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Limits and challenges of public mobilisation for peace in the Basque Country

Paul Rios
Coordinator of Lokarri
Paul Rios

Paul Rios

The Basque Country is living through a particularly important and consequential time. On 5 September, ETA announced its decision to cease "armed offensive action." Meanwhile, the nationalist left-wing political groupings, represented by Batasuna, a political party outlawed in Spain that allegedly operates under the orders of ETA, has made a commitment to the exclusive use of peaceful, political and democratic methods. Basque society is at the gateway to a change that could lead to the final end to violence.

Now, among other questions and problems, an ideological debate has begun on the factors that have contributed to creating this opportunity for peace. Each ideological sector is attempting to highlight its strategy as being the one that has led to the conditions for the end of violence. To give a few examples, the Government considers that police action against ETA and outlawing of the parties close to it weakened their capacity for action, and left them with no alternative but to renounce violence. However, the left-wing nationalist movement represented by Batasuna says that its struggle has created the conditions for achieving independence by means of popular mobilisation.

If we look at the recent history of the Basque Country, or at least the last thirty years, the conclusion is very different. One constant feature throughout the period has been the opinion of the majority of citizens against violence and in favour of dialogue. This has been a determining factor in achieving the current opportunities.

A social movement rejecting violence was born in the 1980s, in a context of intense violence. The organisation Gesto por la Paz was responsible for constant street demonstrations condemning attacks and demanding respect for human rights. Until that point, the desire for peace among the majority of Basque society had no public expression, and the work of Gesto por la Paz made these demands visible, by organising silent demonstrations in the towns and neighbourhoods of the Basque Country after every death related to the violent conflict.

The Elkarri movement emerged in the 1990s. As well as rejecting violence, it fostered dialogue as a means of achieving a political agreement that would enable the creation of democratic coexistence based on integration. This defence of dialogue, a word which had been taboo up until that point, led to the commitment to define the future of Basque society based on minimum foundations for consensus. The three peace conferences organised by this social movement, the most recent of which was supported by 120,000 people, were experiences of dialogue and agreement that brought together political parties, social organisations and citizens.

Both examples clearly reflect the importance of the grassroots movement in the Basque Country. First, they contributed to citizens taking the initiative and compensating for the shortcomings apparent in political strategies. Second, their broad-based and plural nature, which enabled them to include people with highly varied ideologies, reinforced social cohesion and thereby prevented the conflict from spilling over among the citizens.

The citizens' movement for peace and dialogue soon came up against one of its major limitations, which was at the same time a victory. The vast majority of political parties adopted the approach advocated by the two social organisations. Institutions such as town councils and governments began to organise their own demonstrations against the attacks by ETA. At the same time, almost all the political parties advocated dialogue as a means to improve the framework of coexistence.

The second limit of this grassroots movement became apparent during the peace process of 2006. Both the talks between ETA and the government and the political dialogue were undertaken very discreetly, almost secretly, which prevented society from monitoring and assessing their progress. Furthermore, after society had played a key role in the creation of the conditions that made peace possible, when the moment of truth came, it was demoted to a secondary or even non-existent role. It is also true that the impressions given by the political leaders created the illusion of an unstoppable peace process that reassured the public, despite leading to a decline in mobilisation.

The third limit became apparent after the failure of the peace process. Basque society had been very optimistic about that opportunity, and was frustrated at the end of the process in 2007. Extensive sectors of society that until that point had participated extensively came to the conclusion that after doing everything possible to achieve peace, they were not responsible for the failure of the political leaders and ETA to ultimately achieve it. The result was that much of society ended its involvement.

Now there is an opportunity to embark on a new peace process, it is important to acknowledge these limits and learn from the experience of the past. First, the challenges are not limited to the defence of peace and dialogue. Even if the violence is ended, social reconciliation will be a major issue that needs to be resolved, and the social movements can contribute their experience in creating networks for coexistence.

Second, it is necessary to demand an active role for the public in any future peace process, both in monitoring and assessment of its progress and in creating spaces for social participation and decision-making. Finally, there is no other possibility apart from insistence. This opportunity would not have arisen without social mobilisation and without social mobilisation it will be more difficult for it finally to be successful this time.