When Is a Cease-Fire Not a Cease-Fire?

The Spanish government has responded very coolly, indeed with something approaching contempt, to last Sunday’s announcement of a cease-fire by the Basque terrorist group ETA.

This is in marked contrast to the warmth, albeit qualified by caution, with which the same administration greeted a similar declaration from ETA in March 2006.

It is not hard to understand why. The 2006 cease-fire came about because the prime minister, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, had publicly offered a peace process to ETA the previous year. There had already been informal discussions between the Basque section of Zapatero’s Socialist Party (PSOE) and the armed group.

After further officially sanctioned negotiations, involving the Madrid government and accredited international mediators, ETA signed up to the process. But the whole enterprise fell apart for a variety of reasons over the next nine months. In the end, ETA literally dynamited the talks with a lethal bomb at Madrid’s Barajas airport in December.

There is no peace process on offer from the government this time around. There do appear to have been more informal contacts between some Basque Socialist leaders and ETA’s political allies in Batasuna, a radical party banned in 2001. But they do not have official blessing from Madrid.

Nor are international mediators involved. Prominent figures, like the South African lawyer Brian Currin, and the Irish priest Alec Reid, have certainly been advising Batasuna and possibly ETA on the basis of their experiences in peace processes in their own countries. But again, they do not have the ear or approval of Madrid in doing so. They are facilitators rather than mediators.

So while ETA has said that it is now on cease-fire, the Spanish government is saying that it is not.

“Our anti-terrorist policy will not change in the slightest,” the Interior Minister, Alfredo Pérez Rubalcava said on Monday. “The idea of a truce as way to open a process of dialogue is dead.”

Zapatero has good reasons to be ultra-cautious. First, ETA used the 2006 cease-fire to regroup and rearm. Once bitten, twice shy.

Second, the prime minister’s offer of dialogue sparked fierce denunciations from the main opposition party, the right-wing Partido Popular. The PP then launched massive street demonstrations against the talks, and found a sympathetic echo among many Socialist voters.

The dragon of Spanish nationalism, dormant because of its close association with Franco’s 40-year dictatorship, was awakened. There was already much unease about the amount of self-government granted to the (very prosperous) Basques and Catalans. Further concessions would be anathema to many Spaniards.

Finally, a series of high-profile ETA arrests and arms seizures over the last three years has reduced the group to operational shambles. Madrid understandably suspects that this cease-fire simply makes a virtue out of a dire necessity — the group may be almost incapable of carrying out effective attacks at the moment.

If that is the case, Zapatero’s chief political advisers say, why give the group any political credibility by engaging with it now, even to organize its official disbandment and a decommissioning of weapons? Why not let it simply fade ignominiously away, as other far left and far right Spanish terrorist groups did after the dictatorship in the 1980s?

The counterargument is that ETA has survived 30 years longer than these groups because its aspirations for independence are shared by a substantial sector of the Basque population.

This argument has been quietly articulated this summer by the president of the Basque section of the PSOE, Jesús Eguiguren. He believes that Batasuna has gone through very significant changes since the last cease-fire, which it did not want ETA to end.

Batasuna has done impressive work through Brian Currin internationally. They persuaded a long list of luminaries, including Nelson Mandela and Mary Robinson, to sign the “Brussels declaration” last March, which called on ETA to declare a permanent and internationally verifiable cease-fire. Significantly, though, it also sought an “appropriate” response from the Spanish government which “would permit new political and democratic efforts to advance.”

Historically, ETA has always dictated the agenda to its political allies, and Batasuna leaders have had little or none of the authority that Gerry Adams could exercise over the I.R.A. At last that position seems to have reversed, no doubt partly because of ETA’s operational weakness.

But radical Basque nationalists have also looked at what has happened in Catalonia, where unarmed politics has advanced an independence agenda further than has been possible in the Basque Country.

Eguiguren has his ear close to the ground, and knows that Basque demands for self-determination will not go away. A new generation may shift back to ETA if this cease-fire is simply ignored.

Legalizing Batasuna in time for the 2011 local elections, strictly in the absence of any further violence, might be the wisest counsel for Zapatero to follow. But it will take very skilful maneuvering to negotiate the obstacles that stand in the way of such a controversial course of action in Madrid.

Paddy Woodworthis, the author of Dirty War, Clean Hands: ETA, the GAL and Spanish Democracy and The Basque Country.