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ETA, Basque Autonomy, and Constitutional Reforms: Tracing the Path to Independence

The three historic territories of Alava, Gipuzkoa, and Biscay constitute the Basque Country (de la Calle & Sánchez-Cuenca, 2009, p. 212). Those in the Basque Country speak a dialect commonly spoken within Spain, known as “Basque” (Sutton, 2014, p. 52). The Basque language is ancient and is used throughout the country as the predominant language (Sutton, 2014, pp. 52-53). Several forms of media, such as film, television, and radio, are communicated through the unique language of Basque, and it is taught alongside Spanish in schools (Sutton, 2014, pp. 52-53). Furthermore, Basque culture is referred to as “Euskara” (Roach, 2007, p. 453). Within the government of Basque, nationalist parties are present in decision-making (Goikoetxea, 2013, p. 270). Not only Basque nationalist parties are recognized by the electoral system, but they also play a role in influencing and shaping policies, reflecting the ideology of autonomy and the unique identity of those in the Basque region (Goikoetxea, 2013, p. 270). As recently as 2014, in the entirety of the country of Spain with 266 senators, Basque nationalist parties secured six seats (Sutton, 2014, p. 59). The Basque Country's economy is driven by natural resource management in sectors like steel production and collaboration with Amtrak (Sutton, 2014, p. 55). This economic strength buttresses their unique sense of local pride, fueling the belief that they have the mettle to stand independently (Sutton, 2014, p. 55).

Since the nineteenth century, the Basque Country has yearned to uphold its unique nationalistic identity and safeguard its history, traditions, language, and character (de la Calle & Sánchez-Cuenca, 2009, pp. 212-213). During the 1800s, tensions arose between Spain and the Basque Country for the first time. Leaders in Madrid sought to assimilate and centralize Spain under the umbrella of the Catholic Church, requiring regions, including the Basque Country, to surrender their individual "fueros" – these were special historic rights that gave them unique economic privileges, tracing back to medieval times (de la Calle & Sánchez-Cuenca, 2009, pp. 212-213). The Basque Country resisted this request, although they were Catholic, successfully retaining their autonomous rights. This historical event ultimately resulted in the Basque Country's nationalist and autonomous inclinations, with the culmination of the establishment of The Basque Nationalist Party (PNV) in 1895 as well as the creation of the Basque flag (de la Calle & Sánchez-Cuenca, 2009, pp. 212-213). The PNV believed that the sole way to preserve the history and traditions of Basque Country was to become a fully autonomous and sovereign state (de la Calle & Sánchez-Cuenca, 2009, p. 213).

Figure 1: Basque Country regions (Sánchez et al., 2002).

Basque Country Autonomous Efforts in the 20th Century

Throughout the early 20th century, the PNV dominated as the primary political party of the national Basque identity (Jeram, 2016, p. 1260). However, all nationalistic parties were suppressed and prohibited in 1939 when Francisco Franco came to power in Spain (Jeram, 2016, p. 1261). During his violent, forceful, and authoritarian rule, from 1939-1975, he prohibited any regional languages, such as Catalan, Galician, and Basque, from being spoken and mandated the sole language of Spanish (Castilian) to be spoken (de la Calle & Sánchez-Cuenca, 2009, p. 213). Those who violated any laws were tortured and even killed (de la Calle & Sánchez-Cuenca, 2009, p. 213). Moreover, Franco revoked “fuero” rights from two of the historic regions in Basque Country (de la Calle & Sánchez-Cuenca, 2009, p. 213). As a response to Franco’s authoritarian rule, a new organization formed in Basque Country: Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (ETA), and it began to wage a violent struggle for Basque Country independence starting in 1959 (Jeram, 2016, p. 1261).

In response to Franco’s oppressive and harsh demands of trying to suppress the independence and decentralization of the Basque Country, the ETA began to respond by utilizing violence to achieve autonomy and draw attention (Ubasart-González, 2019, pp. 569-570). They believed that through violent action against those in political or military power in Spain, independence and secession from Spain were wholly possible (Sutton, 2014, p. 49). In 1968, the first victim of the ETA was a civil guard of Spain, José Pardines; shortly after, the ETA killed three more individuals who worked with Franco, “a police inspector,” “chief of the secret police”, and a “known torturer” (Ubasart-González, 2019, p. 570). In the early 1970s, the ETA furthered their desires by assassinating Luis Carrero Blanco, Franco’s heir and current prime minister of Spain (Ubasart-González, 2019, p. 570). Shortly after this, in 1975, Franco died (Ubasart-González, 2019). The transition from dictatorship to democracy began in 1975-1978 (Ubasart-González, 2019, p. 571).

Figure 2: Members of the ETA organization (Segovia, 2020).

Created in the early fall of 1977, the working draft of the constitution was written by the acting prime minister in the post-Franco regime, Adolfo Suárez, and seven individuals (Martínez-Herrera & Miley, 2010). Suárez gathered seven individuals to create a committee where each representative from Spain was reflective of the parties within Spain (Martínez-Herrera & Miley, 2010, p. 7). He gathered three members from the Democratic Party (UCD), one member from the ex-Franquist party, one member from the social-democratic party, one member from the communist party, one member that represented the region of Catalonia, and one member that represented the region of Basque Country (Martínez-Herrera & Miley, 2010, p. 7).

These seven members created the Spanish Constitution of 1978 to reflect how the nationalities of Spain not only had power over the region, but that “self-government” originated from the regions; ultimately, the constitution was used to facilitate that the region was the source of power (Martínez-Herrera & Miley, 2010, p. 9). Further, the Constitution emphasized that any “historic” ties to the regions were not only acknowledged but also protected (Martínez-Herrera & Miley, 2010, p. 11). In 1978, a new Spanish constitution was written and approved. This constitution followed the death of Francisco Franco in 1975 (Barón, 2015, p. 94). The new constitution focused on returning to regional independence of the national identities within Spain; these included Catalonia and the Basque Country (Barón, 2015, p. 94). The constitution yearned to return power back to the regional areas that had their own national and historic identities (Barón, 2015, p. 94).

Figure 3: Spain’s new constitution was approved in 1978 (Nelsson, 2018).

Within the regions, the government of Spain allotted each region complete control over its “culture, education, health, and linguistics” (Barón, 2015, p. 94). However, the federal government still controlled the general economy, international relations, and security of the entire nation (Barón, 2015, p. 95). Lastly, the constitution required that each of these regions had to create its own regional constitution and present it to the Congress in Madrid, who had to accept their constitution (Barón, 2015, p. 95). In December 1978, a mere 31% of those from Basque Country acknowledged the census and approved the constitution whereas the rest of Spain had a 59% approval (de la Calle & Sánchez-Cuenca, 2009, p. 213).

In 1979, the Basque Country attained its Statute of Autonomy (Statute of Gernika) as an addition to the 1978 Constitution (Goikoetxea, 2013, p. 268). This Statute introduced a new government structure, one that emphasized the significance of the Basque Foral territories system. The Statute contained two elements; the first was the Law of the Historic Territorials, or the Foral Territories (LHT) (Goikoetxea, 2013). The LHT honored full political independence and representation of the three Basque (Foral) historic territories: Araba, Bizkaia, and Gipuzkoa (Goikoetxea, 2013, p. 268). Instituted in 1983, the LHT in Basque Country acknowledged that three territories were not only represented territorially (rather than individually) but were also politically independent (Goikoetxea, 2013, p. 269).

The second element that emerged was the Basque Economic Agreement. Approved in 1981, the Basque Economic Agreement set up an independent financial system in the entire Basque region; ultimately, Basque Country controlled its own finances without interference, while also cooperating with the central (State) of Spain (Goikoetxea, 2013, p. 268). There were two significant components within the Basque Economic Agreement that abetted its independent and autonomous operation and desires (Goikoetxea, 2013, p. 270). The first component was related to the LHT. The BEA stated that the three historic territories, known as the Foral territories, were provided with absolute authority to supervise, manage, and gather all tax revenue, aside from any item imported externally to the European Union (Goikoetxea, 2013, p. 270). Thus, these territories had extreme amounts of autonomous power in relation to taxation, finances, and their own personal regional police departments. Furthermore, these Foal territories became closely aligned with the higher government of Basque Country and worked juxtaposed with one another in all sectors of civilian life (Goikoetxea, 2013, pp. 270-271). The second component within the BEA required Basque Country to cooperate with the Spanish Treasury and contribute 6.24% of costs/expenses where no direct involvement or engagement was had with Spain, known as the “Basque Tax Contribution” (Goikoetxea, 2013, p. 270). Some of these costs referred to foreign policies or the Spanish army (Goikoetxea, 2013, p. 270).

Figure 4: Framework of Basque Government (Batzar Nagusiak Juntas Generales Bizkaia, n.d.).

In 1980, the first regional election was held in Basque Country; this was the first election since Francisco Franco came to power; in this election, two different parties under the ETA participated, Euskadiko Eskerra (ETA-pm) and Herri Batasuna (ETA-m) (de la Calle & Sánchez-Cuenca, 2009, p. 214). Moreover, PNV also participated in the election along with other non-nationalist parties (de la Calle & Sánchez-Cuenca, 2009, p. 214). Overwhelmingly, 60% of votes were allotted to nationalist parties in this election; ultimately, the winning candidate, with around 40% approval was the PNV (de la Calle & Sánchez-Cuenca, 2009, p. 214).

After the Constitution of 1978 was passed and the first regional election was held, the ETA continued to pursue its agenda (Ubasart-González, 2019, p. 571). The ETA’s agenda became more expansive than responding to Franco; it became a movement to implement full autonomy of the Basque Country. They began to weave their way into all parts of Basque society post-Franco through academia, media, environmentalist groups, and cultural avenues (de la Calle & Sánchez-Cuenca, 2009, p. 214). From 1978-1980, the transitional period between the dictatorship to the new democratic period, the ETA killed 235 individuals (Abadie & Gardeazabal, 2003, p. 115). The ETA began to commit mass casualties throughout the 1980s, including two car bomb attacks (Ubasart-González, 2019, p. 575).

Figure 5: ETA car bombing attack in Barcelona, 1987 (Belaza, 2018).

During this time, nationalistic pride took over Basque Country in the early 1980s; in 1983, PNV “motioned” at the town hall to replace the Spanish flag with that of the Basque flag in all public and private settings (Guittet, 2008, p. 271). This flag was representative of their culture, tradition, and history; moreover, because Franco repressed all Basque culture, they believed that this act would revolutionize their independent identity (Guittet, 2008, p. 271). They went so far as to send the Spanish flag back to the central government’s home ministry in Madrid (Guittet, 2008, p. 271). The police in Basque Country began to hang the Basque flag everywhere and remove the Spanish flag (Guittet, 2008). The central government responded in outrage, and a “flag war” continued for the rest of that year (Guittet, 2008, p. 271).

During this period, a two-fold divide was created in Basque Country. One faction was those who believed in the PNV, and their ideals of moderate autonomy, and condoned the violence of the ETA (Vaczi & Watson, 2021, p. 605). The second faction emerged as the Basque “left,” the side that still valued the PNV values, but also had a closer relationship to the ETA (Vaczi & Watson, 2021, p. 605). As a result, in 1986, two new parties emerged under the “left” side umbrella: the first was Eusko Alkartasuna (EA) and the second was Herri Batasuna (HB) (de la Calle & Sánchez-Cuenca, 2009, p. 215). The HB party was the more extremist party that advocated for the ETA (Barón, 2015, p. 99). Oppositely, the EA resembled a less pro-ETA agenda and advocated for more “social-democratic” goals (de la Calle & Sánchez-Cuenca, 2009, p. 215). Valuing a more “pro-separatist” agenda, the EA party attempted to run in 1986, winning 16% of votes; however, the PNV still maintained victory (de la Calle & Sánchez-Cuenca, 2009, p. 215). Yet, the PNV’s legitimacy began to decline and they yearned to maintain power in government; as a result, the PNV decided to work with the Spanish Socialist Workers' Party (PSOE) for the next ten years (de la Calle & Sánchez-Cuenca, 2009, p. 215).

Figure 6: Basque Country flag (Fuster, 2016).

The threat of the ETA to Spain during the 1980s remained serious and the Antiterrorism Act of 1984 was created as a result (Ubasart-González, 2019, p. 575). Declaring terrorism illegal, the Spanish government took measures that were intended to combat the ETA’s terror; these included invading Basque Country if necessary and utilizing any means to end the organization (Ubasart-González, 2019, p. 576). Further, the Spanish government even created a secret anti-terrorism group, the Antiterrorism Liberation Groups (GAL) from 1983-1987, to employ covert warfare tactics to scare the ETA (Ubasart-González, 2019, pp. 576-577). Some of this included kidnapping and even killing some members of the ETA; overall the GAL killed 23 members of the ETA during its time as a group (Ubasart-González, 2019, p. 576).

The era of PNV-PSOE collaboration stands as a transformative chapter in the history of the Basque Country. Their partnership illustrated a shared commitment to curb the violence linked with ETA (Guittet, 2008, p. 273). In 1985, the PNV authored a significant “memorandum on violence," revealing their perceived differences between Basque nationalism and ETA's objectives (Guittet, 2008, p. 274). Upon reviewing the “memorandum on violence," the PSOE not only validated its content but also approved it (Guittet, 2008, p. 274). Simultaneously, the PSOE engaged in discussions with the central government in Madrid regarding the Madrid Pact, a pact emphasizing principles of nonviolence, diplomacy, harmony, and formal affairs with both the PSOE, the Basque Country, and the central government of Madrid (Guittet, 2008, p. 274). As a result, the central government of Madrid extended formal recognition to the PNV due to its “memorandum on violence”, acknowledging the party as a "moderate national" entity and a legitimate political party within the entire country of Spain (Guittet, 2008, p. 275).

Built upon the foundations of nonviolence, harmony, and peaceful relations, the Madrid Pact was signed by the central government of Spain and the PNV/PSOE party in 1987; this pact was significant because it declared the ETA as the antithesis of Basque nationalism, and stated the “impossibility of negotiating with illegal organizations” like this one (Guittet, 2008, p. 276). One year later, in 1988, every nationalistic party, aside from the HB party, in the Basque Country signed an agreement known as the Arjuria Enea Agreement that rejected the ETA (Guittet, 2008, p. 277). This agreement was an anti-terrorist policy that labeled the ETA as radical terrorists and said they had no validity because they were terrorists; it put the ETA on an international scale and strengthened Basque Country’s relationship with Madrid (Guittet, 2008, p. 277).

Figure 7: Signing of the Arjuria Enea Agreement, 1988 (Gonzalez, 2018).

Certain milestones pertaining to and supporting Basque Country autonomy persisted throughout the 1990s. In 1994, the European Union Commission issued permission for regional powers to become involved in the EU distribution of monetary funds regarding sustainability in regional efforts (Roach, 2007, p. 455). For the first time, the Basque Country government received funds directly from the EU Commission in an effort to help sustainability efforts there (Roach, 2007, p. 455). In 1994, the same year, the ETA created a document known as the Oldartzen Report, expressing their new and transformative vision of not only attacking political figures or the army but normal civilians: a “socialization of suffering” (Ubasart-González, 2019, p. 578). In the following years, the ETA continued to target officials and civilians in Spain; the Spanish government, headed by José María Aznar, began to work with Basque Country nationalists and the “left” parties to figure out negotiations to achieve peace (Ubasart-González, 2019, p. 579).

Ultimately, the year 1998 was a pivotal year for the Basque Country; for the first time, the ETA announced a truce that lasted one year (Roach, 2007, p. 455). Concurrently, the regions of Catalonia, Galicia, and Basque Country were recognized under the Barcelona Declaration that Spain was a “multilingual and multinational state” (Roach, 2007, p. 455). However, in 1999, ETA declared the end of the cease-fire, and by 2000, they killed 23 more people (Abadie & Gardeazabal, 2003, pp. 115-122).

Basque Country Autonomous Efforts in the 21st Century

From 2000-2004, a shift in penalization transpired as Spanish officials expressed extreme apprehension toward the ETA. The judicial branch and the legislative branch of the government prosecuted and arrested any individuals involved in ETA-related matters (Ubasart-González, 2019, p.579). As a result of the new repression and laws, in 2006, the ETA declared a “permanent ceasefire”; yet a few months later, they loaded a van at the Madrid Barajas Airport and detonated it, killing two civilians (Ubasart-González, 2019, p. 581).

In 2004, the Basque Country regional parliament engaged in creating an agreement that focused on Basque secession from the Spanish state; it garnered 51% approval in the parliament (Roach, 2007, p. 456). However, in 2008, the Spanish Constitutional Court rejected their proposal (Goikoetxea, 2018, p. 277). During the regional elections in 2009, the ETA political branch was deemed illegitimate to run for any position in the Basque Country government (de la Calle & Sánchez-Cuenca, 2009, p. 212). In 2009, for the first time in thirty years, a pivotal shift to non-nationalist government rule was formed during the regional elections in Basque Country (de la Calle & Sánchez-Cuenca, 2009, p. 211). The PNV was unable to form a victorious alliance. The newly created government was socialist, composed of the PSOE (Spanish socialist party) and the PSE (Basque Socialist Party), representing the non-nationalist party (de la Calle & Sánchez-Cuenca, 2009, p. 211).

Figure 8: ETA announces permanent ceasefire (Britannica, 2023).

By 2010, ETA had become not only a problem for Basque Country and Spain but also internationally. This resulted in The Declaration of Brussels, signed by twenty international "public figures" (Ubasart-González, 2019, p. 581). The declaration requested a lasting ceasefire to be initiated; because of the international attention, it gave the Spanish authorities stronger legitimacy (Ubasart-González, 2019, p. 581). The following year, in 2011, ETA acknowledged the declaration and agreed to an unchanging ceasefire publicly. They also agreed to it as the Spanish government had rejected any sort of negotiations with them by this point (Ubasart-González, 2019, p. 581).

In 2013, a social grassroots movement pertaining to Basque autonomy emerged called Gure Esku Dago, meaning “It is in our hands” (Vaczi & Watson, 2021, p. 611). This organization generated a shift from violent nationalism to peaceful nationalism and open dialogue (Vaczi & Watson, 2021, p. 604). In 2014 and 2018, the organization led a peaceful campaign by creating a “human chain” spanning several towns throughout Basque Country (Vaczi & Watson, 2021, p. 608). Over 150,000 people joined together in 2014 and 2018 to peacefully demonstrate their desire for full autonomy for Basque Country (Vaczi & Watson, 2021, p. 608). In 2018, the ETA stated that they had fully disarmed, donated their arsenal to public officials, and publicly apologized (Ubasart-González, 2019, p. 582).

Figure 9: Peaceful “human chain” campaign in Basque Country, led by Gure Esku Dago, 2014 (Díaz, 2014).

Since 2018, Basque Country’s relationship with the central Spanish government has evolved, prompted by the shift away from the nationalistic party to the socialist party; there is now a growing dialogue on collaboration, peaceful discussion, and politically driven decision-making processes. The Basque Country's quest for autonomy is deeply rooted in the historical tenure of the nationalist government as well as the 1978 Spanish Constitution. This prolonged rule, spanning thirty years after Francisco Franco, combined with the presence of ETA, fostered a trust deficit among the central Spanish government, the nationalist administration, and the Basque Country as a whole. The 2009 regional elections and 2011 ETA permanent ceasefire provided a glimmer of hope, leading the central government to place trust in Basque Country, as political considerations now take precedence over solely nationalistic goals.

Bibliographical References

Abadie, A. & Gardeazabal, J. (2003, March). The Economic Costs of Conflict: A Case Study of the Basque Country. The American Economic Review, 93(1), 113-132.

Barón, A. (2015). Why Public Finance Matters: Evolution of Independence Movements in Catalonia and the Basque Country during the Twenty-First Century. SAIS Review of International Affairs, 35(2), 91–103.

de la Calle, L., & Sánchez-Cuenca, I. (2009). The End of Three Decades of Nationalist Rule: The 2009 Regional Elections in the Basque Country. South European Society & Politics, 14(2), 211–226.

Guittet, E.P. (2008). Is Consensus a Genuine Democratic Value? The Case of Spain’s Political Pacts Against Terrorism. Alternatives, 33, 267-291.

Goikoetxea, J. (2013). Nationalism and Democracy in the Basque Country (1979–2012). Ethnopolitics, 12(3), 268–289.

Jeram, S. (2016). Looking forward into the past: Partido Nacionalista Vasco and the immigrant question in the Basque Country. Journal of Ethnic & Migration Studies, 42(8), 1257–1270.

Martínez-Herrera, E., & Miley, T.J. (2010). The constitution and the politics of national identity in Spain. Nations & Nationalism, 16(1), 6–30.

Roach, S. C. (2007). A Constitutional Right to Secede? Basque Nationalism and the Spanish State. International Studies Perspectives, 8(4), 446–460.

Sutton, D. (2014). The Belligerent Basques and the Composed Catalans: An Analysis of Violence in Basque Country and Catalonia. Sigma: Journal of Political and International Studies, 31(4), 49-65.

Ubasart-González, G. (2019). ETA and state action: the development of Spanish antiterrorism. Crime, Law and Social Change, 72(5), 569-586.

Vaczi, & Watson, C. J. (2021). Corporeal performance in contemporary ethnonationalist movements: the changing body politic of Basque and Catalan secessionism. Social Anthropology, 29(3), 602–618.

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Alexandra Gimpel

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