In the wake of the British right’s successful attempt to remove itself from the European Union, much of the democratic world order skewered the supporters of the campaign for their supposed shortsightedness and undermining of progressive ideals. Now whether or not you think said political persecution was misplaced depends on your personal opinions regarding self-determination and international economics, but what is much less debatable is the massive gulf between how the leaders of said Brexit movement have been treated compared to their ideological compatriots in Catalonia. Now, on the face of it, these two campaigns may seem somewhat different in scope. After all, Brexit was an attempt at destabilizing European order while the Catalonia issue is one of national independence. However, below the surface level, many of the underlying motivations and arguments are more similar than one may think.
Just last week, widespread protests in Barcelona, London and Berlin called for the release of Carlos Puigdemont, the President of Catalonia and de-facto leader of the independencia movement. This is the same Puigdemont who fled to Brussels following October’s independence referendum and who was later detained in Germany where he is currently held. The overall feeling towards Puigdemont among the more left-leaning segments of European (and much of the broader world’s) political society seems to be largely one of solidarity and support. This stands in stark contrast to the critical fortunes of Brexit leaders such as Teresa May and Boris Johnson, who have been crucified by liberal-leaning media outlets for their roles in the independence efforts. The handling of the two issues by the media and the movements’ sympathizers has revealed a certain fundamental level of hypocrisy.
At the end of the day, the true reasons for the Catalan independence movement are economic ones. Puigdemont and his allies are well aware of the fact that by separating from Spain, Catalonia could create its own sovereign tax system. This would mean that rather than sending a percentage of their tax dollars to Madrid (and then on to the more impoverished regions of Spain), Catalonia would get to keep 100 percent of their own tax revenue. As things currently stand, Catalans pay a relatively large portion of the nation’s taxes (since they are also responsible for a relatively large portion of the nation’s wealth). Broadly speaking, these taxes are used to prop up the poorer regions of Spain, such as Extremadura and Andalucía, much as taxes to the EU (which largely come from more developed member states including Germany, France and, yes, the United Kingdom) are used to support poorer members from Eastern and Southern Europe. To further the comparison, it is widely accepted that if Catalonia were to become independent, it would lose its status as an EU member, (as the EU doesn’t want to set a precedent for other potential breakaway states that would lead to further destabilization) essentially creating a “cataloniexit”–esque situation.
Although the similarities between the two campaigns are manifold, the media’s treatment of the two cases has been startlingly divergent. The base reasons for this are that the leaders of the Brexit campaign were up front about their motivations for such a change. Those from Catalonia have not been so transparent. The Catalans knew that to frame the campaign in purely economic terms would be to guarantee its critical demise, so they chose to wrap said concerns in a guise of newfound nationalism and rewritten history. For example, the Catalans have stated that this is a campaign to regain their independence, but even a cursory glance at a Spanish history book will reveal that Catalonia itself has never been an independent state and that the ‘famously autonomous’ Barcelona has been a part of Aragon (which went on to merge with Castile, forming the modern Spanish state) since the 15th century.
Puigdemont & friends similarly state that the Catalan language alone is grounds for autonomy, but this oversimplification fails to acknowledge the fact that Galicia, Andalucía, the Basque country and Valencia all have their own unique dialects and versions of the Spanish language and implies that these regions are less deserving of autonomy. Further, polls indicate that less than 36 percent of Catalans actually use Catalan as their first language (compared to the 51 percent of Catalans who recognize Spanish as their main tongue). These appeals to reclaim a recently invented past have largely served to mask the politicians’ true motivations for independence. Historically speaking, money and power have always been underlying factors in such decisions, and Catalonia is not an exception.
Whether or not Catalan independence and Brexit should be realized is a question that could never be comprehensively addressed in a college newspaper column. However, to frame the two campaigns in such diverging terms is misleading and intellectually dishonest. Belligerent levels of ignorance are required to truly believe that the issue of Catalan independence is not an economic one. However, due to their framing of the conflict as one of history and the oppression of culture, Puigdemont and the rest of the Catalan leadership have managed to put themselves in the good graces of much of the progressive world, despite the clear similarities between themselves and their counterparts from the ‘vote leave’ campaign. It is indicative of a movement whose general appeals and public perception have been as far skewed from reality as those of any other western political crisis in recent memory.
Contact Harrison Hohman at hhohman ‘at’ stanford.edu