The Peace Dividend Of A More United Europe

Basque separatist militants from Spain used to take refuge in France, where they were still regarded as freedom fighters. No more. On Mar. 9, just before Spanish President Jose Maria Aznar visited Paris, police swooped down on two safe houses in the French capital and arrested six alleged top leaders of the ETA, which stands for "Land and Liberty" in the Basque language.

Western Europe's last armed separatist rebellion appears to be running out of steam. The police are still tracking down rogue elements of the ETA. But in other respects, Spain's Basque region is moving toward peace. A cease-fire called last September by the ETA is holding. Terrorist extremism is being replaced by the ballot-box ambitions of a political offshoot of the militia. And a population weary of bombings prefers economic revival to violence.

Credit the ever greater strength of the European Union for much of this success. Among the Basques there is a growing realization that a war for independence from Spain, a goal that had a certain validity under Francisco Franco's dictatorship, now approaches the absurd. It makes little sense to break away from Spain while Spain itself is tearing down its monetary and political borders with the rest of Europe.

The success of the peace movement in the Basque country also demonstrates how the EU in Brussels is subtly shifting allegiances and blurring national borders. Brussels has lavished aid on economically struggling regions of Europe. Ireland, Italy, Portugal, and Spain have all benefited. The Basque area alone has received $1.4 billion in EU aid since 1997. The result has been a growing realization in Europe's regions that they can turn to Brussels for help as well as for a new identity--and thus loosen the grip of national governments in the process.

While the power of Europe has grown, the appeal of peace has grown with it. The ETA's commitment to violence finally provoked a popular backlash 20 months ago, when the trumpeted execution of a young conservative politician, Miguel Angel Blanco, backfired politically. As local support for the ETA waned, its more moderate members decided that their only option was to move the struggle into the democratic arena, something Madrid had been calling for them to do since the dawn of Spain's democracy in 1975, after Franco's death. The strategy worked: In regional elections shortly after last September's truce, the ETA's political wing won a strong 18% of the vote, its best performance in years.

ECONOMIC BOOST. Aiding the cause of peace is the economic payoff. For years, the Basques ran some of Spain's best steel mills and banks. But as terrorism rose, Basque money and jobs migrated south to Madrid. Now, boosted by generous government subsidies and the prospect of peace, such foreign investors as Luxembourg steel giant Arbed are retooling mills and hiring workers. While unemployment remains dire, at 17.8%, the Basque region's 5.5% annual economic growth now outpaces Spain as a whole.

The peace could still break down, since a radical wing remains committed to violence. But Aznar hopes to lure the ETA into talks, perhaps after important municipal elections this June. As a goodwill gesture, he could relocate hundreds of ETA prisoners, some on distant islands, closer to their homeland. To drive his offer of limited autonomy home, he can count on the attractions of prosperity and the common-sense argument that the European nationalism of old is on the wane. In the next century, a peaceful Basque Country figures to be simply one of dozens of regions in a united Europe.

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