Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Chronicle Of A Peace Process....The Ceasefire Explodes

The biggest single event in Spain recently has of course been the decision by ETA to break their ceasefire by leaving a huge bomb in a car park at Barajas Airport in Madrid. The bomb completely destroyed the multi-storey car park, and killed two Ecuadorian immigrants who were sleeping in their cars; the first fatalities in an ETA attack in almost 3 years. Amazingly, ETA claimed after the bombing that their ceasefire was still intact and attempted to place responsibility for the fatalities onto the shoulders of the police for not clearing the car park properly. The idea that you can explode several hundred kilos of explosive, but that you are not responsible for any of the consequences as long as you give a warning is not a new one; and is no less cynical in this case than in any other.

The situation is reminiscent of the decision by the IRA to end their first truce in 1996 with a spectacular bombing, and there may even be an element of mimicry behind ETA’s decision. However, the two situations are not directly comparable. Without being in favour of what they did, it is possible to understand why the IRA took the decision to break that ceasefire, as the government led at the time by John Major really did seem just to sit back and wait in the hope that the IRA would find it more and more difficult to return to activity with the passage of time. They got that very wrong. The crucial difference in this case is that ETA have been offered a real deal for renouncing armed activity, a deal which would include a reform of the Basque autonomy statute and (say it quietly) would almost certainly include a deal on the hundreds of ETA prisoners currently in Spanish jails. Batasuna, ETA’s political wing, would be allowed to resume legal political activity and participate in the political process of statute reform. It is a genuine offer which does not proclaim anyone to be a winner or a loser, but is conditional on a definitive decision by ETA to renounce terrorism. In other words, they have a way out if they really want to take it.

Even allowing for the difficulty of knowing what is really going on inside an organisation like ETA, it does appear that they have decided on a strategy of demanding concessions which would allow them to proclaim some kind of victory in their struggle. They are looking for concessions on the right of the Basque people to self-determination (currently unconstitutional) and on the status of Navarra, which they claim as being historically part of the Basque Country. In any negotiation it is not surprising that the parties ask for more than they might be finally prepared to accept, but in this case they are using bombs to try and pressure the government to make concessions that are never very likely to be accepted, and which would be politically suicidal in the current climate.

ETA have dug themselves into a hole here, and it doesn’t look like either the Spanish government or the conservative Basque Nationalist Party (PNV) are going to throw them a rope to help them out of this hole. The depressing, terrible logic of their situation is that the inevitable refusal by the government to make concessions in response to the bombing will lead them to make further attacks, and in the process kill off any real chance of progress. By raising the stakes in this way they seem to have trapped themselves into a situation where they cannot exercise any further pressure without completely destroying the possibility of progress. Perhaps that is the situation they are looking for, but it is hard to see how they can possibly benefit from it. Neither can they back down very easily from the position they have adopted, it is hard to imagine what they believed would happen as a result of the bombing. The next time that ETA decides to sit down and negotiate they are unlikely to find themselves in a stronger position than they are now, and the prospect that Batasuna might be able to take part in this year’s municipal elections is looking very improbable.

Egged on by opinion polls that show them more or less level with the governing PSOE, the opposition Partido Popular (PP) has made frontal opposition to the government’s policy on dealing with ETA their main priority. In the process they have made a significant political error by refusing to participate in an anti-ETA demonstration that was called last Saturday by trade unions and Ecuadorian immigrants associations. The Association for Victims of Terrorism (AVT), who always work hand in hand with the PP, also decided not to participate. This purely sectarian decision was based on the pretext that the PP wanted the official slogan of the march to include the word “liberty”. They were actually granted their wish, but the word “peace” was also included; and the horrific prospect of being associated with such a frightening concept was enough for the PP, AVT and friendly media to launch fierce attacks on the demonstration. It reminds me of those groups who occasionally turn up at political demonstrations with a handful of leaflets explaining why they are unable to participate in the demonstration.

The fallout continues as the PP seek to extract political advantage from an unfortunate choice of words by Prime Minister Zapatero, who described the bombing as an accident, and who made a hopelessly over optimistic assessment of prospects for the process the day before the bomb went off. He has since recovered his balance a bit, and made some smart use the other day of the same words used by Jose Maria Aznar after his negotiations with ETA failed. Meanwhile the aggressive attitude of the PP is good for keeping their base support happy, but almost certainly does little to attract anyone else. ETA is far from finished, those on the right of Spanish politics who claim that they can be defeated by police pressure are almost certainly wrong. Despite many police successes against them in recent years, they have the social base and sufficient number of activists to maintain terrorist activity for years if not decades. Such activity may not be high intensity, but it could still easily be sufficient to add many more names to an already over long list of victims. Groups like ETA rarely disappear voluntarily, even long after they have outlived the circumstances that led to their formation in the first place.

The Northern Ireland process was based on a mutual recognition between the IRA and the British government that neither side was going to win an outright victory. For a few months we have had the prospect of a similar situation arising in Spain, today it looks less likely but in the end there is no easier or better solution amongst those that are realistically available. Sadly, the signs are that ETA are not yet ready to accept that solution.


Aleksu said...


The problem is, Zapatero did absolutely nothing during the last 10 months. His answer to ETA's ceasefire was worst than that of Major to the IRA's ceasefire.

I do not know where did you get the concessions you talk about, the reality is that during the months in between the announcement of the ceasfire and the bombing in Barajas , Zapatero stepped up the repression.

Arbitrary detentions, mistreatment of the Basque political prisoners and fabricated indictments against Basque activists were the order of the day.

Zapatero was to fearful to go face to face with the PP, maybe because the PSOE is scared about some of the stuff they did during Felipe Gonzalez's government coming into the spot light.

I'm sorry, this time you got it all wrong, Madrid did absolutely nothing in behalf of the Basque Peace process, the Parot Doctrine used against three Basque political prisoners is just one example of what went down the last 9 months.

Graeme said...

I have to say I completely disagree with you. I believe that there is a genuine offer on the table from the Spanish government, it is a limited offer but I believe it exists.

I’m fully aware of the political nature of much of the “judicial” action against Batasuna and ETA prisoners – and I have written quite extensively about it in this blog. I do not believe, however, that the government is behind all of these politicised judicial initiatives; it has been fairly evident in recent months that they are not comfortable with all of them.

That said, I think its worth pointing out that in Northern Ireland the special courts and the judiciary in general never stopped acting in cases against the IRA; what happened was that the political amnesty on prisoners that was eventually agreed took care of the issue – once it became clear that the IRA was genuine on abandoning violence. As I’m sure you are also aware, it would not be that difficult to compile a list of dodgy judicial decisions in the Northern Irish context – it’s all part of the mythology of judicial independence, but it didn't prevent a solution. I would expect a similar deal on prisoners to be done in the Basque context, but it won’t happen if ETA is still active.

I suspect the key problem is that ETA is pushing for more than they are going to get – ever. I think it is politically unrealistic to imagine that Batasuna will ever be able to present itself at elections saying “We have won! The armed struggle has won self-determination for the Basque people”. Despite the fantasies being peddled by the Spanish right this is not what is on offer and I don’t believe it ever will be. Personally, I think it is wrong to prohibit self-determination in the constitution – not because I am pro-nationalist but because I am an old fashioned leftist! But if it was unlikely to be offered before, I think we can say it is definitively off the agenda following the bombing. If you want the people you are negotiating with to change their position then you have to leave them room to do so. The clear problem with what ETA has done is that they have now reduced the political room for manoeuvre that the Spanish government has, making it even less likely than before that the government will change its position. It’s like opening a walnut with a sledgehammer, what’s the point if the walnut ends up completely crushed?

Now you don’t need to be Nostrodamus or a professor of political science to see that the political impact of the bombing was absolutely predictable. This brings us to what is really the key question here; either ETA could foresee what the reaction would be to their attack and they wanted that reaction, or they have made a seriously wrong assessment of the current political situation in Spain. I can’t decide between the two, but if I had to make a choice I have to say that I find it hard to believe they are so distanced from reality as to believe the outcome of their actions would be any different from that which has occurred.

Tom said...

I've heard that if you throw a walnut against a window, the nut's shell will break, but not the nut itself (or the window).

I just wish that someone would have the courage to throw the walnut of increased Basque autonomy at the window of compromise. Only then will this problem be resolved.