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Preserving the consensus

The two main parties must honor their agreement to keep ETA out of the electoral fray

For some time now, leaders of the radical Basque separatist abertzale left have been saying, in private and in public, that ETA's decision to lay down its arms has now at last been taken. The skepticism about this assertion derives from the fact that on other occasions they have said more or less the same things (in 1998, in 2006) and nothing happened. But it is true that there is now a new factor that, though it does not guarantee ETA's self-dissolution, does make the resumption of attacks unlikely: that this would heavily prejudice the expectations (not only electoral) of the Basque pro-sovereignty movement, now in the process of unification. They have a lot to lose, so it is improbable that ETA would go back to violence. There would be a break with the movement.

But it is also unlikely that the heads of ETA will accept dissolution if they have nothing to offer the 700 ETA prisoners, for whose fate they necessarily feel responsible. Surely this was what the Basque regional premier Patxi López had in mind when he set out a road map for the end-of-ETA period, which he considers to have now begun. His ideas are intended to serve as a framework for a consensus between the principal Basque political parties, and do not shrink from the thorny question of the prisoners.

The reactions to his move have been exaggerated, especially among the victims' associations, who have been receiving recent Basque political developments with great frustration. The reactions of the Popular Party (PP) have also been exaggerated. It is true that prison policy is the responsibility of the central government, and that it would have been desirable had the measures suggested by López been previously discussed with the party that will surely have to implement them, rather than putting his foot in the electoral campaign in this manner. But the premier also had to take into account the Basque Nationalist Party (PNV), which has renounced the idea of political negotiation, but still advocates the transfer of ETA prisoners from distant prisons to ones in the Basque country, and measures for their rehabilitation; and also opposes the judicial "Parot doctrine," whose repeal would put a fair number of prisoners on the street.

This would be hard to accept for Spanish public opinion, which identifies with the victims, as long as ETA exists. But with ETA gone, it would meet much less resistance. Last October the PP spokeswoman Dolores de Cospedal admitted as much, remarking that a democratic government "might speak of other things, once ETA had disappeared." So did the "number two" of the Basque PP, Iñaki Oyarzabal, in talking of "generosity" whenever this should happen.

For the moment, what is most important is that the electoral fray must not blind the parties concerning this issue. They should not magnify what are in fact tactical divergences, and should preserve their basic consensus: that their common objective is an end to ETA, without any political concessions in contravention of the Constitution.

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