Brexit and Catalonia: The Myths of Nationalism

Apart from a media report earlier this morning claiming that Theresa May's Cabinet are due to set out a concrete customs plan for when Britain properly breaks away from the EU, progress towards reaching an accord with the European mammoth organisation has been mostly stagnant. Admittedly, there was a period of hype earlier last year when the Prime Minister rejoiced at the prospect of Britain striking bilateral deals with industrial powerhouses, such as Japan, but this was quickly downplayed by the corporate giants, who warned the Japanese Prime Minister that a hard Brexit would not be desirable given that the European Union houses a gargantuan market with ripe opportunities for business. Following on from my first Brexit article, which touched upon the issue of nationalism and imperialist nostalgia that partly fueled the vote, in this piece, I shall be discussing the myths of the chauvinism inherent in both the Brexit vote and the Catalonian crisis, with a greater focus on the former. 

Last week, it became clear that not much progress had been made on a Brexit deal, with Donald Tusk decrying the fact that the "most difficult issues" had still not be resolved or even marginally discussed, and that progress needed to be quick if there was any agreement to be reached by October. Judging from recent comments made by various officials representing the European Union, it is becoming clearer and clearer by the minute that Britain has been acting quite superficially towards the matter. The plainest evidence for this is, quite frankly, the absence of news reports that would offer an insight into the ins and outs of May's Cabinet's modus operandi. What does this mean for the future of Britain's divorce from the European Union? Wouldn't the hard-line Brexiteers who so fervently desired to be free from the clutches of the evil European behemoth prioritise the divorce above all else? Together with May's courting of various superpowers last year, it seems to me that negotiations with the EU have taken a backseat, which could be self-destructive given the ample time that is needed to conduct thorough talks on extremely sensitive matters. Or perhaps, Britain has come to realise that it shot itself in both feet two summers ago and, quite frankly, does not know how to proceed. Going by current trends, it appears that the present government is quite disoriented. So, simply put, did the ardent nationalism behind the Leave campaign actually pay off? 

To put things into greater perspective, it is pertinent to point out the ideological similarities that drove both the Brexit vote and the vote for Catalonian independence. In the case of the latter, the Spanish Prime Minister, Mariano Rajoy, committed a major blunder by using violence in order to prevent the occurrence of a referendum in Catalonia, for an ordinary referendum would most likely have resulted in a similar outcome to the Scottish referendum four years ago. As a consequence, there is now great friction between the Spanish and Catalan camps, all of which could have been avoided if Rajoy had not demonstrated a heavy dose of dogmatism and vehement chauvinism that rivaled that of the Brexiteers. As a result of Rajoy's stupidity, the separatists have now been given a reason to break away from Spain: the startling images of police officers in riot gear mercilessly hitting young voters gives off the impression of individuals being oppressed merely for expressing their opinion. However, the argument that Catalans are an oppressed people could not be much further from reality. As a matter of fact, the Catalans are free to structure their own educational system as they please and may communicate in their own language. Furthermore, not only is Catalonia the most prosperous region of Spain, it is also free from obstacles in what regards its cultural development. Therefore, the image of an oppressed people is jocular.

Much like the nationalism that decided Brexit, Catalonian nationalism is fueled by the same myths. The first such common myth linking the two cases is that there exists an external enemy, an outsider who is trying to impose its will on its subordinates at any cost. For the Brexiteers, these are EU authorities like the European Court of Justice and the European Commission. For the Catalan separatists, the archenemy is the Spanish government, who is violently oppressing the unheard voices of disenfranchised Catalans. The second of such myths is that people who advocate independence have a clearly defined national identity. Usually in such campaigns, politicians are urged to listen to the vox populi, of which there can only be one, thus meaning that there is no room for individuality. Consequently, those who oppose Brexit are not true patriots. 

The third and final myth, and arguably the most misguided of them all, is that independence will generate a never-before-seen economic boom. It follows that when the sovereigns "take back control", they will be in possession of the tools necessary to forge their own economic future. This is the argument that has been vociferously conveyed by the likes of Boris Johnson and, to echo my opening statement, has manifested itself in the UK Prime Minister's courtships of various economic spearheads last year, namely the United States, Japan and China. The bottom line is that upon formally exiting the European Union, Britain will gleefully strike bilateral deals with numerous countries, thus leading to unparalleled economic flourishing. A similar argument is being echoed within Catalan circles advocating independence.

However, unlike all of the above, the truth of the matter is that globalisation, which is arguably at its peak currently, undermines any traditional notion of national sovereignty. Let us take current trends in international commerce as a prime example: international trade nowadays is not so much influenced by tariffs as it is by non-tariffs. Large and powerful bodies decide upon the standards that ought to govern all forms of business transaction and commerce more generally. Right now, it can be ascertained that there are three such bodies: the United States of America, the European Union, and China. Consequently, the role of other countries in this decision-making process is virtually non-existent. By exiting the European Union, Great Britain will have gained sovereignty only formally, whereas its real sovereignty will have declined. 

Thus is highlighted the paradox of contemporary nationalism, which should more appropriately be labelled chauvinism: when nationalists seek formal sovereignty for their country, what they in fact achieve is an erasure of real sovereignty. By formally "taking back control", they end up with less control. Of course, one could argue that a country which holds a powerful army equates to a powerful sovereign, and that may have been the case 200 years ago. Nowadays, what delineates a sovereign's power is how well it influences global markets. We do not live in an age of war, in which conquest is literally achieved by physical force; we live in an age in which conquest is achieved by market domination. Henceforth, while nationalists may pride themselves in the might of the British Army, which did indeed establish Britain as a world power in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, it is far from what legitimises a modern powerful sovereign.

Furthermore, the use of the term "Brexit" completely neglects the complex structure of the United Kingdom. For example, quite ironically, while Brexit has revived and nourished nationalism in England, it has also severely undermined the Conservative project to preserve unionism throughout the state. The larger commitment to a united kingdom has been overshadowed and substituted by a much closer identification with the numerous nationalities pertaining to the UK.

The drive behind the European Union, that of creating an integrated federal Europe, which was itself based on post-nationalist, if not anti-nationalist inclinations, led to a successful transformation of the political environment and the way diplomacy, policy-making and statecraft were defined. This was justified by the desire of many to replace the often destructive competition between European states with sets of accords that would weave a web of inter-dependency. That said, this project has been negatively politicised due to the reactionary nature of many nationalists vis-a-vis sovereignty, which appears to be alarming given the promise of a federal Europe. As a result, it was only expected that such stances would emerge soon after the implementation of said project. 

However, I do not see how economic inter-dependency actually affects national identity, if we are to define the latter by history, culture, an social norms. After all, while it was part of the Union, Britain got to keep the pound sterling, itself a symbol of national pride. To me, the arguments from the Brexiteers are, if not just naive, based on imperialist nostalgia, which is itself a form of delirium, and a negative reaction to globalisation. When comparing the two campaigns, it is blatantly clear that one was based on sentimentality as opposed to reason, while the other was based on facts. The nationalism of the modern age is very much reactionary, rather than progressive, its source being far-flung myths that are contrary to reality. 


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