ETA’s Disarming and the Frustrated Basque Peace Process

ETA’s April 8th disarmament was odd in terms of the disengagement of an armed insurgent organization from violence. Like most aspects of Basque peacemaking, it was modeled on the Irish peace process, i.e. the verified decommissioning of IRA weapons. The IRA, however, surrendered its arms after two decades of political negotiations and a peace settlement signed by its political allies Sinn Fein. There have been negotiations in the past between ETA and Madrid, as well as among Basque political actors, but all have been unsuccessful. Furthermore, while on a “permanent” ceasefire, ETA attacked Madrid’s international airport, making official engagement in the future all but impossible. ETA’s ongoing disengagement since 2010 has instead been a more unilateral affair, driven largely by the nationalist left movement historically allied with ETA.

Last weekend’s unilateral disarming is simply the latest episode in what political scientist Theresa Whitfield calls virtual peacemaking, consisting of semi-formal unilateral steps by ETA and the nationalist left, verification by international mediators, and a general refusal by the Spanish and French governments to recognize or participate in anything approaching a “peace process.” ETA and the nationalist left has worked with Sinn Fein and with international figures experienced in mediation to create some sort of model for ETA’s inevitable disengagement from armed struggle.

The initial peace plan developed in 2010 envisioned eventual participation by Madrid to follow a series of unilateral steps on ETA’s part. In 2011, Prime Minister José Luis Zapatero sent delegates to Norway to observe but not participate in the negotiations between ETA and the International Verification Committee (IVC), a group of mediators tasked with overseeing ETA’s disarming. But the conservative victory that year in the Spanish parliamentary elections ended official engagement. Jailed ETA leader David Pla alleges that the Mariano Rajoy government initially dispatched an observer to Norway, but the delegate was never debriefed following the meeting. The current government has instead opted for legal escalation against ETA and its political allies — that is, what Madrid has been doing for the last two decades.

ETA nevertheless — and without much choice — continued taking unilateral steps toward disengagement.

In 2014, ETA began putting some of its arsenal beyond use, verified by the IVC. The six IVC representatives who participated in the decommissioning were immediately ordered to appear in Madrid before National Court Judge Ismael Moreno, while the government’s chief prosecutor asked that the Court demand the names of all ETA members involved. Judge Moreno met with three of the representatives, but no further legal actions against the IVC were taken.

This experience may have forced the IVC to back off from active participation in ETA’s disarming. After this initial round of decommissioning, there was no further movement until a small group of representatives of French Basque “civil society” seized the initiative to move the process forward.

These efforts were initiated by the so-called “artisans of peace,” led by Michel Tubiana, honorary president of the League of Human Rights in France, and veteran French Basque activists Michel Berguoignan and Jean Noël “Txetx” Etcheverry. According to their correspondence with ETA, they initially contacted the group in October 2016, offering their services in facilitating the group’s disarming. ETA’s directorate responded positively, though it suggested enlisting the participation of “Basque institutions,” presumably the Basque Autonomous Government. (The Basque government ultimately refused to participate in the disarming, but it may have given tacit approval.) In its final letter in November, ETA agreed to “delegate to civil society…the political responsibility for disarmament,” noting that the group’s arsenal had been inventoried and sealed in preparation for final decommissioning. ETA’s directorate also asked that the IVC “evolve and enlarge the scope of its mission,” indicating that the Committee had drawn back somewhat.

In December 2016, Berguoignan and Etcheverry were arrested in the French Basque village of Luhusoa, while Tubiana initially avoided arrest as he had yet to arrive in the Basque Country. Two Basque journalists involved in the process were also detained. The five were initially arrested for “association with terrorist criminals” and illegal possession of weapons and explosives “in connection with a terrorist enterprise.” This was objectively the case: they had 15% of ETA’s arsenal in their possession.

The arrests were an embarrassment for the French Interior Ministry, exhibiting its collusion in Madrid’s effort to prevent ETA’s self-disarming. The police operation, according to a French police source cited in Libération, had been “initiated and supervised by Spanish antiterrorist services,” while members of the Spanish Guardia Civil were present during the operations. Michel Tubiana noted that the “governmental farce” was “striking proof of the effectiveness of our police services in the struggle against terrorism…fighting an enemy that no longer exists.”

Saturday’s event was much less dramatic. Twenty thousand showed up to a demonstration in Bayonne to support the process, with EH Bildu and Elkarrekin-Podemos being the only parties from the Basque Autonomous Community to send official delegations. The actual labor took place behind closed doors. In a private meeting, the artisans of peace provided representatives of the International Verification Committee the locations of ETA’s arsenal and a detailed inventory of their contents. The meeting was moderated by two priests — Harold Good from Ireland and Archbishop Matteo Zuppi from Italy — to legitimize the process and, in all likelihood, to provide some cover. Even in secular France, arresting priests isn’t a good look for the police.

ETA provided the locations of eight arms dumps, three in the French Basque Country and five in neighboring regions. The sites were “monitored” by 172 volunteers — perhaps to prevent French police from locating the caches first. The French police accompanied the mediators to the sites to secure the arms. This was the plan, after all.

The process suggests acquiescence on the part of French security forces. According to Socialist Senator Frédérique Espagnac, the December fiasco forced the French government to accept that ETA’s disarming was not simply a “Spanish problem” and that “the civil population does not approve of the [French] government not taking steps” toward this end. There are indications that the current Interior Minister, Matthias Fekl, entered into a “tacit agreement” with those facilitating the disarmament to ensure the handover went off without a hitch — thus the seemingly accommodating behavior on Saturday.

Many media organizations framed the disarming within the standard narrative of conflict and “terrorism.” The BBC’s headline suggested that French police had “found” ETA’s arms dumps as if it were a normal police operation, while The Guardian, though providing more details of the actual handover, claimed that ETA, through its self-disarmament, was “refusing to recognise what many observers consider a straightforward defeat by the democratic Spanish governments that took over after Franco’s death in 1975.”

ETA’s violence is over, but the Basque conflict has not ended. In fact, ETA’s disengagement has facilitated a political escalation. Though Basque independence is a distant goal, the nationalist left has made considerable strides since 2011. The rise of the pro-independence EH Bildu since ETA’s abandonment of armed struggle, along with the emergence of the relatively accommodating Elkarrekin-Podemos, has strengthened the overall position of Basque nationalism. Establishment Spanish constitutionalism has never been more marginalized in Basque politics.

Madrid certainly understands this and is intent on preventing any further strengthening of Basque nationalism. The Rajoy Administration has responded to ETA’s unilateral steps with continued legal repression — both against ETA and the broader nationalist left. The handover of weapons will not end judicial action. The Spanish National Court Judge Eloy Velasco formally petitioned France for access to these weapons to link them to over 300 unsolved murders committed by ETA. France is likely to defer to the wishes of the Spanish judiciary, as is generally the case in matters relating to ETA. The French Prime Minister Bernard Cazeneuve last month insisted that ETA’s arsenal “must be handed over within a framework of respect for ongoing legal proceedings initiated after crimes were committed.” Disarmament may simply lead to a new round of prosecutions.

This is what the normalization of Basque politics apparently looks like. But with ETA’s self-disarming, Spain’s struggle against terrorism will become harder to justify — laying bare the actual underlying conflict between Basque and Spanish nationalism.