The terrorist activity of ETA had provoked a progressive distancing of Basque public opinion from the reasons of the independence movement, a distancing that had been translated into harsh condemnation then expressed at national level in the massive demonstrations of July 1997 when, in following the murder by ETA of a young PP adviser, MA Blanco, hundreds of thousands of people (in Madrid alone they exceeded one million) had demonstrated their protest by parading in the streets of the main cities of the Spain, including those of the Basque region. In those years, the repressive action of the police, which had achieved important successes against the clandestine organization, and of the judiciary, which in December 1997 had condemned the 23 members of the leadership of the ‘Popular unit (Herri Batasuna, HB), the political arm of ETA, which has always supported its autonomy from the terrorist organization, to seven years in prison each for collaboration with an armed gang. Weakened, ETA had adopted a new strategy to reach an agreement with the other independence forces of the Basque provinces. This strategy provoked, at a local and national level, a polarization between the “constitutional” parties (PP and PSOE) and the “independence” ones (PNV, HB and other minor groups, in addition to the IU), while, in September 1998, the latter signed an agreement which sanctioned the right to self-determination (Pacto del Lizarra). Four days later the ETA proclaimed a unilateral truce to close the 30 years of struggle for the independence of the Basque Country, while the HB declared itself in favor for the first time in its history to participate in local governments. The regional elections of October of the same year saw, in addition to a strengthening of the PNV and the PP, an important success of the coalition of the Basque Citizens independenceists (Euskal Herritarrok, EH), in which the HB had also merged, and, in December, a new Basque government was formed consisting of PNV and the Basque Union (Eusko alkartasuna, EA, born from a split of the PNV) with the external support of the EH. Also on the part of the people’s government there was a change of line: having abandoned the choice of firmness, adopted in the previous two years, starting from June 1999 Aznar started a series of meetings with the leaders of ETA, while in July the Constitutional Tribunal issued a sentence of acquittal of HB executives in prison since December 1997. But the breaking of the truce by ETA (Nov. 1999) and the resumption of terrorist activity with all the violence of the past dramatically reopened the issue, while the the front of the nationalist parties was consolidated with the decision of the PNV (dec.) to support the request for the right of the Basque Country to self-determination. In the elections of May 2001, the PNV regained the leadership of the local government after having reconfirmed itself as the first party in the region, obtaining 33 seats together with the EA, with which it had presented itself in the consultations, while the EH suffered a severe defeat, seeing halved the number of its representatives (from 14 to 7). In the international field, already a member of the European Economic Community (EEC) since 1986, Spain, having achieved full legitimacy as a fully integrated country in the western area and overcome the isolation of the past, intensified relations with Portugal and with the countries of the Latin America, especially since 1991 through the Ibero-American summits. In April 1997 Madrid contributed its own contingent to the multinational force in Albania, and in March-June 1999 it participated in the NATO intervention in Kosovo, gaining the support of all political forces except the UI. The entry into the military structure of NATO (Dec. 1997) revived the dispute with the United Kingdom over Gibraltar, which however reached moments of tension on several occasions during the nineties: in December 1997, however, London accepted the entry of the Spain in the military structure of the Atlantic Alliance, declaring its willingness to deal with the issue of Gibraltar separately through bilateral negotiations. In the early months of 2000, despite the lack of an absolute majority in the Congress of Deputies which had always forced him to negotiate their external support with the nationalist parties, Aznar and his government seemed to enjoy a great consensus for having been able to ensure the country a government stability and major economic successes. Both from the point of view of infrastructures and from that of the productive apparatus, mentality and behavior, in the last decade of the century the country had continued along the path already undertaken of a profound modernization. The Spanish economy had in fact experienced significant growth in the wake of the recovery already underway since 1994, growth that had largely mitigated the costs of the austerity policy implemented by Aznar to comply with the commitments undertaken with the signing of the Maastricht Treaty. Indeed, even in Spain as in other European countries, the “challenge” represented by the entry into the Economic and Monetary Union constituted a moment of strong national cohesion: the result of this political atmosphere was the agreement between trade unions and entrepreneurs on the subject of labor law which concerned issues such as causes for dismissal or permanent employment contracts (April 1997).
The legislative elections of March 2000 therefore awarded Aznar and his party a clear victory (44.6% of the votes, against 34.1% of the PSOE, 5.5% of the IU, 4.2% of the CIU) which, guaranteeing him an absolute majority at Cortes, allowed him to govern without having to resort to the support of nationalist parties. Meanwhile, the increase in immigrants coming mainly from North Africa and Latin America caused serious episodes of xenophobic intolerance in the country, following which, thanks to the new parliamentary majority, Aznar reformed the immigration law approved by Parliament in December 1999. Contrary to the relatively progressive imprint of that law, especially as regards illegal immigrants, who had the right to public health, education and other social benefits, the new rules, which came into force in January 2001, introduced a series of restrictive measures: the regularization of the position of immigrants now required 5 years of residence in the country, instead of 2, while for the illegals there was expulsion and a ban on demonstrating, striking or joining trade unions and associations. A similar line of harshness characterized the law on juvenile crime adopted in January 2001. In the spring of 2003, Spain was among the European countries that supported the invasion of Iraq by sending a military contingent. On 11 March 2004, on the eve of the legislative elections, bloody attacks of Islamic origin resulted in around 200 victims and thousands of injured in Madrid. Aznar’s statements aimed at blaming Basque terrorism for the tragedy turned against the People’s Party and the vote decreed a return to victory for the Socialists. The government of JL Rodríguez Zapatero (re-elected in 2008), which among its very first acts approved the complete withdrawal of troops from Iraq, has undertaken a secular reform of the civil code, clashing with conservative forces and the Catholic Church on issues such as marriage, abortion and the rights of same-sex couples. The work of the government in relation to the requests for greater autonomy by Catalonia has had positive developments, which ended with the approval of a new Statute (2006) which extended the self-government of the Autonomous Community and sanctioned its right to define itself as a nation.. A similar process took place in Andalusia (2007). The problem of Basque separatism has remained dramatic, and still partly unsolved: the independence party Batasuna was outlawed in 2003, considered the political arm of the terrorist organization ETA, the latter having announced a permanent truce in 2006.