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Deadly End to Spain's ETA Talks

Prepared by: Rebecca Bloom
January 16, 2007

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It was a short nine months into the cease-fire between the Spanish government and ETA (Basque Fatherland and Liberty), a separatist terrorist group that aims to create an independent Basque state, when a car bomb exploded in late December in the parking garage of Barajas airport in Madrid. In spite of ETA warnings ahead of the blast, casualties included dozens injured, two killed, and an end to the socialist government’s controversial policy of pursuing talks with ETA. Spain’s Interior Minister Alfredo Pérez Rubalcaba said his government would never again negotiate with ETA (NYT). In recent months ETA members had criticized the direction of the talks, warning their truce required concessions from Madrid, particularly in terms of the demand that ETA’s prisoners be moved (BosGlobe) to the Basque region of Spain from other areas of the country. 

On the political front, Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero’s standing has taken a beating (AngusReid) in the wake of the attacks. Still, while touring the wreckage, he said his “energy and determination to see the end of violence, to reach peace, is even greater” (Telegraph).  But rallies over the weekend featuring hundreds of thousands denouncing ETA also forced him to admit he had put too much faith (BBC) in ETA’s promises. Opposition leader Mariano Rajoy of the conservative Popular Party, which fought against the talks from the beginning, has claimed vindication (AP).

The blast also highlighted the rift between ETA and Batasuna, the terrorist group’s political wing, which previously had been considered minor. After the blast, Joseba Alvarez, a senior member of Batasuna, told Basque radio the attack “was not expected by anyone.”  In a move that could be considered either laudable or desperate, the group insisted the talks were not irrevocably broken (BBC).

Determining what the future may hold for a resumption of serious dialogue is difficult. In a recent Foreign Affairs article on negotiating with terrorists, Peter Neumann cites cohesion of the terrorist group as essential to the process, and uses ETA as an example of an organization whose “authority is often decentralized and the leadership acts as little more than a coordinating body.” Many believe the best chance for successful negotiations may be for ETA to mimic the path taken by the IRA (Provisional Irish Republican Army, once a notorious nationalist terrorist group. Gerry Adams, the leader of the IRA’s political wing Sinn Fein, has promoted the “Good Friday” (News From Spain) model on successive trips to the Basque region.

Yet the IRA took steps ETA has resisted, explicitly renouncing violence and agreeing to a disarmament regime. While the IRA, too, split violently during the talks, Sinn Fein’s strong position in Northern Ireland’s politics has much to do with its willingness to compromise and internal cohesiveness. Comparisons to ETA’s talks with Spain, therefore, are of limited validity (AP). ETA’s inflexibility may plague efforts to reach a negotiated solution.

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