Lina Gálvez – On narratives and break-ups: the Brexit referendum and the Catalonian independence initiative compared

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Are there parallels between the Brexit referendum and Catalonia’s process of independence? Does a return to national sovereignty offer a restoration of democracy and prioritisation of the common good that are lacking in supranational institutions like the EU. Lina Gálvez examines the perspectives for Europe.

Lina Gálvez is Professor of Economic History and Gender Studies at Pablo de Olavide University, Seville

We at Brave New Europe don’t take a position on Brexit. While we recognise that many dark and odious forces lay behind the Brexit vote, and that the process will inflict significant economic damage on many people, we also know that European institutions and policies typically reflect a strong neoliberal slant – and we launched this project to oppose and change this.  We have sympathy with the anger against European institutions – but we also believe in the principle of European cross-border co-operation and co-ordination in many areas.  Reflecting this complex reality, we will host both pro-Brexit and pro-Remain articles.

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While the Catalonian process of independence and the upcoming referendum dominate the news in Catalan and Spanish media, I am reading some worrisome news in the British press about the failure of integration in Brexit Britain. I see this information in another context, as some of my friends, who have been living in the UK for years, tell me how they are being humiliated while applying for British citizenship . This is much the same treatment that non-EU citizens – with the exception of the wealthy ones – have experienced in the UK since at least 2013.

It is obvious that the Brexit referendum and Catalonian process of independence are different, but they share similar separatist narratives: narratives filled with fantasies and steeped in a sense of superiority or burdened with iniquities that, in some cases, have no basis in truth. Both also see nefarious forces at work, from which they seek independence – from the EU in the British case, and the Kingdom of Spain in the case of Catalonia. In the latter case, that portrayal is confirmed by the short-sightedness and arrogance of Spanish nationalism represented by the government of the Popular Party – which has resulted in even more Catalans joining the independence movement.

When I listen to some of the arguments used by advocates of Catalonia’s independence movement to convince Catalans to support them, I hear echoes of similar assertions in another language, English, brandished against another “oppressive” institution, the EU. When I refer to pro-independence arguments, I do not include those espoused by people who are convinced that Catalonia is not, and must not, be part of Spain. Those arguments are legitimate and cannot be denied, just as those of British citizens, who never considered the UK to be part of Europe, cannot be discounted. When reasoning is subordinated to feelings, it is indeed very difficult, though not impossible, to have a fair exchange of ideas and arguments. I find myself respecting this desire for independence, as I wrote in an article published in the Spanish newspaper, on the need to design a referendum that can be held with democratic guarantees.

The arguments that I do criticise can be termed a “grievance or tactical independence movement” as promulgated by the Catalan Generalitat (the Catalonian government) – unfortunately with invaluable support from Spain’s cack-handed governing Popular Party, its spokespersons in the media, Spanish nationalism, Mariano Rajoy’s government and its dreadful management of the upcoming October 1st referendum. Both have promoted a scenario of disconnection.

I would like to look at three of the arguments for Catalan independence, which are very similar to those used in the UK, and which, just as in the UK, may backfire on the people who are now waving national flags. These arguments could well cause Catalonia to become a breeding ground for divisiveness, resulting in a strongly divided society. It is evident that Catalan society is divided – or soon will be – when a referendum is called which needs only 50 percent of the votes (the minimum is not specified) to decide on issues as significant as the break-up of a nation.

Given that the Brexit referendum preceded the Catalan one, we can observe what it has led to and what can be expected to follow in Spain and Catalonia, should some steps not be taken to replace the dominant narratives pushing us towards the worst possible outcome.

The first of those three arguments is based on the sense of superiority of those seeking secession. This argument is nourished by the poor credibility of public institutions – and the political idea that sustains them – from which they aim to emancipate themselves, whether it be the EU, transformed into a neo-liberal bureaucratic machine, or Spain, defined as the Popular Party and corruption. It is obviously irrelevant that in recent years the British Tory government has adopted neo-liberal policies to an even greater extent than the EU, or that one of the political parties leading the process of independence in Catalonia, the PDeCat, has been involved in a persistent corruption scam known as the “3 percent” scandal. It is easy to sympathise with disaffection when confronted with these unattractive political realities, such as the EU’s neo-liberal project or a Spain in which a majority still votes for an endemically corrupt party. Still it is important to keep in mind that this disaffection is based, in the case of Brexit supporters and advocates of Catalonia’s independence, on a feeling of superiority: “We shall put wrongs right”. That way danger lies: because there will always be those who feel superior to others and are likely to fall victim to their own hubris.

There are many in Catalonia who believe there is a simple dichotomy between the democratic project they support and the anti-democratic structures of the Spanish state. This is similar to what many Britons believed of the EU. As it turns out, Brexit Britain, free of obligations to what remains of the European social model, appears to be heading towards a democratic model that only works for the wealthy, that is, for those who will thrive in a scenario of extreme privatisation. Thus, those who are currently applying for British citizenship don’t encounter trained and competent civil servants at the Home Office, but only incompetent hirelings ignorant of the law. This leaves foreigners, who do not have the means to pay for the services of a specialised firm to advise them during their application process, unprotected against breaches of the law or non-fulfilment of their rights.

In order to obtain British citizenship, it is necessary to pass a British culture test called Life in the UK and an English language test. Of course, there are some examination fees to be paid every time one needs to repeat the test, which occurs quite frequently. In addition to these fees one must add the £1,000 required for the issuance of a passport. This expense and the bureaucratic obstacles often discourage foreigners living in the UK from initiating citizenship proceedings, unless they are wealthy, have not changed employer or have strong family ties in the country.

In addition to the class inequalities that this sort of process generates, as not everyone has the same financial resources, it is possible to observe the hardening of an attitude that fits perfectly well with the narratives seen in Brexit. These are full of feelings of superiority, even racism, totally lacking in solidarity. These narratives can easily turn against those who originally supported the process of independence.

The test to obtain British citizenship contains questions irrelevant to integration in the Britain of today: such as knowing the year in which Mary Queen of Scots died, or the number of years she was imprisoned. And the guide that one is supposed to study in order to pass the test includes sentences that show how the British Isles have always defended themselves from European aggression, stopping, for example, the expansion of the Roman Empire. Or that the British Empire spread across the world for the good of humanity – the figure of Rudyard Kipling is naturally used to define its essence: “He wrote books and poems set in both India and the UK. His poems and novels reflected the idea that the British Empire was a force for good”. For this same purpose, it is claimed, British armed forces since the year 2000 are stationed in different countries, including Afghanistan and Iraq, to fight against international terrorism and eliminate weapons of mass destruction!

When the Tories published this study guide in 2013, the former Minister of State for Immigration Mark Harper stated: “The new book rightly focuses on values and principles at the heart of being British” and later added that, “instead of telling people how to claim benefits, it encourages participation in British life” . A truly xenophobic and neo-liberal project.

The second argument is the one usually formulated as “Spain/the EU is stealing our money”. As in the UK, some people are convinced that the contribution of Catalonia’s population to Spain’s public finances is much larger than what they receive in return. This mind-set is typical in territories with a higher than average income in welfare states based upon the principle of “To each according to their need/From each according to their capacity”. In the Spanish tax system, contributions are made not by territories but by companies and individuals. And, insofar as it is a progressive tax system, it is of course natural that those who have more give more. Supporting the above-mentioned argument requires implementing an anti-solidarity tax regime.

The logic behind this argument is that, once these wealthy territories are independent, they will be able to take back control and, consequently, all their resources and wealth will remain in their hands. This would result in greater investment to improve public services. However, the benefits these territories receive within the EU or within Spain with its Autonomous Communities go much further than direct state transfers. There are investments associated with sectoral policies, like those made in scientific research and innovation, which usually favour wealthier territories and are not included in the fiction of tax balance sheets. Likewise, in economically dynamic territories, companies benefit from the advantage of having access to larger markets than their own. Catalonia would not be what it is without having benefited in the past from the protectionist policies of the Spanish state and from the Spanish “national” market.

Furthermore, citizens seduced by these kinds of arguments must know that creating a new state or even a new institutional reality, as in the case of Britain, requires an enormous amount of resources at least in the first few years. Unless miraculous economic activity is suddenly generated or the new Catalan Republic leaves the euro area and creates its own currency and central bank, those resources will have to be obtained through loans – thus increasing the already alarming levels of indebtedness – or collected via taxes. We have read and heard news concerning the tax plans of the Generalitat, mostly focused on increasing revenue collection from corporations, many of which are either global, and thus highly mobile, or organisations that survive thanks not only to the Catalan market, but to the Spanish market as well.

Given that Catalonia is wealthier than other Spanish regions, many Catalans are convinced that self-government will guarantee the availability of more resources and, consequently, the improvement of public services. They may be unaware that the amount of resources, especially public resources, does not depend on the wealth of a territory but on its legal and institutional framework and on the economic and tax policies implemented by its government. The governments of the former Convergencia (the current PDeCat) were famous for promoting privatisation and cutbacks in public services. The leaders of the PDeCat can conveniently forget this, but the citizens who suffered the effects of those cutbacks and privatisations should not.

Building a country on the idea of “every man/woman for himself/herself” and other individualist principles will necessarily destroy the tradition of solidarity and community, even if the third argument that I analyse here seems to promise the opposite.

This third argument suggests that Catalonia will move towards drafting of a more social constitution, including laws that give priority to the population’s wellbeing. This is the argument propagated by some of the members of the En Comú Podem party. Those who have for years pressed to start such a process and to build a more social structure both in a future republican Spain and in the EU, feel betrayed by the current process of independence. This is an argument similar to that of many left-wing British citizens, who feel that the national state is a more adequate platform to defend anti-neo-liberal policies than supra-national entities such as the EU.

This is a crucial question: Do smaller territories have a greater potential for change than larger ones or those bringing together common interests? The present constellation of political forces in Spain and the EU does not favour the development of norms that are more social and respectful of human rights. A great deal of education will be needed to show people that things can be done differently before this constellation of forces can be changed peacefully. We find ourselves in a neo-liberal context in which life and living conditions are increasingly privatised and where democracy, captured by the economic powers, is progressively curtailed. This limits the possibility of actually doing things differently in a Catalonia that wishes to remain within the EU, for three reasons: the balance of political forces, which will not facilitate that change; the relatively small size of the new state; and the price that it will have to pay to continue being a member of the EU or to join it in the near future – as has been promised by the elites leading the Catalonian process of independence. Let us also remember that this new state, like all states, will have to define who its citizens are, with all their rights and duties, and that, like all states, it will exclude many people.

Brexit has divided a country that is suffering more social and institutional violence today – especially against citizens of foreign origin – than it did before the referendum. In Catalonia, integration is already threatened. And in the rest of Spain, catalanophobia is on the rise. Regardless of the final outcome of Catalonia’s process of independence, which I hope will be reached in a consensual and democratically guaranteed manner, I believe it is essential not to use arguments based on feelings of superiority and exclusion. I also believe that using stereotypes to define what it means to be Catalan, which is fuelling catalanophobia in other Spanish regions, will not lead us to safe harbour. All this generates division, makes present and future integration less likely, and supports a neo-liberal model of society. That will ultimately benefit only the elites who largely initiated the process in the first place.

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