Who are the Basques 1

Domestic conflicts

Ingo Niebel

To person

Ingo Niebel (Cologne, 1965) is a historian and journalist. At the University of Cologne, he completed his studies in Middle and Modern History, Romance Studies (Spanish) and Political Science as a Magister Artium (M.A.) in 1994. Niebel has known the Basque Country since his youth. He has authored several books on Basque history and the present.

Since 2011, civil society in the Basque Country has laid the foundations for the underground organization ETA to disband itself in 2018. However, the conflict with the governments in Madrid and Paris over the political status of the region and the Basque language persists.

People with flags and banners follow the disarmament of the ETA on April 8th, 2017 in Bayonne / France. (& copy picture-alliance, AA | Javi Julio)

The way to peace

The basic conflict between the Basque Country, Spain and France comprises three points: First, the Basques are primarily defined by their language. That is why they are calling for Madrid and Paris to recognize the Euskara - Europe's oldest living language - as an official language with equal rights. Second, they seek the territorial unity of their seven provinces, four of which are in the Kingdom of Spain and three in the French Republic. Thirdly, finally, they want to be able to determine the political future of their community for themselves. The three demands collide with the central government concept that prevails in Spain and France.

During the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) the Basques were given powers by the central government to govern themselves. This autonomy ended in 1937 when the right-wing coup leaders under General Francisco Franco conquered the Basque Country. The dictator again administered the Basque Country centrally, banned Basque language, had opponents persecuted and executed. In this context, the underground organization Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (ETA, Basque Country and Freedom) was founded in 1958. From 1968 she fought violently against the Franco dictatorship (1936 / 39-1975 / 78). She also rejected the new Statute of Autonomy (1979). Their goal was an independent, Basque republic. To this end, she carried out attacks on representatives from the state, politics and industry until 2011. The French Basque Country served her as a retreat. The conflict widened in the 1990s when left-wing youths began their "street fight" (Basque: kale borroka). They wanted to support the goals of the ETA with arson attacks, e.g. against public transport and ATMs. The attacks and the reactions of the Spanish state affected society as a whole, without one party to the conflict clearly victorious.

Map of ETA actions in the Basque Country 1961-2010
Here you can find the map as a high-resolution PDF file. License: cc by-nc-nd / 3.0 / de / (mr-kartographie)

After talks between the Spanish government, the banned Basque Left Party Batasuna and ETA to find a political solution to the conflict failed in 2007, it initially looked as if another decade of violence would follow. But in 2010 large parts of the also banned left independence movement decided to fight for the common goal - the formation of a Basque (socialist) state - only by political means and non-violently. The ETA accepted this paradigm shift, with which the primacy of politics prevailed in the left-wing camp. As a result, a dynamic developed that caused several left-wing national forces to join forces in the party coalition "Euskal Herria Bildu" - in short: EH Bildu - (German: to assemble the Basque Country).

At the international level, experts in conflict resolution supported the development. Among other things, they won five Nobel Peace Prize winners to help support the process. The desired solution was based on the example and experience in South Africa and Northern Ireland. In October 2011, a conference was held in the Basque town of Aiete under the leadership of former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, at which international supporters called on ETA to end the armed struggle. For their part, the governments in Madrid and Paris should respond with a constructive gesture. On October 21, 2011, ETA announced the end of "all armed activities". On April 8, 2017, their weapons arsenal was handed over to the authorities through intermediaries and with the help of social groups. The ETA disbanded itself on May 3, 2018.

Success and stagnation

Since then, life in the Basque Country has normalized. Politicians of the pro-Spanish parties, members of the security authorities and entrepreneurs no longer have to fear becoming targets of attacks. The Basque Political Prisoners Collective (EPPK) has also recognized the Spanish legal framework. For their part, the parties of the left independence movement accepted the restrictive party law as the basis for political-democratic competition. Part of their new style is to work constructively with all-Spanish parties of social democratic and left-wing republican influences. That happened in 2015-2019 in the "Foral Community Navarre" (Basque: Nafarroa) [1] and since 2019 in Madrid, where the MPs from EH Bildu and the conservative Basque National Party (PNV) selectively formed the minority coalition of Social Democratic Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez (PSOE ) and his left-wing Republican Deputy Prime Minister Pablo Iglesias (UP).

There are various initiatives and approaches in Basque society to come to terms with the violent conflict which has left around 1,300 lives on both sides. There are also several thousand victims of police arbitrariness and torture. The discussion forums are still a long way from assuming the character of "truth commissions". So far, the Spanish state has denied that state violence was a central cause of the conflict under the Franco dictatorship. The all-Spanish associations of ETA victims are still fundamentally opposed to the dialogue.

Overall, however, the political solution process is stagnating, as the minority government in Madrid under Prime Minister Sánchez, which has been in office since 2019, is unable to set new accents to resolve the political conflict with the Basque Country on a sustainable basis. All police prosecutions against the ETA continue; the Spanish judiciary continues its investigations and proceedings against the former organization and its "environment". The aim is to atone for previously unexplained ETA attacks. A highly politicized judiciary forces some of those affected to fight for their rights in the EU courts in the last instance. At the same time, the sometimes illegal special measures of the Spanish judiciary against prisoners with an ETA background remain in place. An amnesty for the approx. 236 prisoners (as of March 2020) is unlikely. Even the lawful transfer of ETA prisoners to prisons in or near the Basque Country continues to oppose right-wing parties and victims' associations.

Problems and deficits

The peace process is stagnating for two reasons: because of its one-sidedness and because of the political crisis in Spain, which was exacerbated by the corona pandemic. Since Madrid and Paris rejected international mediators and also rejected the proposed solution models, the cornerstones of the conflict persist. It was therefore up to the Basque independence movement and parts of Basque society to pacify the situation. They caused the ETA to dissolve without any consideration from France and Spain.

Map of the separatist movements in Western Europe
Here you can find the map as a high-resolution PDF file. License: cc by-nc-nd / 3.0 / de / (mr-kartographie)
Paris continues to view the conflict as an internal Spanish problem. The French police and judiciary continue to prosecute (former) ETA members. The French government is unwilling to grant the Basque minority linguistic and cultural rights, which is why it has not ratified the EU Charter for Minority Languages.

The pan-Spanish parties refuse to anchor the right of self-determination demanded by the Basques and Catalans in the constitution. Even the leeway offered by the current 1978 constitution has not been exhausted. The Basque Autonomous Community is still waiting for Madrid to finally transfer the outstanding competences to it. For decades these have been part of the bargaining chip with which every central government has tried to secure the support of the autonomous Basque government. But to this day it has remained with declarations of intent.

As the strongest political force, the Basque National Party (PNV) is deliberately and vaguely advocating a "new political status". This could mean both an extended statute of autonomy in the previous constitutional framework and the conversion of the Basque Country into a "Free State" based on the model of Bavaria. In view of the desire for independence in Catalonia, the PNV had offered to mediate between Madrid and Barcelona.

The leftist independence movement in the Basque Country has a different strategy. Your short-term goal is to merge the Basque Autonomous Community with the Foral Community of Navarre. Even the Spanish Constitution would allow it. The road to independence should take place through a social discussion and decision-making process. This method has already been used successfully by the supporters of independence in Catalonia. It has been possible there that a substantial part of civil society supports the idea of ​​independence. In the Basque Country, too, comparable mass actions under the slogan "Gure esku dago" (Basque: "It is our right") have brought over a hundred thousand people to the streets across all parties. Since the ETA has completely dissolved without a wing splitting off, there is currently no risk that political violence could return from this side.

Rather, the political instability in Madrid poses risks to the peace process that has been initiated. The financial conduct of members of the royal family has sparked a discussion about the continued existence of the parliamentary monarchy. The role of the king as a figure of integration, who has so far been able to hold opposing political, social and institutional forces together, is at stake.

The Covid19 pandemic hit the Spanish state in a politically fragile situation and deepened the divide between the left and right camps. Spain's conservative People's Party (PP) did not get over the loss of power through a constructive vote of no confidence in 2018. The Spanish Socialist Workers' Party (PSOE) led by Prime Minister Sánchez found it difficult to form a minority government in 2019 with the left-wing Republican Unidas Podemos (UP) led by Pablo Iglesias. Their future also depends on the voting behavior of the Basque parties PNV and EH Bildu. The right-wing opposition reproaches her for this fact: she describes the government as the vicarious agent of ETA and EH Bildu as its successor party.

The conservative People's Party (PP) is trying to set the course for a return to government. After coalitions at local and regional level, she is striving for government power in Madrid together with the right-wing liberal Ciudadanos and the right-wing radical Vox. You are using the corona crisis to destabilize the government. Vox even suggested a coup led by King Felipe VI. at. The three parties want to drastically curtail the autonomy rights of the regional communities and ban parties that advocate the independence of the Basque Country or Catalonia.

The pandemic has shown how fragile the development of the Spanish state towards more autonomy rights of the regional communities is. When the Sánchez government declared a state of alarm, the action aroused concerns that this instrument could also be used in the future to severely curtail self-government in the Basque Country and Catalonia. Since the central government tried to manage the Covid-19 crisis largely on its own, it indirectly strengthened the idea of ​​a unified dirigiste state. The weaknesses of the Spanish model in relation to a federal understanding of the state, as in Germany, which requires dialogue between the federal government and the states, became clear. At the same time, the deficits in managing the crisis on the part of the central government in Madrid and the high number of infected and dead in the Basque Country and Catalonia made the call for independence louder.

Whether the Basque peace process can be stabilized at the current level depends mainly on political developments in Madrid. Towards the end of the first wave of pandemics, the Sánchez government signaled that it was accommodating by lawfully transferring five chronically ill ETA prisoners to prisons near the Basque Country. In view of the previous refusal, this is considered a step forward. The two Basque majority parties PNV and EH Bildu know that they can only achieve anything with a government led by PSOE and UP. A change of government to the right could call into question all that has been achieved so far and re-escalate the conflict between the Basque Country and the central state.


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