Many observers now expect the Catalan government to make a declaration of independence following the 1 October referendum, but what implications would there be for Catalonia if it did become independent? Paul De Grauwe argues that there are parallels between the Catalan independence movement and other forms of nationalism in Europe. He suggests that such political movements present a paradox in a globalised world: when nationalist actors pursue more formal sovereignty, they achieve less real sovereignty of the people.
Credit: Raphael Tsavkko Garcia (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
The British Prime Minister, David Cameron, will not enter the history books as an enlightened leader. However, when in 2014 he had to decide to allow the Scottish referendum, he used his brain and opened the door for the vote to take place. It took place on 18 September 2014, and only 45% of Scots voted for independence.
The contrast with the referendum in Catalonia could not be greater. The Spanish Prime Minister, Mariano Rajoy, stupidly decided to use violence to prevent a referendum in Catalonia, despite the fact that a peaceful referendum would most probably have led to a similar outcome as in Scotland. Spain and Catalonia are now on a collision course; a situation that could have been avoided if Rajoy had not suffered from dogmatism and a degree of nationalism equalling in intensity the Catalan version.
The Catalan nationalists have now been given a major boost thanks to Rajoy’s stupidity. The TV images of Spanish robotic police officers hitting old and young alike to prevent them from voting creates the perception of an oppressed people fighting for their freedom.
But nothing could be further from reality. The Catalans are not an oppressed people. They have a high degree of autonomy. They can organise their own education in their own language. No obstacles exist for the cultural development of Catalonia. It is the most prosperous region of Spain. Barcelona is a bustling city like no other in Spain. The Catalans are heard at the regional, national and European level. The image of an oppressed people is ludicrous. Catalan nationalism is of the same kind as the British nationalism that led to Brexit. And it is based on a number of myths.
The first myth is that there is an external enemy. For the Brexiteers, these are the European authorities (the European Commission, the European Court, etc.), which impose their arbitrary will on Britain. For the Catalan nationalists, the enemy is the Spanish government oppressing the Catalan people.
The second myth is that the people who fight for their independence have a clearly defined identity. The task of national politicians is to listen to the will of the people. There can be only one voice. There is no room for different and opposing voices. The British government is now calling for patriotism. The opponents of Brexit are not true patriots.
The third myth is that independence will generate unsuspected economic prosperity. When the people “take back control” they will have the tools to achieve maximum economic prosperity. That is today the argument of Brexiteers like Boris Johnson. When Brexit is realised (preferably as soon as possible), Britain will have achieved its true destiny. “Global Britain” will take over from the protectionist EU. Great Britain will merrily conclude free trade agreements with the rest of the world, which will lead to unprecedented prosperity. A similar argument of more prosperity for an independent Catalonia is heard from Catalan nationalists today.
The reality is that globalisation undermines national sovereignty. This happens in many ways. One example is that large multinationals blackmail national governments in Europe, with the result that corporate taxes decline almost everywhere. In no country is there a will of the people in favour of reducing these taxes. Yet this is the outcome because governments act as national entities. Were they to decide jointly on these taxes in Europe, multinationals would be unable to blackmail governments and there would be no creeping decline in corporate taxes.
Another example is that international trade today is not influenced so much by tariffs but by non-tariff barriers. Large countries decide on the standards and the regulatory environment that governs trade. There are now essentially three actors, the US, the EU and China that can aspire to decide about the nature of these standards and rules. The other countries play no role in this game. Thus, when the UK exits from the EU so as to gain more sovereignty (“to take back control”), this gain is only achieved in a formal sense. In fact, its real sovereignty declines. Obviously, the same holds for Catalonia.
We arrive at the following paradox in a globalised world: when nationalists pursue more formal sovereignty they achieve less real sovereignty of the people. They want to take back control and they end up with less control. That’s what the UK will end up with. And that’s also what the Catalan nationalists will achieve if they pursue their nationalistic dreams.
Yet this paradox also has a corollary: when countries in Europe renounce formal sovereignty this leads to more real sovereignty for the peoples of Europe.
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Note: This article was originally published at Paul De Grauwe’s personal blog and is reproduced with permission. It gives the views of the author, not the position of EUROPP – European Politics and Policy or the London School of Economics.
About the author
Paul De Grauwe – LSE, European Institute
Professor Paul De Grauwe is the John Paulson Chair in European Political Economy at the LSE’s European Institute. Prior to joining LSE, he was Professor of International Economics at the University of Leuven, Belgium. He was a member of the Belgian parliament from 1991 to 2003. His research interests are international monetary relations, monetary integration, theory and empirical analysis of the foreign-exchange markets, and open-economy macroeconomics. His published books include The Economics of Monetary Union (OUP, 2010), and (with Marianna Grimaldi), The Exchange Rate in a Behavioural Finance Framework (Princeton University Press, 2006).
I entirely disagree paralelling Brexit kind of ‘ethnic nationalism’ with others like Catalans driven more from a ‘civic nationalism’. More information in a article recently published in open access by Palgrave Communications: https://www.nature.com/articles/palcomms201794
There is a problem with the ethnic/civic nationalism framework, namely that nobody ever wants to define themselves as ethnic nationalists (which is taken as a pejorative term by many people) and everyone wants to define themselves as civic nationalists (or pragmatists).
See Brexit where almost everyone, no matter how nationalistic they were, claimed to be a pragmatist that “loved Europe but just hated the EU”. You can’t ever find someone (or many people) who will stand up and say they’re an ethnic nationalist, so you either conclude that ethnic nationalists don’t exist, or you read subtext into what people are saying.
I think there are real differences between Brexit and Catalonia. But the overarching theme of Brexit was one of blaming external forces for society’s problems and predicting that just getting rid of these forces would make the country more prosperous. In Catalonia, the overarching theme of the independence cause is one of blaming external forces for society’s problems and predicting that just getting rid of these forces would make the country more prosperous. In Scotland the theme of the nationalist case was identical.
So yes there are similarities here. They are similarities that the actors themselves will bitterly, bitterly dispute. They’ll tell us their case is purely a pragmatic one: enlightened, reasoned people coming together and rationally deciding on a better future. But if you step back from these movements and look at their arguments you can see similarities. They define their “in group” differently – Brexit was more ethnic nationalist (even English rather than British), Scotland and Catalonia are expressly anti-Westminster/Madrid and open to immigration) but the function of their case is the same. People who aren’t “like us” are to blame for all our problems, get rid of them and we’ll be better off. And in all three cases being better off isn’t likely.
“They have a high degree of autonomy. They can organise their own education in their own language…”
Come to Barcelona, live with us for a few year and you will discover how this sentences repeteat continually by Spanish political parties are everytihin but real.
Interesting article that has me strongly agreeing and disagreeing at different points.
First to the agreement: Rajoy has no sense of optics, public imagery or any savoir faire as you point out, and correctly too his Spanish nationalism as well. Good to see that called out. Such an approach, totally outside of the context of the last few weeks, must surely grate on the nerves of Catalonians, Basques and the other national identities that make up Spain. He may not be as loud as Donald Trump, but he certainly possesses some of The Donald’s sensitivity.
As to corporate taxes I think I must disagree. Your logic, when carried through does not explain the position of many multinationals, including all the major banks, and others who in fact oppose Brexit. If separated and smaller nations were more vulnerable to persuasion for lower taxes surely these companies have a duty to their shareholders to be in favour of such an outcome, and not opposed to it. There is therefore presumably something else at work.
As to gaining and losing sovereignty I think you are only partly right. What must be remembered is the Madrid and more largely Brussels are not direct players in important economic elements such as job creation, but are large players in running banks and large institutions. The 2008 Financial crisis is not yet over, as is evidenced by 0% (well below long term normal) interest rates and bloated Central bank balance sheets, and joblessness has not generally returned to normal, which for much of Europe was quite high to begin with.
If Brussels isn’t helping, then how much more difficult is it to continue on with, “well then maybe they are hurting things”. Being unelected the Commission doesn’t have to, and by all evidence can’t be bothered to, take the pulse of the people. Furthermore the Romanian commissioner and the Swedish commissioner (picking two at random) don’t likely have an in-depth knowledge of the other commissioner’s compatriots and their daily issues. This leads to tone-deaf pronouncements and creates an image of disconnect, at a time when citizens want to know their issues – employment, interest rates, regulations, borders and immigration and economic security – are being fixed.
In other words, this is not so much about sovereignty, but rather a question to politicians: Are you for us, or against us? And if you aren’t for us, then you can only be against us. You can’t be neutral any more. And you can only be for us if you are for fixing the problems I’ve listed in the last paragraph. Answering such a question gives consistent results in Germany (AdF), France (Le Pen), Britain (Brexit), Spain (Catalonia), Britain (Scotland), Austria, Hungary and Poland.
My two cents of comment.
The Scottish Independence referendum took place on 18 September 2014.
One of the key, fundamental political questions in today’s globalising world is the extent to which you want centralised, shared, decision making or you prefer local, flexible decisions, close to the people. In many ways this is the new left-right spectrum, more important than wealth, income, attitudes to regulation or state spending.
There are arguments for both: as stated here, centralised authority makes it easier to stand up to multi – nationals or global elitists. It is also easier to deal with global threats, be it climate change, migration or nuclear proliferation.
The counter argument is local decisions can be more flexible, more responsive, more culturally coherent and, yes, more democratic.
As with all such debates, there are good arguments on both sides.
However, articles like these are profoundly negative because rather than seeking to engage in debate they demonise the opposition. Let’s reject that approach.
Brexit is a result of the EU. It doesn’t matter how we voted in EU elections we got exactly the same at the EU level. Our government simply rubber stamped the flood of law being passed down from the EU without any debate in the Houses of Parliament. Sure there was debate but it may as well have been in the Pub because it was being passed regardless of the debate.
To me Brexit is all about democracy, I couldn’t care less if I end up poorer what I want is for my vote to make a difference when I go to vote. If democracy delivers an Idiot like Jeremy Corbyn then so be it the kids that vote for him will see what we saw in the 1970’s with bodies un buried, Rubbish piles up in the streets, 3 days weeks, no bread & sugar in the shops but at least we will have democracy & along will come another Margaret Thatcher.
To make the EU worse we are subsidising our competitors the people that live off our taxpayers share no affinity with us they don’t thank us, they don’t appreciate our money they just looks at us as a ATM that just keeps on giving.
“Our government simply rubber stamped the flood of law being passed down from the EU”
Anyone who believes the government just “rubber stamps” EU laws needs to learn how the process actually works. The laws are decided in the Council of Ministers (where the UK is one of the largest three players) and the European Parliament (where the UK has one of the largest contingents of MEPs). That’s the whole point in this system, EU states come together and make joint laws, not that some “EU bureaucrat” dictates a bunch of laws governments are powerless to stop.
What I find worrying isn’t that you believe this, but that you’re actually saying you’d be happy to make yourself and everyone around you poorer just to get rid of this supposed problem that doesn’t actually exist. How can you be so liberal with every UK citizen’s future prosperity without actually bothering to learn how the system you’re complaining about works in the first place? I know you will just ignore this and brush it under the carpet, but I challenge you. Go read a textbook on how the EU’s legislative process works, or an online guide from a neutral source, and if your opinion is still the same then at least it will allow you to make a more informed argument than what you’ve presented here.
Martin Balder: You might have added that the EU Parliament, being elected by various forms of proportional representation, may well reflect more closely the opinions of the British people generally more accurately than the UK government and parliament of the time elected, as they are,on an FPTP basis. Consider e.g. the positions of these bodies on air pollution in cities for example.