1 December 2005 Edition

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An Elusive Peace

International - Many expect major breakthrough in Basque conflict

Recently returned from Madrid and the Basque Country, Sinn Féin's Director of European Affairs EOIN O BROIN examines the prospects for peace in the Basque Country.

For the last seven years Basque nationalists have made repeated attempts to develop a peace process. The Lizarra-Garazi agreement, signed by Basque nationalist social and political organisations was launched in 1998. ETA responded with an 18-month ceasefire. The Spanish and French Governments refused to respond and squandered the opportunity for peace.

In 2002 Batasuna made a new proposal consciously based on the Irish model with the launch of their document A Scenario for Peace. The proposal outlined their view on how best to build a conflict resolution process. Once again the Spanish and French Governments refused to respond and a second opportunity was lost.

The conservative Basque Nationalist Party launched their own initiative, called after the President of the Basque Autonomous Community parliament. The Plan Ibarretxe was passed by a slim majority in the Basque parliament in 2004 and was sent to the Spanish Parliament for discussion. Both Batasuna and the left party Ezker Batua were highly critical of the plan but supported it in order to provoke a debate. However the Spanish Socialist Government and the opposition Popular Party refused even to discuss the proposal and it was overwhelming defeated in the Spanish parliament.

Alongside this constant rejection of all Basque nationalist proposals for peace the Spanish Government, of Aznar and then Zapatero, continued with a wide-ranging policy of repression and criminalisation. Political prisoners continued to be jailed large distances from their homes, subjected to torture and denied their basic human rights. Political parties, social organisations, newspapers, magazines and businesses continued to be banned and their activists/members subject to a judicial process the aim of which an attempt to silence left nationalism. And the right to free speech, free assembly and association, and to political representation continue to be denied to Basques on a daily basis.

That political progress could emerge from such a context may seem far-fetched. However, during the last 12 months there has been a parallel, almost schizoid political process-taking place. Speculation is rife about secret negotiations between the government in Madrid and ETA. There is no formal confirmation of what is being discussed, but most commentators believe the issues include an ETA ceasefire, political prisoners, legalisation of Batasuna and the creation of a multi-party talks process. If all or any of this is true then what explains the apparent contradiction of a private process of negotiations and a public policy of repression and criminalisation?

Two developments in the last year are crucial. The first was the election of Jose Luis Zapatero's PSOE Socialist Government. His first 12 months in office has been characterised by a series of controversial moves that have confounded many. Within hours of his election he withdrew Spanish troops from Iraq. In following months he legalised gay marriage, challenged the role of the Catholic Church in education, and provided tougher sentences for men convicted of domestic violence. All these moves produced a divided reaction in Spanish society with liberals and the left offering strong support while Conservatives have mobilised against them.

However, the real controversy during the last 12 months has centred round Catalonia and the Basque Country.

Following the election of a Socialist-Left Nationalist coalition in Catalonia in 2004, the Catalan Government began drafting a new Statute of Autonomy, demanding greater powers for the regional parliament. The Statute was presented to the Spanish Government earlier this year and the way opened for its formal consideration with the support of Zapatero's Government. Spanish conservatives and sections of the PSOE are strongly opposed to the Catalan proposal, seeing its as granting too much power to the region. While the outcome of the Statute process remains uncertain, the fact that Zapatero was willing to allow its consideration is significant.

Even more controversial was Zapatero's resolution in the Spanish parliament this May, which outlined his willingness to talk directly with ETA in the context of an end to violence. Passed with support from nationalists and left parties, the motion took the public, members of the PSOE and even Batasuna by surprise. While every Spanish Government since the death of Franco has talked privately to ETA, never before has a Spanish premier sought such an explicit mandate from parliament.

Both moves are risks for Zapatero. The future of his political strategy depends on whether he can negotiate a new Catalan statute that satisfies Catalan nationalists -- whose support he requires in the Madrid and Barcelona parliaments — while keeping the more traditional wing of his party on board. Likewise, many see his radical liberal reform agenda as part of a deal with the Left Unity Party, whose support he also needs. However, most commentators believe that only by securing an ETA ceasefire can he win the 2008 Spanish parliamentary elections.

The speed with which he has engaged the liberal reform, Catalan and Basque issues is likely explained by his need to retain support from left and nationalist forces at a regional and central level and his assessment of the electoral balance of forces in the run up to 2008.

For their part, Batasuna significantly contributed to the opening a space for a conflict resolution process to emerge. In November 2004 they launched the Anoeta proposals. Central to this was a twin-track approach to conflict resolution, with Madrid and ETA dealing with 'technical' conflict issues simultaneously with a multi-party talks table dealing with the key political issues at the heart of the conflict. Basque nationalist political and social organisations then created the National Debate Platform to begin this process, that at present has the support of 55% of political parties in the country.

In the context of possible PSOE-ETA talks it is not inconceivable that the Basque section of that party, the PSE, would actively participate in the multi-party talks process post an ETA ceasefire, breaking the deadlock on political negotiations which has prevented the development of any peace process since 1998.

Most people believe that the coming months could see a major public breakthrough allowing for the private negotiations to give way to a public peace process.

One of the most striking things from my recent visit to Madrid and the Basque Country was the overwhelming sense of optimism. All of the people I met, from senior journalists close to the PSOE and PSE right through to senior figures in Batasuna and PNV there was a sense that both the opportunity and the will existed to make real political progress. As always there are those opposed to such moves. More importantly, the continuing support for the policies of repression and criminalisation from Zapatero's government is making the hard job of conflict resolution all the more difficult. But one thing is clear, today in Spain and the Basque Country there exists the best opportunity for a resolution of the conflict since the death of Franco and the so-called 'Transition to Democracy'. Basque nationalists are clearly up for the challenge. The real question is, are the Spanish Government?

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