Monday, May 22, 2006

NEWSBLOG... ETA Ceasefire

After almost 2 months of ceasefire by the Basque separatist group ETA, the Spanish Prime Minister has announced that formal dialogue with the political wing of ETA can begin in June. This follows a process of verification to check whether the ceasefire is genuine. Now begins the complicated part.

Everything points to this being a serious truce on the part of ETA after over 30 years of armed action; they are currently in a very weak position and their political wing, Batasuna, is illegal and feeling the effects of not being able to operate openly. The issues are going to be about how to bring ETA's armed activities to a close, it's clear that there has to be a negotiated exit and the open question is how much either side will give to permit a situation where terrorism ends, and the radical wing of Basque nationalism focuses on open political activity.

The other side of the coin is going to be how this plays politically in Spain as a whole. Despite mistrust about ETA's intentions the truce is generally and understandably popular. Without internal opposition, and given the pressures on ETA and their supporters, it would probably be quite possible for the government to press ahead with a Northern Irish style settlement where ETA prisoners are released and there is a degree of negotiation on the extent of Basque autonomy within the Spanish nation - a general process of renegotiation is already underway with other regions on their autonomy statutes.

But the signs are that there will be internal opposition, from the right wing Partido Popular (PP). Despite having negotiated themselves (unsuccessfully) with ETA during the government of Jose Maria Aznar, the PP has been on the offensive over terrorism ever since losing power to the Spanish Socialist Party (PSOE) following the March 11th bombings in 2004. Motivated largely by the loss of power, all consensus on issues of terrorism has been lost as the PP look for revenge, even though they were the authors of their own misfortune having tried and failed to convince the Spanish public that ETA were responsible for March 11th (carried out by Islamist terrorists). The PP adopts a position which they know will never come about; they demand the surrender of ETA as a pre-condition of any end to the situation. Meanwhile, they use one of the (several) associations that represent victims of terrorism as a shield to try to present their policies as representing the will of ETA's victims. This association has already announced a demonstration against the government's announcement of negotiations and this has been quickly followed by the PP making it clear that they will not support such a process.

So things will move forward, but the whole process is on a tightrope, the PP cannot yet come out in full opposition to any negotiated solution but they will attempt to chip away at the confidence that people may have in it. Already they claim that concessions have been made by the government on self-determination for the Basque country and on the future of the region of Navarra (traditionally claimed by Basque nationalists as being part of the Basque country). There is of course no evidence to suggest any such concessions have been made, and either would be political suicide for the government. Having spent two years inventing conspiracy theories around the events of March 11th the PP keeps its membership happy with such morsels. Meanwhile ETA and Batasuna want something to show their own supporters, the legalisation of Batasuna will have to be part of the process and if they are going to present themselves in the next elections in the Basque country it will have to come soon.

If the government offers nothing the truce will come to an end, something which the right wing opposition in Spain will seize on as vindication. At the same time, anything that the government offers to maintain the process will also come under attack as a concession to terrorists. It’s going to take a long time, if it doesn’t all fall apart, and it’s going to be tough.

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