Eta And The Spanish Elections

As someone who lives and works in Barcelona (capital of Catalonia, and formal definition in the eyes of the local nationalists of being Catalan), it is really rather frustrating to find that about the only time we make it to the European headlines (apart, of course, from when Bar?a wants to buy some world famous footballer like Beckham) is when one of the players in the greater-Spanish political arena – in this case Eta – wants to exploit some situation or other here to its own advantage. Outside of this context (and with, of course, the honourable exception of George Orwell) Catalonia is little heard of, and even less understood.

What is Catalonia? Catalonia is one of Spain’s autonomous regions, with strong historical and cultural ties with the Rousillon region of France (Northern Catalonia), Valencia and the Balearic islands: in all these places significant communities exist with strong linguistic and cultural ties to Catalonia proper.

So what is all this fuss about now? Why should Eta declare a ceasefire (please note not a truce, since a truce implies the existance of another party) specifically for Catalonia? Simple answer: to play games in the Spanish elections.

In order to understand the significance of all this you need to go back to the regional elections here at the end of last year. These elections produced a ‘hung parliament’ from which a very unusual coalition emerged: one between the local affiliate of the main Spanish opposition party (the socialist PSOE) and the more radical and openly separatist Republican Left party headed by Josep Carod Rovira (the so-called chief minister, which is just a ridiculous translation of Conseller en Cap, an honorific position which emerged from the government pact). The President of Catalonia at the moment is in fact the socialist Pasqual Maragall, who many may remember as the charismatic mayor of Barcelona during the olympic games of 1992.

Now this coalition (which also includes another left party and the greens) came into office as the replacement of the previous coalition of moderate Catalan nationalists (we don’t say we don’t want independence, we just say we don’t want to talk about this topic now) and the representatives of Spanish nationalism (the ruling Partido Popular of Jos? Maria Aznar). In fact, as I have said before, if you are not either a nationalist or a socialist here in Spain, it is pretty hard to know who to vote for.

Now if all this seems exceedingly bizarre and surreal, and makes you want to give up reading this now, I would hardly blame you, except that, it is pretty hilarious on the one hand, and that the outcome of next month’s Spanish elections may well depend on how all this pans out on the other.

Anyway right in the middle of this let us introduce another couple of dimensions, a proximate one: the Basque issue – and a slightly more remote one: the Iraq war. Both of these issues have combined to produce a pretty weird cocktail here, and it is this cocktail that is reflected in today’s story.

Now the Basques are, in many ways, a whole different box of tricks from the Catalans. Where the Catalans seem best at home in the world of pacts and dialogue, the Basques as is well know have had a rather more explosive recent history. This explosive history means that even today, nearly thirty years after the death of Franco, the exact identity of the Basque country within the Spanish state has still to be clarified to everyone’s satisfaction. And by everyone here I am not talking about Eta, which is simply a more or less classic terrorist organisation, like the IRA in Ireland, or the FLNC in Corsica. No here I am especially referring to the majority opinion of Basque voters consistently expressed in repeated autonomus community elections. So despite the best efforts of the Aznar government in Madrid to suggest the contrary, there is a Basque isssue, and one day or another it will need to be addressed.

However in sharp distinction to the government of Tony Blair in the Uk, or of Jospin/Raffarin in France, there is no government initiative here in Spain to have a second political ‘pillar’ in the fight against terrorism, one which would lead to a long term resolution of the problem. The situation is very similar in my opinion to the UK/Northern Ireland one in the late eighties under Mrs Thatcher.

What has effectively happened in Spain over the last 8 years is that a kind of dialogue of the deaf has been practised between the governments of Madrid and Vittoria (the Basque capital, where the government is in the hands of the PNV, a moderate nationalist party and one-time coalition partner of Aznar himself in his first years of government).

This absence of dialogue has meant that relations between Madrid and Vittoria have detiorated continuously during recent years, with each party making speeches and policy proposals exclusively directed at its own local electoral base. (If you want some idea what this means: thinking PP in Catalonia means something like Conservative Party in Scotland). As a result things have only deteriorated, with a low point now having been reached where on the one side the Basque president Juan Jos? Ibarretxe is now promising a referendum in the near future on the future of the region, and the Madrid government which denies the validity of any sort of referendum (as the possibilities of a vote in favour independence after all these years of neglect must now be high) passing a special law which effectively means Ibarretxe will go to prison if the referendum is held.

Now we begin to draw near to the Eta ‘ceasefire’ topic, for Ibarretxe has made an end to the violence a condition for holding the referendum. What this means in practice is that there is a constant too-ing a frow-ing of people, and a constant rumourology, all trying to pin down the political supporters of Eta to the idea of a definitive abandoment of violence. And it is in this context that Catalonia’s new Conseller en Cap has walked (probably intentionally) into the centre of the crossfire. He arranged and attended a secret meeting with representatives of Eta across the frontier in French Catalonia. The purpose of the meeting apparently (I say apparently since nothing here is ever either clear or certain) was an attempt to persuade the Eta representatives to abandon violence. If this was the intention then I would like to say now as clearly and resolutely as I can: this would have been a good thing. Of course Rovira was almost certainly naieve (or was he, since his real objective may have been to provoke precisely the response he ultimately received), since as we are now seeing Eta will normally only use such attempts for their own cynical purposes (and I can’t help thinking about Terry Waite in another context here).

Anyway I promised those of you who have struggled this far that all this would have an Iraq connection, and it does. If Catalonia has any cultural profile in the new Spain, it is that of being the centre of the ‘culture of dialogue’, of resolving problems by talking, rather than by using strong words, fists, or worse. Catalan society has seen how for years a country can be torn apart by ethnically related conflicts which proceed aparently without end, and without easy resolution. Having lived it in their own experience I am convinced that the majority of Catalans sincerely felt that the Iraq intervention was a mistake since the end product would more likely be civil war than democracy. Recent experience seems to be bearing them out.

On the Catalan view, fighting terrorism is not only about effective policing, and good security, it is also about having a political perspective, a stragegy to move things forward, a ‘war on terrorism’ which rests on two pillars, and which does not accept the characterisation of those who defend a political as well as a military stratgey as ‘aiders and abetters of the terrorists’.

It was this identity of dialogue which the hundreds of thousands of citizens who marched the streets of Barcelona in March last year were defending, it was this sense of dialogue that the socialist politician Ernest Lluc, who was cynically assasinated by Eta here in Barcelona a couple of years ago, (and who was also ‘guilty’ of trying to reason with Eta) was trying to defend. And it is this sense of dialogue, and peaceful conflict resolution (if you want of emmotional intelligence) that Eta by meddling around with Carod, and using him as a pawn in its cruel game, is trying to destroy.

Eta, the armed Basque separatist group, has called a truce in the Spanish region of Catalonia, less than a month before general elections, Basque public television said on Wednesday.

The recorded video broadcast, read by a masked Eta spokesman, announced that Eta had ceased all its “armed actions in Catalonia” on January 1 2004 in order to “strengthen the ties between the Basque and Catalan peoples, based on the principles of respect, non-interference and solidarity.”

The truce, the first by Eta since it announced the end of a 14-month countrywide ceasefire at the end of 1999, has caused outrage in Spain as it applies to just one area of the country.

The announcement follows the resignation of Josep Llu?s Carod Rovira, the chief minister for Catalonia, after a newspaper reported that he had held secret talks with the armed group to negotiate a truce in the region in return for support for the principle of self-determination for the Basque country.

Mr Carod Rovira, who was a senior member in the Socialist-led coalition that took power in Catalonia last month, admitted holding the talks but denied there had been a pact in exchange for a truce.

Jos? Mar?a Aznar, Spanish prime minister, said it would be untenable for the Socialists to maintain their coalition with Mr Carod’s Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya, unless the Catalan party rejected the agreement and sacked its leader “immediately.” Mariano Rajoy, leader of the Popular party and front-runner to succeed Mr Aznar as prime minister, said his party had already warned that certain political agreements could have “very dangerous consequences” adding that the “facts” were proving his party’s stance.

Jos? Luis Rodr?guez Zapatero, leader of the Socialist party, said he “absolutely rejected” the ceasefire and demanded “immediate political consequences, either for ERC or for the Catalan government.”

Juan Jos? Ibarretxe, the Basque president, said the announcement was “sickening and immoral” and criticised Eta for “favouring the electoral interests of the Conservative party” and “politically killing those who try to talk to them.”

Intelligence experts believe Eta is close to collapse after successive blows to its military and political apparatus. Last year, Eta killed three people – its fewest number of victims since it began fighting for an independent Basque state 32 years ago.
Source: Financial Times