Basque nationalists are on the move. Despite the vigilance of the French and Spanish authorities, the Basques have carried out a fierce summer offensive, the latest stage in a clash between nationalism and federal police power. But there is no sign that Europe’s leaders can cope with this latest nationalist upsurge.
Following a couple of precision strikes—the car-bombing of Army Major Luciano Cortizo Alonso in Léon and the murder of Socialist Party leader Fernando Mugica Herzog in Madrid (reported in Current History)—the summer war got into gear. According to the journal Libération on July 25, the militant Basque organization, the ETA, set off a total of 12 bombs at various sites in France and Spain, including the Reus Airport in Catalonia, where 35 tourists were injured.
Rocked by the series of bombings, which threatened the tourist trade, the French police launched the biggest manhunt since the dragnet that pulled in several ETA leaders in 1992. Near the town of Pau, the police nabbed Julian Atxurra Egurola, the third most powerful figure in the ETA. Only a few days later, police in Paris arrested Daniel Derguy, a French Basque who had done time in his country for his nationalist ties and whom Spanish authorities know as the man who directed several terrorist attacks against tourist spots and railway lines in rural areas in the summer of 1993.
The prisoners have been deported to Spain, where they await prosecution. In the meantime, their plight has become a human rights cause célèbre. In the course of an interview in Villejeuf, Libération reported on August 7, Derguy charged that the Spanish police had mistreated him, striking him repeatedly in the face and groin. Derguy’s complaint echoes statements made by 83 other Basques in 1995, who said that the police had treated them in a fashion worthy of Castro’s Cuba. In response to the charges, Basques in Brussels held a large demonstration on June 1, holding pictures of the jailed nationalists. The Comité des droits de l’homme au Pays basque issued a letter of protest urging the police to be more lenient.
But the official reaction to the upsurge in the pays basque was swift and severe. Libération announced on July 25 that Jaime Mayor Oreja, Spain’s minister of the interior, had immediately called for augmented police power, outlining a plan for a joint crackdown on both sides of the border. Oreja also presented to the public a plan drawn up by chief of government Jose Maria Aznar, who had apparently borrowed a page from President Clinton’s antiterrorism bill. Under Aznar’s plan, the police will step up their surveillance of civilians, placing hidden cameras in towns with a large Basque population. This Orwellian scheme met with the approval of Juan Maria Atutxa, minister of the interior for the semiautonomous Basque government, who pointed to the state of emergency created by the ETA. Other officials concurred, although a judge in Madrid did warn that surreptitiously recording what innocent people do on public streets oversteps the acceptable limits of state power.
The Spanish officials believe that repression will work, but they do not seem to take note of rising anger and frustration in the pays basque. As James E. Jacob explains in his recent book Hills of Conflict: Basque Nationalism in France, much of the nationalist upsurge stems from anger over the French government’s duplicity in its dealings with Basque representatives. Most Basques rejoiced at François Mitterrand’s election in 1981, for he had promised them many things, including “the creation of a Basque department in France and clear commitments to cultural preservation.” The French government’s backpedaling on these promises made many Basques hostile to the very idea of negotiating with the authorities. In America and in Europe, the official attitude is much the same: eliminate the nationalist threat by all available means—stepping outside legal bounds, if need be—while ignoring the grievances that stoke the fires of nationalism. But repression, Jacob observes, “only hardens the resistance in the abertzale camp.”
As Spain’s political leaders respond to nationalist concerns with threats and denunciations, Europe’s policy elite ignores and denies the existence of a Basque problem. In the summer issue of the Harvard International Review, Jacques Santer, president of the European Commission, hails European integration as a panacea for ancient rivalries and grievances. “European social and economic integration,” he writes, “has culminated in the establishment of an area characterized by transnational peace and prosperity.” Santer goes on to call for a vast expansion of the EU’s domain.
Santer likes to pose as a man of the people. “If the ordinary people of Europe do not derive noticeable benefits from the union system,” he writes, in a plea for an expanded EU budget, “that system is worthless.” He doesn’t know how right he is. As the architects of European union grapple with logistical questions—when to adopt a single currency, how to structure a transnational military—they ignore the larger problem that many of the ordinary people of Europe remain unwilling to trade in their customs and their identity for a place in the New European Order.
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