The basic problem for achieving peace in the Basque Country is the stalemate between ETA and the Spanish government. ETA is not moving towards disarmament, and the government refuses to enter into dialogue or to take steps on key issues like prisoners, countenancing only the dissolution of ETA.
The Spanish government’s refusal to modify its prison policies has been part of a hard line, justified by the “war against terrorism”, that ignores contentious issues relating to ETA prisoners such as their dispersal around the country, away from their families, or their need for reintegration into society. It has not responded to arguments presented by the Basque government. Nor has ETA made progress on disarmament: while it is open to discussing the matter with the Spanish government, it has disregarded the will of Basque society on moving forward on disarmament and disbandment.
This situation reflects an outdated model of peace negotiations whose protagonists are exclusively a government and an armed group locked in a conflict of mutual destruction. There have been processes like this in the past. Talks in Algiers in 1989 or the 2006 peace process were both bilateral negotiations, and both were marked by belligerence and a lack of transparency – and failure.
Such “classic” peace processes are not participatory and lack channels through which other stakeholders can participate. This is more than a question of principle: the effectiveness of the peace process is at stake. When citizens have no role to play or are marginalised, they have no ownership of the results of the process, and therefore do not get involved in working towards coexistence or creating a safety net to prevent a return to violence.
Basque society needs to be a key player in defining and constructing peace in the Basque Country. For Basque society, this is the starting point for an effective peace process. It also has the potential to unblock the current situation. In this respect, the Spanish government should modify its prison policies, not because ETA is asking for it, but because Basque society is calling for it. And ETA should take steps towards disarmament, not because the Spanish government is demanding it, but because Basque society needs it to eliminate any kind of threat.
Although major ETA decisions, such as to end violence, have been made largely outside negotiations with the Spanish government, they were not unilateral. Basque society, alongside international and other groups, has been a key player for some time.
The permanent, general and verifiable ceasefire announced by ETA in January 2011 was a response to the 2010 Brussels Declaration, signed by a number of international Nobel Prize winners and experts in peace processes, which called for an ETA ceasefire and urged the Spanish government to respond. The commitment of and relationships between the signatories and promoters of that declaration was critical.
Likewise, the decision to put an end to the armed struggle was a response to the Declaration of Aiete, the result of the San Sebastian Conference involving major international figures and almost all the political parties and trade unions of the Basque Autonomous Community, Navarre and the French Basque Country – the territories that make up the cultural mosaic of the Basque Country. As a result, a bilateral relationship was set up between these groups and ETA.
These relationships are not easy. One challenge is the apathy in Basque society today. Most Basques have moved on from the peace process, or are preoccupied by the current economic crisis. The failure of the 2006 peace process, in which great hopes had been placed, led to considerable frustration. There is no longer the powerful critical mass of people willing to mobilise and participate that there was 10 years ago.
A second challenge lies in the lack of consensus among the Basque political parties. This is ironic at such a potentially propitious moment for making progress towards peace, with no elections on the horizon, without violence and with all political sectors represented in parliament. But differences among the parties have become very pronounced.