Few places in Europe combine tradition and modernity as vibrantly as the Basque Country. The region enjoys a distinctive culture based on what may be the oldest language in Europe. It is also the scene of a booming economy, exemplified by the reinvention of the capital Bilbao through the Guggenheim museum.
But the Basque Country is probably still best known as the site of an often violent conflict based on clashing senses of national identity, back in the headlines last week as a result of ETA’s killing of two Spanish civil guards in France.
Basque nationalists reject ties to the Spanish (and French) governments, and demand self-determination. In both its moderate and radical forms, this demand remains outside the fragile consensus on which Spain’s transition from General Franco’s dictatorship to democracy is based.
To complicate matters, a substantial minority of Basques identify as Spanish and feel deeply threatened by the aspirations of their nationalist neighbours – or family members. The fracture here is ideological, not ethnic.
The moderate Basque nationalists, largely represented by the Basque Nationalist Party (PNV), wobble ambiguously between calls for full independence and an extension of the already extensive powers that the Spanish government has granted to the Basque Autonomous Community.
Since the 1960s, more radical Basque nationalists have grouped around ETA, an armed group which achieved a high profile by assassinating Franco’s prime minister, Luis Carrero Blanco, in 1973.
During the transition to democracy in the mid-1970s, several sectors of ETA – social democratic, Trotskyist and Maoist – tried to lead the group in more political directions. But the ETA Militar faction, always more attached to the pistol than to politics, accelerated an increasingly indiscriminate campaign despite the expansion of democracy.
This campaign has long been denounced as terrorist by all Basques outside Batasuna, a radical political movement closely associated with ETA. Through the 1980s and 1990s Batasuna retained the support of around 15 percent of the Basque electorate, a figure which has only declined in this century, and stands around 8 percent today.
ETA’s popularity can partly be traced to a pervasive fear of “genocide” among the radicals, who believe their language and culture will disappear unless they have their own state institutions But ETA was also actively, if inadvertently, fostered by the repressive strategies of several Spanish administrations.
The worst example was the “dirty war” run by leading members of Spain’s centre left PSOE government in the 1980s. Death squads killed 27 people, many of them with no links to ETA. Such campaigns appeared to confirm ETA’s view that Spanish democracy was a facade for continued fascist dictatorship.
It must be said, however, that subsequent Spanish administrations have sent senior dirty warriors to prison – something Britain has never done in regard to its illegal operations in Northern Ireland. It must also be remembered that ETA has killed hundreds of people, many of them civilians, since the advent of democracy.
By the 1990s the futility of ETA’s campaign had become apparent even to many radicals. Influenced by the Irish peace process, figures within ETA and Batasuna started making rather muddled efforts towards a settlement with Spain.
The Islamist bombings in Madrid in March 2004 looked like a major turning point. Terrorism on such a scale – 198 civilians killed in a single morning – made ETA’s actions almost irrelevant.
Spain’s conservative government tried to blame ETA for the attacks, to avoid criticism for backing the US in the invasion of Iraq. But this tactic backfired and an outraged Spanish electorate voted in a new PSOE government.
The new prime minister José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero courageously offered talks to ETA, conditional on a total and permanent ceasefire. The right howled “betrayal” and the peace process started off limping, without consensus between Spain’s biggest parties.
ETA took nearly a year to call a ceasefire, a delay that indicated its deep reluctance to hang up its guns. From there on everyone involved messed up.
Zapatero failed to make even minor concessions on prisoner issues. Batasuna allowed ETA to hijack the political agenda and make maximalist demands that no Spanish government could accept. The PNV made no serious effort to mobilise its voters in favour of peace.
After several ceasefire breaches, ETA formally returned to terrorism earlier this year. The recent killings in France quashed any hopes that this campaign might be more symbolic than lethal, and probably closed the door to any new peace process for the foreseeable future. Meanwhile, the Spanish judiciary has launched a crude and legally dubious offensive against Batasuna, imprisoning many of its leaders.
The Basque Country, despite its many charms, remains a place wounded and twisted by conflict, beset now by a weary sense of déjà vu. A settlement which gives full recognition to its multiple identities remains remote.
Paddy Woodworth’s book The Basque Country: A Cultural History is published by Signal (£12) and is available from Bookmarks. For more articles by the author go to » www.paddywoodworth.com