The sovereign can no longer say, "You shall think as I do on pain of death;" but he says, "You are free to think differently from me, and to retain your life, your property, and all that you possess; but if such be your determination, you are henceforth an alien among your people."

(Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, 1835)

Thursday, 20 May 2010

Policework or politics?

French police have arrested the suspected military leader of the Basque separatist group ETA, an individual named Mikel Karrera Sarobe, or 'Ata'.

Five ETA leaders have been arrested in France over the past two years. Indeed, Ata has only been leader of the organisation since February of this year when his predecessor, Ibon Gogeascoechea, was arrested. That particular fact is interesting because it raises certain questions.

Question 1/
What are the objectives of the Spanish and French police and intelligence services? Are they seeking to eradicate ETA altogether or merely reduce ETA's 'campaign' to a manageable or acceptable level of violence?
1a/ If the former is the case then can ETA really be eradicated solely through police and/or intelligence action?
1b/ If the latter is the case then how do we define manageable or acceptable?

Nicolas Sarkozy would appear to have already answered the first part of that question following ETA's fatal shooting of a French policeman in March but is that a realistic aim or merely political posturing for the benefit of a - justifiably - angry French public?

Question 2/
Should there not be some attempt to reach a political solution? More specifically, should there not be some attempt to find credible interlocutors on the other side in order to work towards some kind of political solution? Incidentally, that question applies as much to ETA as towards Madrid and Paris.

Many would argue, not entirely without justification, that ETA are simply not credible interlocutors, that they have neither the requisite level of political sophistication nor of public support to be regarded as an important party in the Spanish and Basque political scenes.

However, while there may be a considerable degree of truth in those statements, ETA do remain in existence and they do remain a threat, not to the monopoly of legitimate violence in Vitoria-Gasteiz, Madrid or Paris but to ordinary people's lives.

Therefore, they must be persuaded/forced to put away their guns and work towards their goals, such as they are, through some other (non-violent) method and that is what we should mean when we refer to a 'political solution' in the Basque Country, not a Basque version of the Good Friday Agreement.

In that context, when leaders keep being arrested every few months then the repercussions on any further attempt at a political solution are usually negative.

There are certain simple, practical factors that make this the case: the over-riding priority of the individual concerned will simply be to evade capture and, moreover, a few months is not enough time to convince a movement like ETA that a change of strategy is necessary, let alone to actually implement such a change. Above all, the strong likelihood is that each new leader will be more hard-line than the last.

ETA are very often compared to the IRA and many people have attempted to draw lessons from the peace process in Northern Ireland and apply them to the Basque Country. There is a big difference however.

Any political solution requires a degree of political understanding, or intelligence, among the leadership of the organisation in conflict with the State. That was the case among certain IRA leaders, Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness, throughout the peace process in Northern Ireland. That has never been the case with ETA.

Partly this is linked to the fact that, as described above, leaders keep being arrested and their successors have to go into hiding (before inevitably being arrested anyway) and are thus even further removed from the society in which they live and for which they claim to fight. If you apply Mao Zedong's metaphor on guerrilla armies, these fish no longer swim in the water of the people. Instead, they are floundering in increasingly shallow water, struggling for oxygen.

A case in point was ETA's murder, in December 2008, of 71-year-old Ignacio Uria Mendizabal simply because his family's construction business was involved in building a controversial high-speed rail link through the Basque Country. How not to win hearts and minds.

ETA may be dying a slow, suffocating death but they seem determined to take others down with them. In order to minimise the harm done to ordinary people, arresting individual leaders is not enough. Should these measures not be accompanied by sustained engagement at street level with the marginalised urban youth from which ETA draws its dwindling number of recruits? Can a purely security-based solution ever be enough on its own?

NB: This post touches on a number of issues which deserve more in-depth examination. Anyone keen to learn more about how the Spanish and French authorities sought to fight fire with fire should start by reading this interview with Irish journalist Paddy Woodworth, who investigated exactly how this was done during the 1980s and the harmful consequences these measures incurred.


  1. Interesting post. But why do you think it is a strong likelihood that each new leader will be more hard-line than the last? I'm not sure this can be taken as a given. Constant attrition of leadership figures constrains the organisation and could lead to re-evaluation of aims/strategies amongst membership and leadership (not necessarily in terms of becoming more hard-line). Maybe this attrition is sufficient in terms of containing the threat from ETA (although of course it doesn't attempt to 'resolve' the situation)?

  2. Rather than say that each new leader will be more hard-line, it would perhaps be more to accurate to say that each new leader will pursue the same outdated commitment to 'armed struggle' as his/her predecessor. This vicious circle stems from the restricted demographic from which ETA leaders and militants tend to be drawn and the complete dearth of political awareness within the movement as a whole.

    For that reason, in the case of ETA I wouldn't hold out much hope that constant attrition would bring about some kind of re-evaluation, not from the leadership anyway. I've touched on the reasons why in my post.

    As for the rank-and-file, I would be keen to know what measures, if any, the Basque, Spanish and French authorities are taking to integrate ETA members into mainstream Basque society.

    In Afghanistan, there is much talk of reconciliation (with the Taliban leadership) and reintegration (of Taliban foot-soldiers). In the case of ETA, for reasons which I expounded in my post, I would regard reconciliation with the leadership as unlikely and therefore police pressure is necessary.

    However, this cannot bring about a political solution on its own - as you very correctly say this contains the threat but doesn't resolve the situation - hence the need for reintegration of the rank-and-file through some kind of socio-economic/cultural/economic programme. Perhaps something along those lines (and I'd be curious to look into other examples, such as Colombia, to see how this might be done) would help achieve a re-evaluation among the membership and by extension a political solution to finally end ETA's campaign.