Urteko galdera

Nagore Calvo Mendizabal / King's College London


Nagore Calvo Mendizabal / King's College London

The Many Faces of Cohesion and the Transformations of the Basque National Project.

Culturally and institutionally, Euskal Herria, is at present very much a stable and recognisable entity. This, however, is less so the case in social and economic terms. This distinction is important because as social scientists have argued places cannot be treated as ‘things’ that are just there, ontologically pre-given, but are better understood in relational terms. Additionally, human geographers have rejected the assumption that scales (e.g. national, sub-national, supra-national) are ontologically pre-given and therefore insist that approaches to scalar analysis should focus on understanding the complexities of concrete interdependencies and the processes involved rather than the presence or absence of narrowly defined set of predefined ‘outcomes’ (Massey, 1978; Swyngedouw 1997). Thus framed, the question about cohesion in Euskal Herria cannot be taken for granted as it problematizes what Euskal Herria means, the types of identities it makes (im)possible, the nature of political, cultural and economic links (possible, prioritized) within and without its real and imagined boundaries.

The meanings of national communities are necessarily unstable and can always be only temporarily fixed within what David Harvey (2001) calls spatio-temporal fixes. These would have inherent tensions and would be evolving over time. Addressing the question about current meanings of cohesion in relation to Euskal Herria would benefit from taking a historical approach and exploring its evolution in the post-Franco period. Specifically, in relation to the intersection of processes such as the rapid de-industrialisation in the early 1980s and Spain’s membership to EEC in 1986. Building on such a framework would also need to take into consideration the institutionalisation of the ‘Southern territories’ of Euskal Herria (Gipuzkoa, Bizkaia, Araba, Nafarroa), and ‘Iparralde’ (Lapurdi, Nafarroa Beherea, Zuberoa) into dominant nation building projects (i.e. ‘Spain’, ‘France’), their socio-economic and cultural evolution in relation to these projects and broader processes of globalisation, and the political and economic integration of the EU.

Building ‘Euskadi’ in the late 1980s and 1990s

The post-Franco political restructuring, the process of de-industrialisation and the EEC membership created a new juncture in relation to policy, institutional and funding opportunities for Spain and within the newly created Basque Autonomous Community. These were seized by PNV as the ‘newly created’ political agent representing a Christian Democratic led project and emerging as a hegemonic national project for Basque country. After all, PNV did not have either parliamentary or political representation under the Franco regime. Nor did it have any formal institutional legitimacy because this was not allowed in the hitherto political organised around the political concept of charismatic leadership represented exclusively by the figure of Franco.

Within this new context, ‘lack of connectivity’ became a powerful trope to express the (economic) marginality of Euskadi (Gipuzkoa, Bizkaia, Araba) from the main flows of capital, goods and people unleashed by the Single European Act (1986) and later, the Maastricht Treaty (1992). The ‘Atlantic Arc’ emerged as a dominant metaphor used by the government and policy networks of Euskadi to represent a new economic, social and political space at the margins of Europe where the government led by PNV sought to exert influence by promoting concrete projects, building alliances, and exercising political and institutional leadership. At the same time, it also constituted a constellation of existing economic, social, and political processes, which the Basque government sought to shape as a way of dealing with marginality, thus defined.

One of the key material and policy expression of this drive was the development of extensive and comprehensive transport infrastructure projects, of which the High-Speed Train (HST) emerged as one of the most important and controversial of such projects. The building of the Basque ‘Y’ (as this project came to be known reflecting the shape of the connections key cities in Hego Euskal Herria (Bilbao, Donostia, Gasteiz) has been justified as a promise to resolve, at least to an extent, the perennial problems of connectivity, integration and interrelatedness within and without Euskadi. The story of the HST is helpful because it helps us explore the symbolic, physical, economic and political processes that are involved in articulating a specific national vision. In this sense, a number of interests, discourses and counter-discourses have been mobilised that point to the re-configuring of the political, economic, social and cultural national space of ‘Euskal Herria’. Specifically, the desire to build a national infrastructure that would reduce distances in time and space was part of a promise to build a more urbanite, cosmopolitan and internationalised Basque country. This project and political desire was also projected to other similarly grand projects such as the building of the Guggenheim museum in the city of Bilbao, partly as a transformational project for the city’s post-industrial future, rather than as a project for building/imagining ‘Euskal Herria’.

These two projects, the HST and the Guggenheim museum, could be framed as top-down and government-led and contributed PNV building alliances crossing political and institutional divides and crossing regional and national borders (that would include Iparralde, and Nafarroa). For  example of such collaborations were a series of agreements signed by the Aquitaine regional Council and Euskadi, which aimed to rally the social and economic forces of Iparralde behind the Basque ‘Y’ to raise its profile as a French ‘national project’ as well as locate the HST as European-wide railway transport project. Multi-level governance, the supra-regional and cross border coordinating possibility to address concrete problems and develop targeted policy solutions within the institutional and constitutional coordinates of the EU, offered the possibilities and mechanisms to build the ‘imagined community’ of Euskal-Herria by-passing the constrains of the old 19th century nation-states. Therefore, the idea of (lack of) cohesion and integration began to have very tangible material and institutional impact through concrete projects and policy guidelines. The process involved developing inter-governmental and inter-institutional agreements, building political alliances, and the emerging new spatial configurations of cooperation and interdependence, as well as symbolic and visual representations of Euskal Herria. This process also involved important investment commitments in transport and communication infrastructures, as well as in related sectors of the economy.

The idea of (lack of) cohesion and integration reflected two types of anxiety within the PNV national project. First, the idea that Basque country (Euskadi) would be cut off from the economic circuits of prosperous Europe. Secondly, the urgency to develop transport infrastructures became essential to create better economic conditions as well as to foster better ‘intra-regional’ communication, and hence facilitate connectivity its ‘parts’. It also reflected the growing importance of a new economic paradigm defined for its commitment to supply side investment. The apparent common sense of this strategy is problematic in several ways. I will try to address these as a set of questions.

  1. What is the extent to which the building of transport and communication infrastructures contribute to integration, disintegration, or differentiation?

Transport infrastructures are an important part of nation-building through the material reality, visual representation, and imagining of national communities. This is through making it easier and more accessible to getting to different places, expanding the parameters of daily mobility, shaping the visual and bodily experience of travelling and the experience of places and distances. For example, 19th century mobility of individual and their geographies of the large majority of people was highly restricted to the locality within the vicinity of their birth, thus also creating strong sense of belonging to specific localities. People would have had a strong sense of being ‘from here’ as opposed to a much broader sense of belonging by a person with the means and ability to travel across different places, with access to printed media, and in the context of standardization of language and improved levels of literacy (Anderson, 1983). 

The ongoing changes in media, and modes of connectivity and communication, which allow for the transmission of ideas, images, information and cultural forms, have developed new ways of exchange and interaction and have continued to reshape the experience of interdependence, affiliation, and sense of belonging. Online forums, facebook, tweeter etc reconstitute social relations and perceptions of belonging that might cut across traditional notion of territoriality, gender, race and class.

  1. Are the notions of ‘cohesion’ and ‘integration’ self-evident? What forms of cohesion are prioritised, who do they work for, and who is partially or fully excluded?

The notions and representations of ‘cohesion’ and ‘integration’ are not neutral. For example, as illustrated earlier the backdrop to the claim that Basque country needs better cohesion and integration to overcome its marginality responds to a complex set of policies, institutional arrangements, and political alliances that shaped the spatial configuration of Euskal Herria in particular ways. At least, three processes need to be taken into consideration. First, the creation of the Single Market on the basis of a neoliberal synthesis of trade and investment flow theories and the efficient market hypothesis. Second, the creation of EU regional policy as a compensatory mechanism for the costs incurred by the Single Market. From this perspective, the putative ‘multi-level governance’ should be reframed away from post-sovereignty theories that became fashionable in the late 1990s and early 2000s (i.e. multi-level governance as the basis for cross border inter-regional and inter-scalar agreements), and re-interpret it as administering mechanism of EU regional policy plans and funding. Three, the Post-Fordist adaptation of Spain’s national economy, in the sense of a re-composition of the international division of labour dominated by (German) MNCs (where small and medium size companies have come to occupy medium to low positions in the global value added commodity chains), the hollowing out of ‘national’ industrial sectors (i.e. illustrated by the years of industrial recon in the 1980s and 1990s, and the need to develop new industrial sectors), and the withdrawal of any comprehensive industrial development policy at national and European level. It should be noted that while regional funding constitutes a third of the EU budget, it constitutes only 1% of EU’s DGP. Also, Eastern European countries and regions, with the fourth enlargement, have not benefited half of what Southern European countries benefitted from EU regional funding. In the wake of the 2009-2010 Eurozone crisis, the limits of EU regional policies to achieve ‘cohesion’ have come to light. Therefore, another interpretation is possible: the single market and the adoption of the euro exacerbated the macro economic imbalances of Northern, Southern and Eastern regional areas of the EU. And the alleged transaction benefits of market integration led to the concentration of capital, goods and people in the hitherto industrially advanced regions of EU. Rather than ‘industrial diffusion’, EU integration contributed to industrial concentration (Ryner and Cafruny, 2017: pp 137-164) 

The story of EU enlargement and integration tells us that un-even development and lack of cohesion is persistent in the EU (Hadmijicalis 2011). So, while the notions of ‘regional policy’, ‘cohesion’, ‘governance’ continue to be part of the political repertoire, economic strategy and imaginary of Euskadi, and Euskal Herria, the constellation of policies, funding, and inter-institutional collaboration that make up the EU universe, and from which, partly, Euskal Herria has emerged, should be re-assessed. This is from the perspective that ‘regional EU’ has not so much contributed to ‘cohesion’ but to divergence and, the widening of social and economic inequalities. This raises questions about the relationship the conditions of existence of Euskal Herria provided by the current EU institutional framework, and issues of solidarity, social justice and political voice of other regions of Europe. This is especially pertinent, given the desolate landscape left behind by the management of the eurozone crisis, and the adoption of ‘austerity’ policies as the only political alternative.

  1. Does better integration mean more cohesion? And what kind of cohesion?

It could be argued that cohesion and integration also imply differentiation and divergence. As suggested earlier, a scalar approach to spatial analysis (i.e. the configuration of political, economic, and social processes at particular levels (e.g. national, sub-national, supra-national) rejects the assumption that scales are ontologically pre-given. ‘Regions’ (or established ‘nation-states’ for that matter) are never closed and bounded political, economic and social s. The idea that territorial jurisdiction alone frames the organisation of economic, political, social and cultural s is an illusion.

Let me go to my earlier point about the role that transport infrastructures have played in policy and government imaginaries with regard to the possibility of enhancing interconnectedness and linkages. This is the idea that creating a critical mass of transport infrastructure thickness facilitates social, economic and cultural interaction and exchange. The project of the Basque HST started as a reflection of EU and national policy trends back in the late 1980s and in the middle of the on-going industrial recon. The future laid in integration (within the EU): creating the infrastructures to facilitate the mobility of capital, goods and people as dictated by the principles of market integration, and by recommendations of the Round Table of Industrialists (a powerful lobby representing key European industrial interests) (Van Apeldoorn 2003).

It was only when the Basque HST lost momentum as a viable ‘national’, Spanish, and ‘European’ project that the Basque HST metamorphosed into a discourse about the ‘necessary’ project to guarantee the cohesiveness and integration of Euskadi. The Basque ‘Y’ came to represent this concern and new policy priority. This led to the intensification of inter-institutional relations to make the Basque ‘Y’ visible in Iparralde, and France. So, the new logic dictated a preferential cohesion for Euskadi, the inclusion of Iparralde, and hence that of ‘Euskal Herria’ within the broader context of the EU. However, it should be noted that struggles over funding and prioritising the building of different infrastructure lay outs led to confrontations the Basque government and the government of Nafarroa. The Basque ‘Y’ as final layout was chosen with the aim to connect the three capitals of Euskadi with a stop in Irun where it would connect to the French high-speed rail line in Hendaia, and then Dax (a project that marginalised the territory of Nafarroa, which in turn prioritised its connectivity to Zaragoza and from there, to Barcelona). At the time of its conception, the Basque Y was also devised as a kind of ‘underground’ that conceived Euskadi/Iparralde as a ‘populous urban’ space.

  1. The Basque ‘Y’ was conceived partly to enhance cohesion, to enhance interaction, to bring people closer and allow them to inhabit one ‘single urban’ space.  But will it?

The social and economic structure characteristic of the Basque country might suggest otherwise. The contemporary realities tend to be that people are increasingly less likely and willing to inhabit a single urban space. Their daily interactions are likely to be shaped by the increasingly dynamic and flexible labour market structure associated with cross-border mobilities and the highly localized  industrial structure in the mountainous Basque country. So, whose cohesion does this project represent? Does it reconfigure ‘internal’ social, economic and cultural relations? The answer is probably to some extent ‘yes and no’.

It is ‘yes’, if we consider the minority travellers who, from a gender and class perspective, are likely to be middle and upper middle class male workers employed in the service industry (e.g. financial services, administration). Such industries are generally located in urban centres (e.g. Bilbao) but also, Madrid and Europe (e.g. Brussels). So, while the Basque ‘Y’ will facilitate increased interaction in Basque country, it will also facilitate the kind of economic and social cohesion and integration that might exclude Iparralde and Nafarroa. Moreover, given the focus of the service economy in Bilbao, this form of cohesion is likely to benefit Bilbao rather than Euskal Herria. In other words, such changes are likely to concentrate social, economic and cultural interactions and connectivity in Bilbao. In fact, the levels of investment and in-built environment transformation of Bilbao, most emblematically represented by the Guggenheim museum, seems to have aimed to integrate Bilbao not in Euskal Herria, but within the global circuits of capital, people and goods. Thus, Guggenheim is the shop window for international audiences that want to consume global culture (i.e. Frank Gehry’s master piece architecture) and therefore, cohesion infrastructures have served to situate Bilbao a bit more ‘outside’ rather than ‘inside’ of Euskal Herria. In other words, Bilbao as a nodal point of international economic, social and cultural interactions. This links to a very important dimension of cohesion and integration: how much money is invested, where is spent, why, and who benefits.

This leads us to look  closely at the ‘economics’ of cohesion and integration. It may be argued that a project of cohesion and integration based on the development of transport infrastructure and in-built environment re-developments has affinities with a neoliberal-led policy of restructuring. Such policies have been central to the post-fordist adaptation of European post-industrial regions. In this sense, the symbolic, material and institutional Euskal Herria that has emerged over the last 30 years reflects wider European economic, policy and institutional trends and the hegemonic project of neo-liberal restructuring. Specifically, a policy orientation based on a shift from welfarism to supply-side initiatives, that is, a re-orientation of investment with the aim to create a ‘good business environment’, the development of new economic sectors such tourism and transportation s, and prioritising services and construction as employment generating sectors (non withstanding the relevance of the industrial sector for the economy of Euskadi overall). So, Euskal Herria integrates (or it is integrated in) global economic, social, cultural and ideological s.

This links to our previous point where I suggested that cohesion and integration are not neutral concepts. ‘Cohesion’ takes a physical, economic, political, social and ideological form. It consists of representations (what kind of cohesion and why), concrete projects (e.g. high-speed train, roads, cultural infrastructures), and political action (e.g. institutional and political agreements and alliances). This means that cohesion will generate struggles and disagreements over what it should be prioritised and how it should be achieved. It will also imagine a different Euskal Herria. Which one is an open question requiring a democratic debate.

Concluding remarks

What are the conditions that will enable the cohesion of Euskal Herria? What will make Euskal Herria a more cohesive space? I have argued that a scalar analysis to socio-spatial configuration needs to put an emphasis on process rather than outcome. In this sense, Euskal Herria should be seen as made up of places vis a vis actors who are prepared to cooperate in certain conditions as well as to compete. The balance of cooperation and competition will be materialised in the articulation of concrete projects, their symbolic significance and political legitimacy, and their socio-economic impact. In other words, cohesion is concerted action and strategy building over specific projects, collaboration and alliances in relation to specific institutional coordinates. It will also depend on the mechanisms of inclusion and exclusion. Who should be involved in the design of such projects, and why? Who should be mobilised in support of specific projects, and how? What is the criteria of distribution and investment? What is the social, economic, cultural and environmental impact of specific projects? How will they alter, shape, reconfigure existing social relations?

In this regard, it could probably be argued that first, the “cohesion” that has emerged in then post Franco period is not anymore available due to the effects of the global financial crisis, changes in the EU and questions of legitimacy of the EU project itself following the eurozone crisis; but also second, that there is an alternative form of cohesion that is likely to prioritise different sets of relationships while also be consistent with current political and economic developments. Thus an alternative form of “cohesion” could be seen as one that does not consider infrastructures and in-built environment projects as fundamental to achieve a better integration in Basque country. Such perspective emphasises the small and medium size urban/economic centres as the natural configuration of social and economic relations of Euskal Herria. It does not prioritise the mega-urban as a site of cultural consumption (e.g. Bilbao and Guggenheim), but it conceives it as an organic, bottom up organisation of local and inter-local initiatives that integrate Euskal Herria in accordance with alternative global policy and agenda priorities informed by environmental and ecological paradigms, but also open to global flows of people, discourses, resources and ideas and allowing for the intersection of complex, overlapping,  and non-exclusive identities sensitive to questions of social justice, race, gender and class. Whether this is a good alternative or any other is acceptable to the people in Euskal Herria, is an open question and subject to democratic deliberation.


Anderson, B. (1983). Imagined Communities. London and New York: Verso.

Hadjimichalis, C. (2011). ‘Uneven geographical development and socio-spatial justice and solidarity: European regions after the 2009 financial crisis’. European Urban and Regional Studies, 18(3), 254-274.

Harvey, D. (2001). ‘Giobalization and the “Spatial Fix”’, geographische Revue, 2.

Massey, D. [2018] (1978). ‘Regionalism: some current issues’, in B. Christophers, R. Lave, J. Peck and M. Werner (eds.) The Doreen Massey Reader. Newcastle: Agenda.

Ryner, M. and Cafruny, (2017). The European and Global Capitalism. Origins, Development, and Crisis. London: Palgrave.

Van Apeldoorn, B. (2003). Transnational capitalism and the struggle over European integration. London: Routledge.

Swyngedouw, E. (1997). ‘Neither global nor Local: “Glocalisation” and the Politics of Scale’, in K. Cox (ed.) Spaces of Globalisation: Reasserting the Power of the Local. New York and London: Guildford/ Longman.


Eusko Jaurlaritza

Facebook Twitter Whatsapp