The Basque Conflict and ETA: The Difficulties of an Ending

Violence at the hands of the Basque separatist organization ETA was for many years an anomalous feature of Spain’s transition to democracy. This report, which draws on the author’s book Endgame for ETA: Elusive Peace in the Basque Country (Hurst and Oxford University Press, 2014), explains why this was the case, examines both the factors that contributed to ETA’s October 2011 announcement of an end to violence and the obstacles encountered in moving forward from that announcement to disarmament and dissolution, and extracts lessons relevant for other contexts.


  • The violent separatist group Euskadi ta Askatasuna (ETA) emerged in 1959 in response to General Francisco Franco’s repression of Basque identity during and after the Spanish Civil War and pursued the independence of a Basque homeland, Euskal Herria, that extends across seven administrative units in Spain and France.
  • ETA’s continued violence after Spain’s transition to democracy reflected support within a wider community of radical nationalists that believed the transition had been incomplete.
  • Disagreement on the problem that ETA represented—criminal terrorism or the violent mani-festation of an unresolved political conflict—had a direct impact on Spain’s difficulties in establishing a clear strategy against ETA.
  • ETA’s violence was met by increasingly effective counterterrorism efforts by Spanish and French security forces, robust application of Spanish post-9/11 criminal law, and a slow but powerful mobilization of civil society against it.
  • Three attempts were made to arrive at a political solution. The third, and most audacious, was launched by Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero in 2005. Each attempt involved an ETA cease-fire that subsequently broke down.
  • When ETA’s violence finally ended in 2011, it could be attributed to multiple factors—coun-terterrorism and the activism of civil society, changes set in motion within ETA’s political base after the collapse of Zapatero’s peace process in 2007, and limited but essential assistance by international actors.
  • Although no direct negotiation took place and no peace agreement was signed, the unusual trajectory of the Basque peace process offers important lessons for others who seek to persuade violent actors to return to the channels of democratic politics.

The Basque Conflict and ETA The Difficulties of an EndingAbout the Report

This report analyzes the long-drawn-out process toward the disarmament and dissolution of the violent Basque separatist organization ETA, and extracts lessons for policymakers and mediators engaged in efforts to pry armed groups away from violence in other contexts. It draws on the author’s book Endgame for ETA: Elusive Peace in the Basque Country (Hurst and Oxford University Press, 2014), the research for which was supported by the United States Institute of Peace (USIP).

About the Author

Teresa Whitfield has been senior advisor to the president of the International Crisis Group since January 2015. While a fellow at New York University ’s Center on International Cooperation from 2008 to 2014, she also served as a senior advisor to the Geneva-based Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue. Previously, she was director of the Conflict Prevention and Peace Forum at the Social Science Research Council and spent five years as an official of the U.N.’s Department of Political Affairs. She is the author of Paying the Price: Ignacio Ellacuría, and the Murdered Jesuits of El Salvador and Friends Indeed? The United Nations, Groups of Friends, and the Resolution of Conflict, among other publications.

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