such activists.
Indeed, when two ETA members engaged in a shoot-out with French police in 2011, the Basque left, for the first time, publicly criticized what they saw as a breach of the armed group’s ceasefire commitments.
And if I know that the Basque left will reject a return to armed struggle, then so too does Spanish intelligence.
Which is probably why the government won’t budge. Spain could easily move on one of ETA’s principle demands – transferring Basque prisoners to the Basque prisons in accordance with Spanish penal law. But why do that? ETA won’t return to violence and their allies have committed themselves unconditionally to nonviolent politics. Therefore, the Spanish Government is faced with a win-win situation: they don’t have to deal seriously with Basque nationalist demands and they get to reap the benefits of “not talking to terrorists,” which plays well with their conservative base.
ETA could give into the state’s demands and “disarm and disband.” But, from the armed group’s perspective, this isn’t a great option. If they were to do so, there’s no guarantee that the Spanish Government would enter into talks. Rajoy’s Administration would likely play the “insuficientismo” card, claiming that this step is insufficient and that ETA members must now turn themselves into the police and then, maybe, talks with Basque political actors could proceed. But, probably not.
And this is the trouble with “terrorism”: once you’ve been identified as such, you don’t really ever get to quit being one.
Incidentally, the Spanish Government is selling “social reinsertion” – whereby imprisoned ETA members can get reductions of their prison sentences if they publicly disavow the organization and beg forgiveness for their crimes – which was first introduced back in the 1980s as a “new step” in the peace process. Since the policy was established thirty years ago, only a handful of over a thousand ETA prisoners have taken advantage of it. My guess is that the Government knows this, which is why they’re bringing it up again: they get to look like their being proactive but, since it won’t work, they’ll not have to face the criticism of their constituents for going easy on “terrorists.” Win-win-win.