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People join hands to form a 202 km long, according to organisers, human chain linking the cities of San Sebastian, Vitoria and Bilbao to call for a right to vote on Basque independence, near Vitoria, Spain Image Credit: Supplied

It’s hard to say exactly where Basque country starts culturally. Maybe it’s where the E80 motorway begins to fall towards the Bay of Biscay from the dry plains north of Burgos. Or when the hills of Galicia succumb to the deep, green forested valleys south of Bilbao, Santander and San Sebastian.

Whatever it may be, there’s certainly a distinctive political shift on the E80 road, with a graffitied slogan for independence spray-painted on a highway bridge not far from Palencia.

Euskal Herria in Spain at least, is home officially to 2.2 million Basques while to the north, across the border in France, another 650,000 claim the heritage of the distinctive group with its own language, culture and food — and a yearning for an independent state carved out of both Spanish and French territory.

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People join hands to form a 202-km-long human chain linking the cities of San Sebastian, Vitoria and Bilbao to call for a right to vote on Basque independence, near Vitoria, Spain, on June 10 Image Credit: Supplied

“Yes,” Koldo Xabier D., a proud Basque activist tells Weekend Review, “that is our greatest challenge. We must win independence from two different countries. Winning our own nation from one would be hard enough. Winning it from two is a struggle but that is what we must do.”

Koldo Xabier is speaking in the picturesque French seaside and fishing town of St Jean de Luz, just 15 km from the international frontier that divides Spain from France, and one that he believes should be included in any future Basque homeland.

For more than five decades, ETA — Euskada Ta Askatsuna — a left-wing militant separatist group, waged a low-level campaign of terror in southwest France and northeast Spain to try to win a separate homeland. In the spring of 2017, it said that campaign was over, and decommissioned its weapons. This May, it apologised to its victims and their families — a move Spanish authorities welcomed but said was too late for too many.

“Yes, ETA’s campaign is over, but now the political work needs to be done,” Koldo Xabier says. “That means we must organise ourselves here in France, winning the support of voters in in municipal politics, building trust and showing that Basques can take care of Basques and be part of the political process.”

Although ETA was founded during the mid-1950s in the linguistically and culturally distinct region of northern Spain during General Francisco Franco’s dictatorship, its first recognised killing came in 1968 with the murder of an undercover police officer in San Sebastian. Since then, the group has been responsible for an estimated 800 deaths of which 300 remain unsolved.

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People take part in a human chain linking the cities of San Sebastian, Vitoria and Bilbao, Image Credit: Reuters

In disbanding, ETA handed over files on the arms at its disposal that included more than 3,000 kg of explosive and an estimated 25,000 rounds of ammunition.

Within ETA’s ranks, however, it’s estimated that nearly 100 fighters remain opposed to its transition from what they believe is a legitimate military campaign — but which French, Spanish officials and international jurists classify as terrorism and criminality — to that of a purely political struggle.

For an organisation that has seen more than 300 of its members jailed for murder, sedition, plotting and causing bombings and carrying out the murders of mostly policemen, judicial figures and government officials on both sides of the French-Spanish border, the transition to that of a purely political entity is a difficult one to accept.

Through its existence, ETA’s campaign had always been overshadowed in size, scale and news appeal by the struggle taking place over that same timeframe by the Irish Republican Army, and its political wing, Sinn Fein, in trying to unite the British-ruled province of Northern Ireland within the Republic of Ireland to the south of the island.

Koldo Xabier himself has been to Belfast and has worked closely with Sinn Fein in recent years, seeing first-hand the changes necessary to move from armed conflict to the politics of persuasion.

“There are so many similarities between the Irish nationalists and the Basque movement,” he says, acknowledging that seeking independence for an island is far easier that carving out a Basque region that lacks clear geographical boundaries.

The time of the outbreak of both conflicts in the late 1960s also reflects a shift in political activism brought about by civil rights’ movements, liberation theology in both Catholic-dominated nations, and community-based social activism emanating from the Paris Spring of 1968.

And both ETA and the IRA found former Libyan strongman Colonel Muammar Gaddafi only too willing to help supply Communist-bloc Kalashnikov AK-47s to support their political violence.

But while the IRA had a large diaspora spread around the world to fund its terror campaign combined with a sophisticated political wing in Sinn Fein to spread the message of a united Ireland to a largely sympathetic international audience, ETA remained linguistically, regionally and politically isolated.

It had the culture and language of a distinct separatist group, but no easy-to-define geographical base that was easy to recognise. It also largely failed to capture the headlines as Irish republicans did during the 1970s and 1980s.

Through its lifespan, ETA’s campaign of violence failed to bring either the Spanish or French governments to the bargaining table, and both administrations insist to this day in recognising ETA as a terrorist organisation.

While the Irish peace process has been under way for two decades, it has taken ETA’s leadership the same timeframe to recognise an inevitable end to its campaign of terror.

In June, tens of thousands of Basques joined hands to form a human chain more than 200 km long across the Spanish region calling for the right to hold a regional independence vote. Already, Catalonia separatists based in Spain’s north east region bordering France, have held two separate independence referendums — both of which favoured going-it-along and both of which were declared illegal by the central government in Madrid before they took place.

Spain’s Constitution, created in 1978 after the end of dictator Francisco Franco’s regime, states that the country is indivisible and an October 2017 attempt by Catalonia to hold a secession referendum was met with a harsh legal crackdown.

While most from the Basque country, which already has a high level of self-determination and, like Catalonia, does not support independence, many believe the population should be given the right to vote.

The human-chain protest was organised by Basque group Gure Esku Dago (In Our Own Hands) and ran from Donostia (also known as San Sebastian) to the Basque parliament in Gasteiz (Vitoria).

The Spanish government, backed by the constitutional court, maintains that any ballot on regional independence is illegal.

Opinion polls consistently show support for Basque independence holding around the 15 per cent mark, and with ETA ending its armed struggle, clearly there’s a lot of work to be done in convincing Basques that self-determination is indeed the best option.

Thirty-three years after ETA killed police chief Carlos Diaz Arcocha with a car bomb, his daughter says the group achieved nothing and sowed only fear and sadness.

“In principle, it is good news that they are not killing. Of course, it’s great that there are no more victims, but under no circumstances should we be thanking ETA,” Teresa Diaz Bada told Reuters. “All these years of terrorism were for nothing,” she said.

Koldo Xabier doesn’t entirely agree. “What the campaign did was raise the profile of the Basque cause on the international stage,” he says. “It showed that Basques are determined that one day, one way or another, we will have our own homeland.”

Mick O’Reilly is the Gulf News Foreign Correspondent based in Europe.