Oct 29th 2011 | SAN SEBASTIÁN | from the print edition of The Economist
WHEN ETA broke off a ceasefire in 2007, Jesús Eguiguren, a Basque negotiating on behalf of the Spanish government, warned his separatist counterpart, Francisco Javier López Peña, that his destiny was to spend years in jail. “And you should buy black ties,” Mr López Peña retorted, for the funerals of future victims of the Basque terror organisation.
Both men were right. ETA killed ten times over the next three years. Mr Eguiguren was pall-bearer at the funeral of Isaías Carrasco, his friend and fellow Basque Socialist. But in 2008 Mr López Peña, then ETA’s leader, was captured in France.
One reason ETA has downed arms is that hardliners like Mr López Peña are behind bars. Another is that the campaign of terror he had planned failed to happen. Several of his successors were detained in a series of joint Spanish-French police operations. ETA became virtually inoperative. Ten killings in three years was paltry by its standards. “Spanish democracy has defeated ETA,” declared Antonio Camacho, the interior minister.
Yet it is too early to write ETA’s obituary. It has neither disarmed nor disbanded. A violent breakaway group, similar to the Real IRA in Northern Ireland, could emerge. ETA has asked for talks with Spain and France. This, it says, is how “armed confrontation” can be finally overcome.
José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, Spain’s Socialist prime minister, deserves credit for dragging ETA this far. But the job of negotiating with the group will fall to his successor, after a general election on November 20th. That will almost certainly be Mariano Rajoy, whose conservative People’s Party (PP) looks set to win a landslide.
Talking to ETA is “a betrayal of the dead,” Mr Rajoy once said. But so far he has displayed moderation. “This is a great piece of news,” he said, before calling for ETA’s dissolution. When Spaniards start to enjoy a peace dividend in the form of lower security costs and higher tourism receipts in the Basque country, pressure will build to sort out the remaining issues.
Concessions to ETA’s demand for a separate Basque state are out. But the government could take other steps, such as moving some of the 700 ETA prisoners in Spanish and French prisons closer to the Basque country, or exercising leniency on day- and early-release programmes. Still, ETA is not in a strong bargaining position. Mass prisoner-release programmes, if they ever come, must wait. The problem of ETA members in hiding, like Mr Pla, is trickier. Most Spaniards want to see them in court. They may prefer to be exiled to a beach somewhere in the Caribbean.
ETA’s arms, hidden in France and the Basque country, must inevitably be given up, says Brian Currin, a South African lawyer. The PP has denounced his fellow “mediators”, including Kofi Annan, a former UN secretary-general, as unwelcome meddlers. Mr Rajoy may, however, need them to oversee a discreet disarmament process.
A separate demand comes from the politicians who led ETA away from violence. Banned front parties, like Batasuna, want to be allowed back into mainstream politics. A coalition they linked up with, Bildu, won 26% of Basque votes in municipal elections in May, suggesting that it has much to gain from Spanish democracy. Mr Rajoy will come under pressure to respond. All this will take years but, happily for the long-suffering Basques, there is no taste for turning back.