The Basque conflict, also known as the Spain–ETA conflict, was an armed and political conflict between the Spanish state, France and the Basque National Liberation Movement, a group of social and political Basque organizations which sought independence from Spain and France. The movement was built around the separatist organization ETA which since 1959 launched a campaign of attacks against Spanish administrations. In response, ETA was proscribed as a terrorist organization by the Spanish, British, French and American authorities. The conflict took place mostly on Spanish soil, although to a smaller degree it was also present in France, and was the longest violent conflict in modern Western Europe. It has been sometimes referred to as "Europe's longest war".
The terminology is controversial. "Basque conflict" is preferred by Basque nationalist groups, including those opposed to ETA violence. Spanish public opinion generally rejects the term, seeing it as legitimate state agencies fighting a terrorist group.
The conflict has both political and military dimensions. Its participants include politicians and political activists on both sides, the abertzale left and the Spanish government, and the security forces of Spain and France fighting against ETA and other small organizations, usually involved in the kale borroka. Far-right paramilitary groups fighting against ETA were also active in the 1970s and 1980s.
Although the debate on Basque independence started in the 19th century, the armed conflict did not start until ETA was created. Since then, the conflict has resulted in the death of more than 1,000 people, most of them police and security officers, members of the armed forces, Spanish politicians, journalists and other civilians, and some ETA members. There have also been thousands of people injured, dozens kidnapped and a disputed number has gone to exile either to flee from the violence or to avoid capture by Spanish or French police or by Europol / Interpol.
On 20 October 2011, ETA announced a "definitive cessation of its armed activity". Spanish premier Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero described the move as "a victory for democracy, law and reason".
Definition of the conflict
The Basque conflict, is used to define either the broad political conflict between a part of Basque society and the Unionist Model of the Spanish and French States, to exclusively describe the armed confrontation between ETA and the Spanish and French states or to describe a mixture of both perspectives.
According to José Ramón Blázquez "The Basque political Conflict is constituted by the legitimate claim of a big part of Basque society for a frame of sovereignty in face of the Unionist Spanish State model, resulting in an untenable situation for coexistence within a plural society to which the right to decide its own status is deprived, beyond the law inherited from a dictatorship, whose violence led to the emergence of ETA and with it the distortion of the problem and the blockade of its agreed solution." (original ES)
This idea has been rejected, for example, by José Maria Ruiz Soroa and by the main constitutionalist Spanish parties, that have rejected the existence of a political conflict and refer only to the action of a terrorist organisation against the rule of law. In 2012, Antonio Basagoiti, the head of the Basque branch of the People's Party admitted the existence of a Basque conflict, but stated that it was a political one between different entities in the Basque country.
Amaiur Senator Urko Aiartza and Dr Julen Zabalo have written that "There is no unanimous agreement when it comes to determining the reasons for the so-called Basque conflict. According to different sources, it is either a long conflict with historical roots, an instrument of Basque nationalist politics, an attempt to impose a privilege, or evidence of the state's obstinacy. Whichever of these may be the case, an understanding of the historical relations between the Basque provinces and the Spanish and French states is indispensable in order to explain the present conflict."
The Basque Country (Basque: Euskal Herria) is the name given to the geographical area located on the shores of the Bay of Biscay and on the two sides of the western Pyrenees that spans the border between France and Spain. Nowadays, this area is fragmented into three political structures: the Basque autonomous community, also known as Euskadi, and Navarre in Spain, and three French provinces known as the Northern Basque Country. Approximately 3,000,000 people live in the Basque Country.
Basque people have managed to preserve their own identifying characteristics such as their own culture and language throughout the centuries and today a large part of the population shares a collective consciousness and a desire to be self-governed, either with further political autonomy or full independence. Over the centuries, the Basque Country has maintained various levels of political self-governance under different Spanish political frameworks. Nowadays, Euskadi enjoys the highest level of self-governance of any nonstate entity within the European Union. However, tensions about the type of relationship the Basque territories should maintain with the Spanish authorities have existed since the origins of the Spanish state and in many cases have fuelled military confrontation, such as the Carlist Wars and the Spanish Civil War.
Following the 1936 coup d'état that overthrew the Spanish republican government, a civil war between Spanish nationalist and republican forces broke out. Nearly all Basque nationalist forces, led by the Basque Nationalist Party (PNV) sided with the Republic, even though Basque nationalists in Álava and Navarre fought along Basque Carlists on the side of Spanish nationalists. The war ended with the victory of the nationalist forces, with General Francisco Franco establishing a dictatorship that lasted for almost four decades. During Franco's dictatorship, Basque language and culture were banned, institutions and political organisations abolished (to a lesser degree in Alava and Navarre), and people killed, tortured and imprisoned for their political beliefs. Thousands of Basques were forced to go into exile, usually to Latin America or France.
Influenced by wars of national liberation such as the Algerian War or by conflicts such as the Cuban Revolution, and disappointed with the weak opposition of the PNV against Franco's regime, a young group of students formed ETA in 1959. It first started as an organization demanding the independence of the Basque Country, from a socialist and Marxist–Leninist position, and it soon started its armed campaign.
ETA's first attacks were sometimes approved of by a part of the Spanish and Basque societies, who saw ETA and the fight for independence as a fight against the Franco administration. In 1970, several members of the organization were condemned to death in the Proceso de Burgos (Trial of Burgos), although international pressure resulted in commutation of the death sentences. ETA slowly became more active and powerful, and in 1973 the organisation was able to kill the president of the Government and possible successor of Franco, Luis Carrero Blanco. From that moment on, the regime became tougher in their struggle against ETA: many members died in shootouts with security forces and police carried out big raids, such as the arrest of hundreds of members of ETA in 1975, after the infiltration of a double agent inside the organisation.
In mid-1975, a political bloc known as Koordinadora Abertzale Sozialista (KAS) was created by Basque nationalist organisations. Away from the PNV, the bloc comprised several organisations formed by people contrary to the right-wing Franco's regime and most of them had their origins in several factions of ETA, which was part of the bloc as well. They also adopted the same ideology as the armed organisation, socialism. The creation of KAS would mean the beginning of the Basque National Liberation Movement.
In November 1975, Franco died and Spain started its transition to democracy. Many Basque activists and politicians returned from exile, although some Basque organizations were not legalized as had happened with other Spanish organizations. On the other side, the death of Franco elevated Juan Carlos I to the throne, who chose Adolfo Suárez as Prime Minister of Spain. Following the approval of the Spanish constitution in 1978, a Statute of Autonomy was promulgated and approved in referendum. The Basque Country was organized as an Autonomous Community.
The new Spanish constitution had overwhelming support around Spain, with 88.5% voting in favour on a turnout of 67.1%. In the three provinces of the Basque Country, these figures were lower, with 70.2% voting in favour on a turnout of 44.7%. This was due to the call to abstention by EAJ-PNV and the creation of a coalition of Abertzale left organisations brought together to advocate for "no" in the referendum, as they felt that the constitution did not meet their demands for independence. The coalition was the beginning of the political party Herri Batasuna, which would become the main political front of the Basque National Liberation Movement. The coalition had its origins in another one made two years before, named Mesa de Alsasua. ETA also felt that the constitution was unsatisfactory and intensified their armed campaign: 1978 to 1981 were ETA's bloodiest years with more than 230 people killed. At the same time, several far-right armed organisations fighting against ETA and its supporters were created, and at least 40 people were killed in attacks blamed on organisations such as the Batallón Vasco Español and Guerrilleros de Cristo Rey. Although not related to the Basque conflict, one of these organizations carried out the infamous 1977 Massacre of Atocha.
Also in the late 1970s, several Basque nationalist organizations, such as Iparretarrak, Hordago or Euskal Zuzentasuna, started to operate in the French Basque Country. An anarchist breakaway of ETA, Comandos Autónomos Anticapitalistas, also started carrying out attacks around the Basque Country. A similar but smaller organization to ETA, Terra Lliure, appeared demanding independence for the Catalan Countries. The Basque conflict had always had an influence on the Catalan society and politics, due to the similarities between Catalonia and the Basque Country.
During the process of electing Leopoldo Calvo-Sotelo as Spain's new president in February 1981, Civil Guards and army members broke into the Congress of Deputies and held all deputies at gunpoint. One of the reasons that led to the coup d'état was the increase of ETA's violence. The coup failed after the King called for the military powers to obey the Constitution. Days after the coup, ETA's faction politiko-militarra started its disbanding, with most of its members joining Euskadiko Ezkerra, a leftist nationalist party away from the Abertzale left. General elections were held in 1982, and Felipe González, from the Socialist Workers' Party became the new president, while Herri Batasuna won two seats. In the Basque Country, Carlos Garaikoetxea from the PNV became lehendakari in 1979. During those years, hundreds of members of Herri Batasuna were arrested, especially after some of them sang the Eusko Gudariak in front of Juan Carlos I.
After Felipe González's victory, the Grupos Antiterroristas de Liberación (GAL), death squads established by officials belonging to the Spanish government, were created. Using state terrorism, the GAL carried out dozens of attacks around the Basque Country, killing 27 people. It targeted ETA and Herri Batasuna members, although sometimes civilians were also killed. The GAL were active from 1983 until 1987, a period referred to as the Spanish Dirty War. ETA responded to the dirty war by intensifying its attacks: the organisations started carrying out massive car bomb attacks in Madrid and Barcelona, such as the Hipercor bombing, which killed 21 civilians. After the attack, most of the Spanish and Basque political parties signed many pacts against ETA, such as the Madrid pact or the Ajuria-Enea pact. It was during this time that Herri Batasuna got its best results: it was the most voted party in the Basque autonomous community for the European Parliament elections.
While talks between the Spanish government and ETA had already taken place in the late 1970s and early 1980s, which had led to the dissolution of ETA (pm), it was not until 1989 that both sides held formal peace talks. In January, ETA announced a 60-day ceasefire, while negotiations between ETA and the government were taking place in Algiers. No successful conclusion was reached, and ETA resumed violence.
After the end of the dirty war period, France agreed to cooperate with the Spanish authorities in the arrest and extradition of ETA members. These would often travel to and from between the two countries using France as a base for attacks and training. This cooperation reached its peak in 1992, with the arrest of all ETA leaders in the town of Bidart. The raid came months before the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona, with which ETA tried to gather worldwide attention with massive attacks around Catalonia. After that, ETA announced a two-months ceasefire, while they restructured the whole organisation and created the kale borroka groups.
In 1995, ETA tried to kill José María Aznar, who would become prime minister of Spain one year later, and Juan Carlos I. That same year, the organisation launched a peace proposal, which was refused by the government. On the following year, ETA announced a one-week ceasefire and tried to engage peace talks with the government, a proposal that was once again rejected by the new conservative government. In 1997, young councillor Miguel Ángel Blanco was kidnapped and killed by the organisation. The killing produced a widespread rejection by Spanish and Basque societies, massive demonstrations and a loss of sympathisers, with even some ETA prisoners and members of Herri Batasuna condemning the killing. That same year, the Spanish government arrested 23 leaders of Herri Batasuna for allegedly collaborating with ETA. After the arrest, the government started to investigate Herri Batasuna's ties with ETA, and the coalition changed its name to Euskal Herritarrok, with Arnaldo Otegi as their leader.
In the 1998 Basque elections, the Abertzale left got its best results since the 1980s, and Euskal Herritarrok became the third main force in the Basque Country. This increase of support was due to the declaration of a ceasefire by ETA one month before the elections. The ceasefire came after Herri Batasuna and several Basque organisations, such as the PNV, which at that time was part of the PP's government, reached a pact, named Lizarra pact, aimed at putting pressure on the Spanish government to make further concessions towards the independence. Influenced by the Northern Ireland peace process, ETA and the Spanish government engaged in peace talks, which ended in late 1999, after the government refused to discuss the armed organisation's demands for independence.
In 2000, ETA resumed violence and intensified its attacks, especially against senior politicians, such as Ernest Lluch. At the same time, dozens of ETA members were arrested and the Abertzale left lost some of the support it had obtained in the 1998 elections. The breaking of the truce provoked Herri Batasuna's dissolution and its reformation into a new party called Batasuna. Following disagreements over the internal organization of the Batasuna, a group of people broke away to form a separate political party, Aralar, present mainly in Navarre. In 2002, the Spanish government passed a law, named Ley de Partidos (Law of Parties), which allows the banning of any party that directly or indirectly condones terrorism or sympathises with a terrorist organisation. As ETA was considered a terrorist organisation and Batasuna did not condemn its actions, the government banned Batasuna in 2003. It was the first time since Franco's dictatorship that a political party had been banned in Spain. That same year, Spanish authorities closed the only newspaper written fully in Basque, Egunkaria, and journalist were arrested, due to allegations of links with ETA which were dismissed by Spanish justice seven years later. In 1998, another newspaper, Egin, had already been closed on similar grounds that were also dismissed by Spanish justice eleven years later.
After the government falsely accused ETA of carrying out the 2004 Madrid train bombings, the conservative government lost the elections in favour of the Socialist Workers' Party, and José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero became the new president of Spain. One of Zapatero's first actions was to engage in new peace talks with ETA. In mid-2006, the organisation declared a ceasefire, and conversations between Batasuna, ETA and the Basque and Spanish governments started. Despite the claims of peace talks ending in December, when ETA broke the truce with a massive car bomb at the Madrid-Barajas Airport, a new round of conversations took place on May 2007. ETA officially ended the ceasefire in 2007, and resumed its attacks around Spain. From that moment on, the Spanish government and police intensified their struggle both against ETA and the Abertzale left. Hundreds of members of the armed organisation were arrested since the end of the truce, with four of its leaders being arrested in less than one year. Meanwhile, the Spanish authorities banned more political parties such as Basque Nationalist Action, Communist Party of the Basque Homelands or Demokrazia Hiru Milioi. Youth organisations such as Segi have been banned, while members of trade unions, such as Langile Abertzaleen Batzordeak have also been arrested. In 2008, Falange y Tradición, a new Spanish far-right nationalist group appeared, carrying out dozens of attacks in the Basque Country. The organisation was dismantled in 2009.
In 2009 and 2010, ETA suffered even more blows to its organisation and capacity, with more than 50 members arrested in the first half of 2010. At the same time, the banned Abertzale left started to develop documents and meetings, where they committed to a "democratic process" that "must be developed in a complete absence of violence". Due to these demands, ETA announced in September that they were stopping their armed actions.
On 17 October, an international peace conference was held in Donostia-San Sebastián, aimed at promoting a resolution to the Basque conflict. It was organized by the Basque citizens' group Lokarri, and included leaders of Basque parties, as well as six international personalities known for their work in the field of politics and pacification: Kofi Annan (former UN Secretary-General), Bertie Ahern (former Prime Minister of Ireland), Gro Harlem Brundtland (international leader in sustainable development and public health, former Prime Minister of Norway), Pierre Joxe (former Interior Minister of France), Gerry Adams (president of Sinn Féinn, member of the Irish Parliament) and Jonathan Powell (British diplomat who served as the first Downing Street Chief of Staff). Tony Blair – former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom – could not be present due to commitments in the Middle East, but he supported the final declaration. The former US President Jimmy Carter (2002 Nobel Peace Prize) and the former US senator George J. Mitchell (former United States Special Envoy for Middle East Peace) also backed this declaration.
The conference resulted in a five-point statement that included a plea for ETA to renounce any armed activities and to demand instead negotiations with the Spanish and French authorities to end the conflict. It was seen as a possible prelude to the end of ETA's violent campaign for an independent Basque homeland.
Three days later – on 20 October – ETA announced "definitive cessation of its armed activity". They said they were ending their 43-year armed campaign for independence and called on Spain and France to open talks. Spanish premier Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero described the move as "a victory for democracy, law and reason".
On 28 May 2012, ETA members Oroitz Gurruchaga and Xabier Aramburu were arrested in southern France.
Estimates of the total number of conflict-related deaths vary and are highly disputed. The number of deaths caused by ETA is consistent among different sources, such as the Spanish Interior Ministry, the Basque government, and most major news agencies. According to these sources, the number of deaths caused by ETA are 829. This list does not include Begoña Urroz, killed in 1960 when she was 22 months old – some Spanish people believe that she was ETA's first victim, although the Portuguese and Spanish left wing group DRIL claimed that they did this bombing (together with four other very similar bombings throughout Spain, committed that same day, and all of them attributed to the DRIL with no doubt).
Some organizations such as the Colectivo de Víctimas del Terrorismo en el País Vasco raise the death toll of ETA's victims to 952. This is due to the inclusion to the list of several unresolved attacks such as the Hotel Corona de Aragón fire. The Asociación de Víctimas del Terrorismo also includes the victims of the Corona de Aragón fire on its list of ETA's deaths.
Regarding the Basque National Liberation Movement side, some sources such as the Euskal Memoria foundation list the number of deaths on their side as 474 in the period between 1960 and 2010. The count includes people killed by police forces, right-wing organizations, as well as people being killed while traveling to see their relatives in far away prisons, among other causes. News agency Eusko News states that at least 368 people have died on the Basque nationalist side. Most of the lists also include an undefined number of suicides caused by the conflict, coming from former ETA members, tortured people or policemen.
|Responsibility for killing|
|Euskadi Ta Askatasuna||829|
|Paramilitary and far-right groups||72|
|Spanish security forces||169|
|ETA deaths by status of victim|
|Members of security forces||486|
|Cuerpo Nacional de Policía||146|
|French National Police||1|
The Spanish and French law enforcement agencies have imprisoned many people for their connection to the Basque National Liberation Movement. Most have been convicted of terrorist activities, or for belonging to ETA or organisations linked to it, or for "enaltecimiento del terrorismo" which literally translates as "glorification of terrorism". The number of people incarcerated reached a peak of 762 in 2008. These prisoners are jailed in prisons all over France and Spain "to make it difficult for ETA to communicate with them," according to non-revealed sources.
For many Basque people this is one of the most emotive issues relating to Basque Nationalism. Demonstrations calling for their return to the Basque region often involve thousands of people. Currently there is a highly publicised campaign calling for the return of these dispersed prisoners to the Basque Country. Its slogan is "Euskal presoak- Euskal Herrira" ("Basque prisoners- to the Basque Country").
Some groups such as Etxerat have been calling for a general amnesty, similar to that which took place in Northern Ireland in 2000. The Spanish government has so far rejected moves to treat all prisoners in the same way. Instead they opened the 'Via Nanclares' in 2009 which is a way for individual prisoners to get better conditions, and eventually gain limited release. It involves the individual asking for forgiveness, distancing themselves from ETA and paying compensation.
- Politics in the Basque Country
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- International Contact Group (Basque politics)
- History of the Basque people
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|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Basque conflict.|
- El Mundo's special page about the conflict
- Spanish Interior Ministry page about ETA[dead link]
- Abertzale left official page