Gorka Espiau: Interview in Berria

Interview with the director of ALC by the Basque-language newspaper Berria with Gorka Espiau, on the occasion of the 10th anniversary

"Self-Government is Essential to Encourage the Next Transition"


Agirre Lehendakaria Center (ALC) is reflecting on the role that the Basque Country can play in the process of international transformation. ALC’s director, Gorka Espiau (Bilbao, 1972), understands what steps should be taken in the coming years: “We are offering the Basque Country as an example.”

In March ALC celebrated its 10th anniversary while remaining keenly focused on present and future social challenges. The organization was created in order for the Basque Country to be present in international discussion, and Espiau believes ALC should take advantage of its strengths as a center of experimentation by “promoting transitions.”


How would you evaluate ALC’s work so far?

We’re happy because ALC was created to put the Basque Country’s on the map. We’ve proved that it’s possible to participate in these international discussions while maintaining one’s identity, and we’re positioning ourselves as a place of experimentation for future transitions.


What is ALC focused on now?

Right now, what’s most important to us is focusing our attention on the discussion surrounding sustainable human development. Normally, because of the projects we undertake, we don’t have the capacity to participate in such wide ranging debates. Nevertheless, our research has helped us demonstrate the value of what we’ve learned in recent decades, and in the Basque Country there is both a willingness and capacity to participate in these discussions. 


You mentioned international discussion. How can the Basque Country influence these international spheres?

One ongoing debate in our world centers around what kind of society we want. In other words, is our goal to maintain our quality of life or encourage the next transition? It’s a big question, but these kinds of discussions have a tremendous impact on our day to day lives with regards to healthcare, security and economics. These are simply open debates to help us decide what we want as a people.


Speaking of the transition stage, what do you think are the main challenges that society is facing?

A socioecological transition is necessary, and we’ve arrived at a cross roads. Either we can take incremental steps or disrupt the existing system entirely. Incremental progress would mean maintaining what’s worked for us while making small changes. On the other hand, a disruptive approach would create change across the entire system. Although disruptive action is not the current reality, Our conclusion is that incremental progress cannot lead to true systemic change. Therefore, we must find out what kind of disruptive action is possible. This will be reflected in every sphere including industry, healthcare, education and more. 


What would a solution look like?

No one knows how to initiate this kind of change, but we have to try to create experimental spaces where this learning can take place. This is what we believe at ALC: we need to put experimental solutions into practice and establish experimental frameworks. As a people we have the opportunity to offer our system as a platform for social change. And not just as a territory but as a community.


Why is the Basque Country an ideal place for this?

Encouraging change at the state level is very difficult, and we want to think bigger than local level change. Communities the size of the Basque Country have an interesting capacity to undertake new initiatives. Our region has the legal and financial capabilities, and it’s a shame that we haven’t yet made use of self-government. Again, we offer the Basque Country as an example. We are continuing to learn, and we will soon bring future transitions to fruition. That is our goal for the next decade.


What risks may arise if we do not respond to current challenges?

The most significant problem would be either an environmental or economic collapse which is where our current public policy is taking us. Our current system simply cannot provide for the needs of our society. We are seeing this in the healthcare sectors and relating to businesses as well. For example, if we do not address the issues arising in the automotive industry at a systemic level and as a society, we will not be able to deal with these challenges. Our present model of sustainable human development will collapse and our quality of life along with it.


During recent years you’ve also worked to define the Basque model.

One interesting view is that historically the Basque country has had the capacity to provide its own solutions to global problems. In the last few decades we have been able to reimagine how society should look, and in this system, protecting a commitment to equality is central. We believe that when discussing the Basque model, the concept equality is a core component.   

We have also researched the revitalization of the Euskera language, Basque gastronomy and our tradition of cooperative management. From these investigations we’ve found that their narrative foundations are interrelated. This is what we call the K Factor: culture. A concrete and universal way of viewing society.


How can we focus on the K Factor to address current challenges?

In the past we have been able to give a Basque-centered response, and this is linked to equality with all of its limitations. Equality is a broad category, but we have typically viewed it narrowly as related to the socioeconomic sphere. Today equality is understood in a broader sense, and how we center it in the debate is fundamental. When socioeconomic or socioecological transitions take form quickly, that difference is highly accentuated. This has happened throughout the world and even in the Basque Country.


You mentioned the K Factor. What role does culture play in this conversation?

In the past the Euskara language has been reinvented and revitalized. We’re asking if we achieve the same outcome in the present context. The future of Euskera is directly tied to the process of transformation in Basque Society—they cannot be addressed separately. Looking back, the rebirth of Euskera was similarly connected to other social movements in our community. The hypothesis was that this revitalization of Euskera was essential to the transformation of society.


How do things look now?

Right now, considering what we’ve learned, we see a community that believes the Euskera language is an essential part of the next transition. If Euskera is not a central part of the debate, it will be very difficult to bring about a strong movement. Our job is to create spaces for experimentation combining public and private dynamics–the rural and the urban–in order to begin an initiative similar to what took place 40 years ago. It will look different, but at a basic level we need broad action.


During ALC’s anniversary, one round table discussion concluded that a lack of consensus about diagnosing the issues is impeding forward progress.

To respond to unknown challenges, consensus regarding the diagnosis is not enough. If we knew the solution, we would propose a diagnosis: this is the issue, and this is the solution. But for the current problems we face, the solutions are unknown. So, in addition to a diagnosis, we must collectively decide what is happening and create spaces for experimentation to decide together how to take the next steps.  

Traditionally, we would use a strategic plan as a tool. We decide on a common diagnosis, establish our targets, and everybody works on the problem together. This is an outdated strategy. Today we have to turn the page and assume that nobody knows how to respond to the challenges we are facing. From now on we will have to work together to interpret the situation and devise new strategies. Some will work and some will not, but when we take collective action we are building the infrastructure for a flexible form of governance. This is the challenge the Basque model faces: how to evolve beyond fixed strategic plans towards experimental growth.


Spanish political parties have recently been using the term “country-wide consensus.”

I am not sure if consensus is the correct word, but we’ve seen, especially in Gipuzkoa, that some of the initial links with the Basque model are very effective for transforming the Basque Country. We have a shared territory in which to launch the next transition. This is very important to us. Although subtle, there is a growing consensus between majority parties. There is common ground here for transformation. But how will it look in practice? The question is if the end result should be predetermined or if we should instead agree to create safe space for experimentation and form a collective consensus around our situation. This is radically changing the dynamic.


What is the basic groundwork for transition?

For example, consider self-government. To promote transition, self-government is essential. If you do not have the tools of self-government, a positive socio ecological transition cannot take place. This is a fundamental principle, and I believe it has majority support. We are creating spaces for experimentation based around this idea. Achieving this will make it much easier to move towards large scale transitions.


Other than self-government, what are the other key elements?

Dynamics related to gender equality and migration. We have a lot of work to do there. Although the official discussion is progressive, in practice we notice that there continues to be a differentiation between Basques and immigrants. The transition we want cannot happen while these differences persist. From an economic perspective, taking a neoliberal view cannot lead to a just outcome. The resulting solutions would only increase inequality. Lastly, the ecological transition is not inevitable. A link to nature must be at the center. Self-government, equality and the relationship with nature are enough to create advanced spaces for experimentation. These are the requirements, and from here it is possible to generate the next transition. 


On the topic of experimentation, some countries are now beginning their own projects. What can the Basque Country learn from these initiatives?

Our core objective is to work within the limits of the Basque Country, but our challenges are global. We must stay in touch with the whole world in order to break new ground. We are sharing our experience, reporting on our transformation and, by participating in these experiments, we will learn to bring new ideas and collaborations back to the Basque Country. The status quo would be collaborating with regions similar to the Basque Country, but because the challenges we face are global, and is equally as possible to learn from Scandinavian nations and from Quebec as it is to learn from countries like Indonesia, Pakistan and Mozambique.