The unconditional declaration by the Basque separatist group ETA this week that it is finally ending 50 years of violence, during which it killed hundreds of people and wounded thousands more, should be welcomed by all governments and peoples. It is a victory for democracy, as well as a victory for the people of Spain and the Basque regions of Spain and France.
The Spanish government — in particular Spanish Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero and his deputy, the long-time interior minister, Alfredo Rubalcaba — has taken courageous risks for peace and paid a heavy political price when ETA responded by blowing up part of Madrid airport and returning to killing in 2006.
Zapatero and his colleagues never stopped fighting ETA, consistently defending Spanish democracy, and, with the support and cooperation of President Nicolas Sarkozy of France, successfully weakened the terrorist movement by arresting its leadership and disrupting their attacks.
But Zapatero also never stopped offering the hand of peace. He made it clear that there would be no secret negotiations, that there would be no political concessions to ETA, and that another cease-fire would not be enough: ETA must unilaterally, publicly and unambiguously declare that it was ending the armed struggle for good if there was to be peace.
The opposition Popular Party, led by Mariano Rajoy, has also always demonstrated its seriousness and responsibility on this issue.
The firmness paid off this week. ETA has now done exactly what was demanded. Its leaders have put violence behind them for good. This really is the end of the last armed confrontation in Europe.
In its declaration ending the armed campaign, ETA asks for talks with the governments of Spain and France to deal with the “consequences” of the conflict. These talks are necessary to assure the dissolution of ETA as a military force.
Just as we did in our talks in Northern Ireland, these talks will deal with the decommissioning of weapons, explosives and military infrastructure, with the issue of prisoners and exiles, with the rehabilitation of those caught up in the violence, with security normalization and with recompense for victims.
As in Northern Ireland, there will be a “peace dividend” for Spain. The billions of euros that have been spent on security can now be redirected to more socially useful ends, a welcome benefit in a time of cutbacks and budget restraint.
As in Northern Ireland we must remember the victims and ensure that the families left behind are properly recognized and supported.
Above all, it will now be possible for all parties in Spain and the Basque region to pursue their aims politically without violence or the threat of violence.
I believe there also are wider lessons from the end of this conflict.
The first is that governments must firmly defend themselves, their principles and their people against terrorists. This requires good police and intelligence work as well as political determination.
But governments must also recognize the need to “talk to their enemies.” Firm security pressure on terrorists must be coupled with offering them a way out when they realize that they cannot win by violence. Terrorist groups are rarely defeated by military means alone. Peace is always made between enemies, not friends. This is as true in the Middle East, Africa, Asia and the Americas as it is in the Basque region.
I learned from our experience in Northern Ireland that ending violence and making peace irreversible requires patience, taking risks, suffering setbacks and a constant commitment. It also requires creativity, generosity and statesmanship. In Spain these qualities have been demonstrated by all and will be needed to secure a lasting peace.
Spain will hold national elections on Nov. 20 and a new government will have to take on the hard work of clearing up the consequences of the conflict. This is the point in peace processes when the participants often collapse in exhaustion — but it is when efforts need to be redoubled. The European Union and the wider international community should strongly support the new Spanish government in this effort.
ETA has made a historic declaration. The opportunity for peace must now be seized. I will work to support Spain, France and the citizens of the Basque region in any way I can in their effort to secure the lasting peace and democracy they have long demanded and fully deserve.
Tony Blair, prime minister of Britain from 1997 to 2007.