On May 2, the Basque organisation ETA issued a historic statement declaring a definitive end to its armed struggle, after six decades of political conflict. It was the last step of an internal process that had started years before, with crucial milestones along the way, including a statement whereby it recognised the suffering caused, accepted that it bore direct responsibility for years of violence, showed its respect to all affected — and expressed it was “ truly sorry “.
The Basque conflict was deeply violent, with hundreds of killings, thousands of tortured detainees, hundreds of prisoners. As spokesman for Bildu, the second-largest coalition of parties in the country, I recognise all victims and their equal suffering, with no exception. We as a political party have stated that we apologise if, by words or attitude, we have caused suffering to any victim of this conflict.
I wish all this had never happened. I wish we had been able to resolve the conflict earlier. And I do not say that expecting any recognition or apology from the Spanish side for the suffering they inflicted on us. The Spanish authorities will not apologise because that would be to admit there was a deeply rooted political conflict. They prefer to talk of a criminal gang being defeated by the security forces, even though they know this story is not true. Obviously ETA was weakened over recent years by Spanish and mainly French police operations, but the internal debates carried out by ETA, in which almost 3,000 people participated — more than 1,000 of them on active service — show they were not defeated.
There were other reasons for ETA to end. On the one hand, the vast majority of Basque people wanted peace; and on the other, the internal debate process recognised the need for a strategic overhaul and to move to an unarmed, peaceful political strategy to achieve our goal of self-determination. This debate, the development of which I took part in and for which I was sent back to prison, was the main reason ETA ended the armed campaign.
Yet the Spanish government was much more comfortable operating in an “anti-terrorist” scenario. It has always preferred the reason of force — where it feels strong — to the force of reason, where their weakness is clear to the eyes of the world. This was clearly proven in the case of Catalonia. Spain told us for years that, with no violence, everything would be possible. Alfredo Perez Rubalcaba used to repeat: “Bombs or votes.” Then when the Catalans went to vote peacefully and democratically, they found the response was police brutality. And there, just as in the Basque case, the Spanish government insists there is no political conflict.
This leads us to the real problem, which is not Catalonia or the Basque country, but Spain and its lack of capacity to deal with the national question, and its weak democratic history. The Spanish Spain never recovered from the frustrations of losing its empire, an empire that started shrinking with the loss of the Spanish Netherlands in the 17th century and did not stop shrinking until the loss of Western Sahara and Equatorial Guinea in the 20th. A state that answered its existential crisis with a bloody war and a brutal fascist regime for 40 years. A dictatorship that was able to control its transition with Franco leading it, and appointing the then Prince Juan Carlos as his successor. The aim of this transition was to give the appearance of change, but nothing more. A smooth transition where the deep state remained untouchable, but where the main institutions and the people in charge of them were not removed. This is the only way to understand the ongoing use of shoot-to-kill policies, the connections between drug dealers and police officers, the systematic use of torture during the Basque conflict or the actions of the state and the judiciary system towards Catalonia. A deep state behind the thin skin of formal democracy.
So ETA is no more, but the political conflict remains, as it does in Catalonia. The inability of the Spanish state to respond through dialogue, negotiation and compromise to the democratic aspirations of Catalan and Basque societies persists, and so does instability for Spain and for Europe.
Until this authoritarian Spain transforms itself into a truly democratic state, where the democratic aspirations of nations such as Catalonia or the Basque country can be addressed peacefully and politically — as has happened in the United Kingdom, Denmark and Canada — political conflict will remain in the heart of Europe.
— Guardian News & Media Ltd
Arnaldo Otegi is general coordinator of the Basque pro-independence progressive coalition, Euskal Herria Bildu.