In recent decades, Europe has experienced an important development in geo-economic axes. The territories that form the north western Mediterranean have been forming one of the principal axes of growth on the continent. Despite the recent displacement of the centre of the European Union towards the east, its importance, with a significant population density and some considerable traditional industrial centres, is being reinforced by its indisputable role in acting as a link between Europe and the African continent and therefore, to one of the principal routes to the Middle and Far East. However, today as in the past, the strength of the axis is above all found in its network of dynamic cities that have been building a history of relations (often as rivals) that have now become its great potential.
Notwithstanding, this region has not had, until now, any type of political-administrative body, but is now being recognised by the numerous studies, projects, programmes and agreements between administrations, business associations and academic bodies. This lack of political-administrative recognition has caused its territorial development to be rather variable. The new system of Euroregions, of increasing importance within the European Union, or the agreements between the provincial administrations, are examples of timid steps in the right direction..
It is worth mentioning at the outset, the initial idea of the Mediterranean arc. One of the first times that this concept was debated was at the 1ª Conferència Econòmica de la Mediterrània Occidental that was held in Barcelona in 1985. Also, it is interesting to note that at that time, the definition was wide ranging, in order to be able to incorporate contributions and speakers that looked at various areas: in effect, the framework that they were drawing up covered a wide area from Murcia to Calabria.
Shortly afterwards, the already classic interpretation of Europe, made by the group GIP RECLUS from Montpellier, in their report Les Villes Européennes, at the request of the French DATAR in 1989, highlighted an important growth axis in the Mediterranean arc. This study had a great impact on the debate concerning the European growth axes, with its conceptualisation of the “Blue Banana”, that is still today a reference point in European regional geography.
The appearance of the autonomous governments in Spain is a key to understanding the following impulse in the area. This led to the definition of the first Euroregion in 1991 between Catalonia and the French regions Midi-Pyrenees and Languedoc-Roussillon, or seen in terms of their capitals, between Barcelona, Toulouse and Montpellier. Despite its lack of development, the proposal left a foundation which was laid out, for example, in the publication of an Atles de l’eurorregió (1995), produced by the same group GIP RECLUS and the Cartographic Institute of Catalonia, with the support of the statistical services of the three territories. Furthermore, in this period and significantly from the pronouncements made by the cities within the Mediterranean arc, a network of cities was created, namely C6. This network, made up of Barcelona, Montpellier, Palma de Mallorca, Toulouse, Valencia and Saragossa, reinforced the idea of using the territory capitals as motors of trans-border cooperation in the Mediterranean Pyrenees region. It was an important step forward, because they moved on from the questions of defining areas, analysis and studies of the region, to cooperation and collaboration between the cities. It is worth remembering that both of these initiatives had originated from Barcelona, the city with the greatest weight amongst the members.
During the nineties, various other academic studies were undertaken (chiefly by economists and geographers, but also by sociologists, from Catalonia, Valencia and France) and even the university manuals started to reflect the existence of the geo-economic axis in different formats. Also in this decade, the European Community started confirming the existence of this area of cooperation. This led to the report ‘Europe 2000 plus’ Cooperation for European Territorial Development’,published by the European Commission in 2004, outlined in detail a set of large European regions, one of which being Mediterranean Europe that makes up what is known as the Latin arc. This macro region includes Andalusia up until Lazio, as well as the Balearic Islands, Corsica and Sardinia.
In recent years, the initiatives on this subject have been numerous and furthermore, diverse. In 2000 the Eurocongress was held, with a greater number of regions involved than before, including a number of French ones (such as, Aquitaine and Rhone-Alps and some Italian ones, including Piedmont and the Aosta Valley) Its principal objectives were, to contribute effectively in the cohesion of the European Union, reinforcing and creating debating forums between states and to contribute to promoting Latin Europe, from its central base (known as the Central Latin Eurospace). Shortly afterwards, in 2002, the Latin Arc Association was formed in Montpellier, made up of 66 NUTS III level entities. Its objective being to formulate a definition of an integrated strategy of sustainable development and the organisation of the Latin Arc area, as outlined by Europe 2000+, and to create an area of cooperation with the countries in the south of the Mediterranean. It needs to be pointed out, that actually, not all of the NUTS III local administrations of this area are involved with the Association (as in the cases of some Spanish provinces: Girona, Almeria, Murcia, Castellon, Alicante, Valencia and some from Italy, Calabria and Sicily). In the same year, 2002, The Ignasi Villalonga Instituto de Economía y Empresa was created in Valencia, with the objective of encouraging cooperation between the regions of the north western Mediterranean arc Euroregion (EURAM) that is made up of Catalonia, Andorra, Valencia, The Balearic Islands and North Catalonia. Finally, in the spring of 2004, an initiative was announced to create a Euroregion politically recognised by the European Union. This region will be made up of Catalonia, the Balearic Islands, Aragon, Languedoc-Roussillon and Midi-Pyrenees. Although the authorities in Valencia have not yet accepted to be a part of the group, negotiations are taking place to find possible cooperation formulas and the Valencia business community are keen to find a solution.
All these initiatives, so different in their formats, objectives, areas covered, protagonists and creators, have in common the idea of a network of cities forming a unifying framework for the north western Mediterranean region. Still, while up until now the role of the regional capitals has been highlighted, in the total system of cities, these cities that top the hierarchy are as necessary as the rest of the lesser cities, whatever their population and territorial function is. The city systems are at any one time, dynamic structures that reflect the transformations in their economic and social fabrics and the political initiatives launched from the different political-administrative bodies. These city systems are not only everyday more open, but also present structures that are more and more complex and diversified. As well as the hierarchical functions and relations, there are a wealth of relations between the cities, of common and shared interests, involvement and strategies.
The urban system of the Mediterranean arc, whatever specific terms are adopted, is a complex system made up by a vast network of cities of different levels, with diverse and complementary functions. Together with the metropolitan conurbations (such as Barcelona, Valencia or Toulouse), there are within the arc, a large number of intermediate cities and each one has a role to play and a specific function in the totality of the system. We would like to emphasise: that this system of intermediate cities of differing levels and functions, represents one of the great potentials of the Mediterranean arc and one of its most specific characteristics.
Regarding this question, it is worth highlighting another significant aspect. If we discard the definitions that led us as far as Lazio or Calabria and that would imply the incorporation of Rome in the group, one of the characteristics of the Mediterranean arc, is the lack of a city that is a state capital. This fact can be seen as a potential strength or weakness: the strength lies in the fact that it helps facilitate the coordination and collaboration between the principal cities, that are all capitals of autonomous communities (in Spain) or of regions (in France),without any reticence that could develop if one of them was also a state capital. The predominance of Barcelona, due to its dynamism and as the capital of the region, could lead some to be fearful of its leading position. One of the clearest examples of articulation between large cities, already in existence, is the network of large cities in the Mediterranean arc known as the C6.
However, not having a state capital within the group weakens its position, as this European area is not reinforced by any specific political measures of the states that form a part of the area. For the Spanish and French states, the configuration of a geo-economic axis in the north western Mediterranean area has never been a priority. Good examples are the policies concerning the infrastructure of communications and even more, those of the rail network. A consequence of this is the weakness in the articulation within the group. If on one hand we can speak of a strong link and bond in the socioeconomic fabric between the cities of Valencia, Barcelona and Saragossa (if we consider the proposals to incorporate Aragon in this arc) and a cohesion that reaches as far as the city of Murcia, the trans-border articulation is still limited and even more so if we include Liguria and Lazio in the arc and weaker again if we include Calabria, despite the existence of the C6 network. This lack of articulation is even greater when we take into account the numerous intermediate cities in the territory. The trans-border relations and the dialogue between these cities still have much room for improvement. We are not only referring to the infrastructure weaknesses that make transport and communication between the participating cities more difficult, but also the lack of relations between the social and economic fabrics.
Some studies show the strong dependency of nearby metropolitan conurbations: Marseilles, Milan, Turin and Lyon, principally, as evidence that the lack of articulation within the Mediterranean arc will consequently hold back its strengthening. Even so, it is evident that for the arc to be strengthened, it is necessary to improve the connections with all the large metropolitan neighbours, not only those previously mentioned, but also with Bilbao, Bordeaux, Madrid…
Despite the mentioned weaknesses, it is clear that the current dynamics allow us to speak of reinforcement and growth in this geo-economic axis, as the concentration of activities and infrastructure projects in this corridor is unquestionable. It is also clear that this territory is receiving an increasing amount of attention from different quarters -we have made a brief summary at the beginning, which shows the recent increase in these initiatives- despite being undefined still. Also, we should highlight the general dynamic of the cities to establish networks of collaboration between themselves. This dynamic already affects a good number of cities in the Mediterranean arc and will soon lead to important articulation over the whole area, already planned transport infrastructure projects and in lines of execution that will improve the accessibility of the whole system. The role of the cities, their governments and their social and economic actors is and will be the key to this process, as in the dynamic territories, the cities are already the principal players. To continue along this path, however, studies need to be undertaken over the whole urban system in the region in order to assess the current dynamics, the degree of cohesion within the system and to identify the principal actors and protagonists that will be the motors of the consolidation of this region.