This week, NPR’s All Things Considered did this story on the Basque Country, highlighting the region’s ability to stay economically stable while the rest of Spain suffers unprecedented financial crisis. I encourage you to read (or listen to) the whole story, but I’ll summarize it and make some comments here.
The first thing I want to say is that it was refreshing to see an article out of the US that actually had a positive spin on the Basque Country. This is unusual. Just the other day, I was reading some articles from US news sources about the regional elections that took place here and in Galicia, another Spanish state, last weekend. Every single article, when mentioning the Basque Country, made some comment about it being a “troubled” or “turbulent” region. I’ve lived here for almost two whole years now and I can tell you that this place is anything but turbulent. Yes, the Basque separatist terrorist group ETA has caused a lot of problems in the past, but this has unfairly given this entire region a bad name, when the reality is that it is a peaceful and progressive place. Furthermore, it’s statistically one of the safest places in all of Europe. Check out this post I wrote in 2010 for more info about what living in the Basque Country is really like.
So as I said, it was really great to see a report out of the US speaking positively about the Basque Country. Other than a brief mentioning of ETA in the opening line, the report was a praise of the Basque Country’s economy and industry. While Spain’s economy is in the dumps, with unemployment at record highs and an seemingly inevitable bailout on the horizon, the Basque Country is doing quite alright. As the report says, unemployment in the Basque Country is at 12%, which is just above the average of Europe as a whole and less than half Spain’s national unemployment of 25%. Signs of “el crisis” are everywhere in Spain, but much, much less prevalent here.
So how do they do it? How does the Basque Country manage to keep it’s head above water when the rest of Spain can’t? For one, the Basque Country is rich in natural resources like steel and has booming agriculture and manufacturing industries. Bilbao is home to world energy leader Iberdrola which serves 30 million customers in 40 different countries around the world.
The report also attributes the Basque Country’s financial stability in part to its fiscal autonomy from Madrid. This region has it’s own government and own way of doing things, and although they still have responsibilities to the Spanish government, their way of doing things seems to be working quite well for them. Basque people are known for being hard workers, and this attribute is something they rightfully take a lot of pride in. Most people of Basque heritage don’t really consider themselves to be “Spanish” at all, and though it may seem trivial or silly to outsiders, I can understand why they feel that way. Apart from the obvious historical differences between Spanish and Basque people, they consider themselves to be different because they really are culturally quite different. These differences, their very “basque-ness”, might just be the factor that has kept the region afloat amidst this economic crisis.
At the end of the article, Basque engineer Aitor Galarza half-jokingly says that the productivity of the Basque people might just be the fact that this region gets an average of 200 days of rain each year so workers have nothing better to do than to stay inside and work. As I sit inside writing a blog post on a Saturday night, the rain pouring hard outside my window, I can’t help but think he might be onto something…