Basque separatist group, the Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (Basque Homeland and Liberty or ETA), remains an ever-present shadow in Spain despite disbanding in 2018, infiltrating public life and discourse. While the present threat of bombings and assassinations are nil, the peril ETA poses remains a vexing issue that should not be ignored. That danger that it brings to the country today is one of factionalism, and the exploitation of wounds that can be expanded and left gaping if this persistent air of tension is left to fester. Continued use of ETA as political tools by those seeking to win votes will run the risk of exacerbating the fragile social fabric that Spain has attempted to strengthen when it returned to democracy in 1975. Those who believe that ETA’s threat has passed are sorely mistaken, as ignorance of the problem does not lessen the reality.
ETA supporters’ zeal towards an independent Basque Country has not dimmed, despite their operations grinding to a halt. In the past 25 years, the process of what Ubasart-Gonzalez called “social delegitimation,” left ETA with less power, influence, and social acceptability than what it previously enjoyed. Nowadays, Spaniards who sympathized with ETA’s mission no longer tolerate deviations from the norm of peace and support good faith efforts toward settling differences through reconciliation. The experiences of the Madrid train bombings in 2004 and the targeting and assassination of Partido Popular politician Miguel Angel Blanco in 1997, solidified Spaniards’ aversion to violence in promoting political and social aims. Despite some autonomy granted to Spain’s regional governments and the recognition of the plurality of its character as a nation, there are consistent calls in the Basque Country for not only additional reforms, but complete separation from the Spanish state.
Politicians and those that use these divisions for selfish objectives do nothing but sow chaos and contribute to ETA’s complicated legacy. Both of the political right and left cannot absolve themselves of the continued utility of invoking ETA, be it the right’s usage of the slogan, “Que te vote Txapote, or “Let Txapote vote for you,” or the left’s reliance upon EH Bildu (Euskal Herria Bildu, a pro-independence, leftist alliance of Basque nationalists) to pass legislation in parliament. An egregious gesture was EH Bildu’s inclusion of several convicted criminals, some formerly affiliated with ETA, in their electoral lists for recent general elections held in July 2023. These actions are not just political ploys to win elections, as if they were divorced from the contextual landscape they inhabit. They are a recognition of the power of ETA’s memory and the continued fracture of Spain’s seams. While further violence may not be a realistic outcome, these deeds do nothing in moving the needle forward to actual healing for the general public and the victims in particular.
What steps can the government take to reverse this division? One is a revamping of civics education within all schools. Civics education must include an appreciation and accurate representation of the peoples in Spain that includes their languages, customs, and traditions. With the emergence of national far-right parties like Vox, the argument against these programs has been reduced to defending Spanish unity and nationhood, as if the country was monolithic, devoid of diversity. Although one could argue these voices are necessary to combat a growing secession movement in Catalonia and the Basque Country, this is an opportunity to change how students learn about their fellow citizens, so they are not demonized. Regional languages can be taught alongside Spanish in places where it is not predominantly spoken and field trips should be organized so students have first-hand experiences with the people and practices of a region. It is difficult to hate and separate yourselves from someone or something you do not have close knowledge of.
Lastly, the central government must enhance their cooperation with regional governments in areas of agreement according to each other’s priorities. The conversation of increased autonomy in domains like fiscal issues will inevitably be contentious, but are necessary to avoid continued breakdown in collaboration. While the central government recognizes the plurality of the country and does not inhibit the use of regional languages nor their instruction in schools, there is a constant fear of edicts being imposed from Madrid. The quickest way for ETA sympathizers to rekindle any relevance would be the central government inciting voices of those who seek to eliminate the diversity of Spain’s identity. Continued cooperation amongst all is the only way that the threat of an ever-present conflict worsening can be avoided.
Ubasart-González, G. (2019). ETA and state action: the development of Spanish antiterrorism. Crime, law and social change, 72(5), 569-586.
Stephen Santos is a MS candidate in the Global Studies and International Relations program at Northeastern University.