The start of a permanent ceasefire by the Basque separatist terror group ETA (BBC) may be the beginning of the end of a long, dark chapter of European nationalist violence. Spain’s government has adopted a wait-and-see attitude, insisting it must still judge whether ETA is truly bent on an end to the conflict—or if the ceasefire announcement is just a ploy (CNN).
ETA’s move, for all its historic implications, had been widely anticipated. In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, the nationalist brand of terrorism that plagued Europe during the Cold War largely faded from the headlines. The IRA’s 1994 ceasefire (BBC), which led to the breakthrough Good Friday Agreement four years later, had already removed the bloodiest of these conflicts from public view. With Spain and then Britain coming under attack from al-Qaeda cells, and Europe preoccupied by disaffected Muslim minorities (Foreign Affairs), the threat posed by various Basques, Corsicans, or Greek communists came to be seen as almost quaint.
It never was, of course. ETA killed some 800 people during its four decades-long battle to "free" the Basque region from Spanish rule (MSNBC). There are some 2.1 million Basques in Spain, whose region has considerable autonomy and whose language enjoys official status. As with the IRA and its political wing, Sinn Fein, in Northern Ireland, ETA has a political wing, Batasuna, which in 2003 was banned from taking part in electoral politics. The more moderate Basque Nationalist Republican Party, which governs the region, favors greater autonomy from Spain but opposes ETA's violence. ETA's statement, released on Wednesday to Spanish media (Reuters), said its leadership "decided to declare a permanent ceasefire" to spur the democratic process in the Basque region. "At the end of the process," the group says, "Basque citizens should have their say and decide on their future." Efforts in the past to entice ETA into substantive talks always came to grief on the question of a binding referendum on independence, and over objections from the Spanish right, as this interactive history from the Guardian explains.
Last May, Spain's Socialist government offered negotiations if ETA renounced violence. Now ETA has dropped—or at least watered down—its preconditions, though its statement made no specific reference to disarmament, an issue that continues to plague the Northern Ireland process as well. But the opening of serious talks could eventually convince the EU and U.S. State Department to remove ETA from their lists of foreign terrorist organizations. As this CFR Background Q&A relates, a number of terrorist groups have trod the path from pariah status to legitimacy during the past decade. Debate is raging today over whether it might not be possible to entice Middle Eastern groups like Hamas in the Palestinian territories and Hezbollah in Lebanon down a similar road. Neither has indicated any intention to renounce violence so far, though Hezbollah has enjoyed success in Lebanese elections that vaulted it into the governing coalition there, and Hamas has just submitted its cabinet after winning power in January's Palestinian vote.