Catalonia Independence And Brexit – Not The Same Thing

Catalan Catalunya president Carles Puigdemont speech - declaration of independence

The Catalan declaration of independence does not prove your point, whether you are for or against Brexit

There has been an inevitable tendency among many people to co-opt the events surrounding the recent Catalan independence referendum and resulting declaration of independence from Spain for their own distinct purposes. This is unhelpful. Recent events in Spain illuminate Brexit little more than the election of Donald Trump explains Brexit – in other words, a few headline similarities obscure a wealth of differences.

First, we can all acknowledge that Spain hugely mishandled the entire affair. Whether this is partly due to weaker institutions and the less embedded traditions of democracy in Spain or just sheer incompetence on the part of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy’s government is not fully clear to me, but the actions of the Spanish government clearly fuelled rather than defused the situation.

Rajoy should have learned from the UK’s experience with the Scottish independence referendum of 2014. Faced with Scottish separatists with similar delusions of statehood, David Cameron called the bluff of the Scottish National Party. The referendum was held on fair terms and the nationalists lost – despite an awfully dreary and uninspiring “No” campaign which pushed an entirely negative message and had little positive to say about the value of the United Kingdom. And though this led to the rise of Nicola Sturgeon and the arrival of the Tartan Tea Party of SNP MPs in Westminster after the 2015 general election, the nationalist tide has since receded.

Madrid took a different approach, opposing the referendum at every turn. I can’t speak to the legality of the constitutional court’s decision to ban the referendum, but the violent way in which it was put down by the police and Guardia Civil handed the separatists a huge and unnecessary propaganda victory. I can fully believe that the Catalan regional government has behaved reprehensibly and childishly throughout, but a mature national government in Madrid would have handled this in a way which took the sting out of the Catalan independence movement, putting it to bed for a generation. Mariano Rajoy achieved the exact opposite.

The decision of former Catalan president Carles Puigdemont to proceed with a declaration of independence, as ratified by the Catalan parliament, was opportunistic, antidemocratic and immature. Yes, the referendum was violently put down by the Spanish authorities. But the referendum was also deemed illegal  in the first place by the proper Spanish courts, and many of those who would have voted against independence did not go to the polls. To take this botched referendum as a mandate for independence is a huge overstepping of Puigdemont’s authority, and is fundamentally antidemocratic.

Simultaneously, Spain has been far too laid back in dealing with this threat. It was shocking enough that it took until the days before the Scottish independence referendum for anti-independence campaigners to hold a mass rally in London in support of the United Kingdom – but at least it happened. Spain waited until days after the unilateral declaration of Catalonian independence to hold a similar rally in Barcelona. Where was this public outrage and shows of loyalty to Madrid when Carles Puigdemont was prancing around acting like the living embodiment of all Catalan public opinion? It is hard to attribute this to anything but laziness on the part of the citizenry. As he left the US constitutional convention in 1787, Benjamin Franklin told an enquirer that he had bequeathed the American people “a Republic, if you can keep it“. At times, the Spanish seemed too lazy to make much of an effort to keep theirs.

How does all of this tangentially relate to Brexit? In one sense, Brexiteers can draw some basic parallels to Catalan independence. Both are primarily cultural movements consisting of people who do not accept the legitimacy of the larger political entity which they seek to leave. But the British EU referendum was conducted under the rule of law and its outcome was legitimate. One can raise valid points about the precise mode of Brexit being unstated and the lack of a plan on the part of the official Leave campaign – all true. But the instruction from voters to the UK government to commence secession from the political entity known as European Union was clear. In the case of Catalonian independence, not so. In many cases, the Catalan government behaved provocatively and with great immaturity. These are not smart, measured people whom anybody should seek to drape their arms around.

But there is also a contradiction at the heart of the Catalonian separatist movement. Both in Catalonia and Scotland, advocates for independence seek to leave the political purview of Madrid and Westminster respectively, but remain very much part of the European Union. In doing so they engage in a feat of denial and political fancy which exceeds that of the most ignorant of Hard Brexiteers. Leaving Spain means Catalonia leaving the EU, just as leaving the United Kingdom inevitably meant Scotland leaving the EU when Scotland voted back in 2014. In both cases, separatists sought to downplay or even deny this truth. Carles Puigdemont and his followers need to accept this difficult fact if they are to be remotely taken seriously. But they do not accept reality, just as the SNP refused to accept reality.

It is also curious that the separatists are so desperate to escape the clutches of Madrid (one protester today said that Catalonians were currently “oppressed” by Spain) but are entirely comfortably – even eager – to remain under the authority of Brussels, and inevitably as a much smaller and less influential member state were they to be readmitted. I would very much like to read an argument explaining how modern Spain suppresses Catalonian culture and freedom in a way that the EU would not. As an independent country and small EU member state, Catalonia would be much less able to influence EU policymaking than Spain is currently able to do. They would be in an infinitely weaker position to defend and advance Catalonian national interest.

And yet if this is still the choice of the Catalonian people they should be free to make it – through a lawful, democratic and legitimate referendum. If they do so, it will be a clearly cultural and constitutional decision, just as Brexit was. This doesn’t automatically mean that it is the “wrong” decision – it would simply mean that as with Brexit, some things matter more than short term political and economic stability. This is an argument which I have strongly made about Brexit, and which could hold true for Catalonian independence too. If the people of Catalonia genuinely feel that Madrid is hostile to their own interests then they should have the right to secede from Spain and take the consequences and potential benefits upon themselves. I supported Brexit because I do not feel that our cultural affinity to Europe – our sense of ourselves as part of a cohesive European demos – warrants as powerful and extensive a government as we currently have in Brussels. If Catalonians feel the same about Spain then so be it.

But if nothing else good comes from this turmoil in Spain, hopefully it will disabuse separatists throughout Europe of the childlike, naive notion that Brussels is their friend, and that the European Union in any way cares about their freedom or right to self-determination. It most assuredly does not. The European Union has its own journey – toward greater political integration and centralisation – to pursue. Brexit is enough of a bump in the road for EU leaders; they have no desire to see Europe fragmenting further at a time when they are trying to busily absorb everyone into the grand project, even as their undermining of established member states fuels these separatist movements.

Besides that, this is an internal matter for Spain to deal with. One might plausibly consider taking sides from a personal perspective had the referendum been conducted legally under terms agreed by both sides, or if the Catalan government could make an irrefutable case that no further dialogue with Spain was possible for the redress of their grievances. But in the absence of these mitigating factors we ought to refrain from jumping into a foreign debate purely to score cheap political points about matters in our own country.

The Catalan independence movement is not like Brexit, as anybody who supported the continuation of the United Kingdom in 2014 and Brexit in 2017 should have the humility to accept. No matter how low your opinion of Nigel Farage, Aaron Banks and Dominic Cummings may be, they did not press ahead with an unlawful referendum and claim (quite) such an implausible mandate from it. And whatever constitutional vandalism the UK government is currently engaged in as it seeks to implement Brexit is nothing to the constitutional vandalism currently being perpetrated in Spain.

At its core, Brexit is about securing the continued relevance and autonomy of the nation state (at least until such time as public opinion shifts more definitively in favour of the kind of supranational government offered by the European Union). And that means keeping our personal opinions about Catalan opinions quite distinct from any other political agenda.


Catalonia is not Spain - declaration of independence flag

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Gibraltar Brexit Fears Are False, But Remainers Are Right: Our Foreign Policy Clout Has Atrophied Within The EU

Brexit - Gibraltar - EU Referendum - Philip Hammond - FCO

The government’s case for remaining in the European Union is based on an unedifying, unpatriotic and false misrepresentation of Britain’s supposed weakness and vulnerability as an independent country. But there is a small, disturbing element of truth to the Foreign Office’s scaremongering claims

One theme which has emerged consistently throughout the EU referendum debate is the degree to which the British government’s ability to conduct an independent economic, trade and foreign policy has atrophied through over-reliance on the European Union to manage our affairs.

This is primarily seen in the debate on trade – the future lies with the slowly emerging and hugely promising global single market, but on this most critical of issues, Britain has simply outsourced our own decision-making ability by vesting it in the EU.

To prosper in this globalised world, Britain should be exercising our full influence on key global bodies such as UNECE, Codex Alimentarius, the ILO, IMO and others, but since we allow the European Union to speak for us and interpret rules made by these bodies on our behalf, Britain’s ability to argue our own national interest has gradually withered through lack of practice.

We see the same corrosive forces at work in foreign policy. Nearly every pro-Remain intervention made by the hapless Foreign Secretary, Philip Hammond, has served to reveal not only his own incompetence in the role, but also the Foreign & Commonwealth Office’s growing inability to robustly defend British interests outside the context of being an EU member state.

The latest example:

Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond has angered Brexit campaigners by claiming a vote to leave the European Union would put British sovereignty over Gibraltar at risk.

His shocking comments came in a joint warning with Gibraltar’s chief minister today, which has led to accusations of scaremongering from the out campaign.

The Rock’s Fabian Picardo even said the prospect of Spain wrestling back at least partial control of the Mediterranean island would be “back on the table” if the UK opts to leave the Brussels union next month.

His stark warning risks being seen as another example of the pro-EU camp’s Project Fear and comes as Mr Hammond visits Gibraltar to discuss security threats to the British Overseas Territory.

On his first official visit to the Rock since taking up the post in 2014, the Foreign Secretary said: “I genuinely believe that the threat of leaving the European Union is as big a threat to Gibraltar’s future security and Gibraltar’s future sovereignty as the more traditional threats that we routinely talk about.”

As is always the case with those on the Remain side, Hammond speaks as though Britain is entirely without agency, a passive blob to be moulded and shaped by outside forces rather than a powerful global player in our own right.

And yet there is some truth in Hammond’s pessimism. Having acted primarily through the European Union for so long, and with the EU’s Federica Mogherini a better known voice on the world stage than our own Foreign Secretary, it could almost be the case that Britain’s ability to wield our clout and influence on the world stage has atrophied to such an extent that the FCO is genuinely no longer capable of preventing foreign interference with a British Overseas Territory.

This is what the EU does. This is the modus operandi of Brussels – gradually assuming more and more of the day-to-day governing from national governments, until one day, quite unexpectedly, the national layer of government finds that it no longer has the technical capability or willpower to function on its own. But the answer is not to throw our hands up in acceptance of this state of affairs, or play the hopeless part of an insect stuck in a Venus flytrap. The answer is to extricate ourselves, and re-learn those skills and competencies which we shamefully allowed to lapse during our failed flirtation with supra-national government.

Pete North puts it best:

George Osborne has said of Brexit re-negotiations: “If we leave EU, the House of Commons is going to be doing nothing else for many, many years”. He’s right. The government will have to govern. It’s going to take years to undo the damage. We are going to take years rebuilding our domestic expertise and design new policy. The whole Whitehall establishment will have to be re-ordered and redesigned. The Foreign Office will have to get busy doing what they should have been doing for the last forty years.

We are going to have to have serious debates about fisheries management. We are going to have to rethink our rural policy. We are going to have to take a very close look at our energy policy. We will need a serious debate about foreign aid, immigration and trade. We are going to have to rethink the way we do nearly everything. Leaving the EU means rebuilding our capacity for self-government and we will have to muddle through that process, kicking out the failures as we go.

What it does mean is that we are not bound by EU directives and targets which means we are free to innovate in policy making – which means we may actually see some change because ministers are then responsible. The buck stops with them rather than idly shrugging their shoulders and saying “the EU made me do it”.

And furthermore, as this blog pointed out the last time our Foreign Secretary decided to be a spokesperson for Brussels instead of his own country:

If Hammond’s words are to be taken seriously, it means that he has presided over the worst diplomatic failure in recent British history – namely the failure of a declared nuclear power, as well as a leading military, economic and cultural power, to command such respect on the world stage as might survive us leaving a supranational arrangement which we no longer believe works in our favour. Is that really what the Foreign Secretary wants to tell the British people?

Europhiles and Remainers can’t decide whether Brussels is friend or frenemy; whether the other EU member states are dear friends who would be sorry to see us go, or bitter rivals who would seek to punish Britain for rejecting their vision of a politically unified Europe.

Is the European Union a cuddly, benign club of countries coming together to trade peaceably, or a snarling mob waiting to inflict “punishment beatings” and infringe on our sovereign territory if we cross them?

It’s about time that Remainers made up their minds.


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Defending Gibraltar

It is irking see the Conservatives so publicly and comprehensively outmanoeuvred by Labour recently on a variety of issues, most recently related to education and welfare. To witness the same thing now happen in the sphere of foreign policy is yet another worrying sign that the Conservative-led coalition government is coasting at this point, perhaps made complacent by the recent uptick in economic indicators, and taking their eye off the ball.

The Telegraph reports that Gareth Thomas, the Labour shadow minister for Europe, has raised concerns that Britain is not doing enough to forcefully push back against recent Spanish misbehaviour with regard to Gibraltar:

Gibraltar is a territory “under siege” and Spain should be made to account for its actions in relation to The Rock, the shadow minister for Europe has said.

Gareth Thomas, the Labour MP for Harrow West, said that residents of Gibraltar were concerned that Britain was not doing enough to defend them from Spanish harassment. The past 12 months have seen the highest ever number of incursions by Spanish ships into Gibraltar’s waters, with the almost double the incidents from 2012.

“I was struck by the sense that the Gibraltarians have of being under siege,” said Mr Thomas, who visited Gibraltar in November. “Spanish ships are coming into their waters on a regular basis.”

We have seen this before. The leaders of countries that are in the doldrums, facing economic malaise and restive populations (hi, Argentina), suddenly dredging up ancient grievances against Britain. Grievances that were once dead and buried during happier economic times. If you are going to make the case that the absence of the Falkland Islands or Gibraltar is like a gaping hole in your respective nation, I would have slightly more sympathy if we didn’t hear your plaintive appeals only during times of economic recession.

I refer you to the Treaty of Utrecht.
I refer you to the Treaty of Utrecht.

This continual harassment of a British overseas territory is unacceptable, and one cannot help but feel that the diplomatic protest by the UK in response has been far too small. Relying on a corrupt body such as the European Commission to mediate the dispute by visiting Gibraltar was clearly never going to be the answer, and why William Hague thought that this option would be sufficient to resolve the situation is mystifying. Diplomatic pressure is clearly failing in this case, and more stringent unilateral action may be required to bring the Spanish back into line. Bullying behaviour tends only to respond to a show of strength, a clear assertion that the bullying will no longer be tolerated.

Of more concern to me, though, is the fact that William Hague, the Foreign Secretary, has failed to make it sufficiently clear that Britain will not tolerate these childish antics. I had not expected someone so competent and capable to drop the ball or fail to forcefully defend the interests of the UK to the extent that he clearly has. Showing forebearance to Spain on the issue of Gibraltar, particularly given the childish means by which the Spanish government chooses to pursue its non-cause, is no longer cute or charming or patient. It’s weak.

Michael Gove on education, Iain Duncan Smith on welfare and now William Hague on foreign policy, all caught napping and hit from the right by their Labour counterparts. I don’t know whether a weekend retreat is in order at one end of the spectrum, or a wide-ranging cabinet reshuffle at the other, but David Cameron urgently needs to get his cabinet to come out of cruise control.

Happy Gibraltar National Day!

Rather than continuing their futile and unwanted efforts to pick off British territories close to their shores, perhaps certain countries should be focusing on more pressing domestic problems much closer to home (a 27% unemployment rate, for example)… Should it not tell these countries and their jingoistic leaders something that despite the potential benefits (and lack of future harassment) that could come from being governed by the country closest to their shores, the Gibraltarians and Falklanders overwhelmingly choose to associate with Britain? That should make certain leaders extreme pause for thought, not go running to the UN.