What do Brexit and the Catalan crisis have in common?

From the hammer blow of Brexit to turbulence in Catalonia, new forms of nationalism are testing the relevance and unity of the European Union, analysts say.

What do Brexit and the Catalan crisis have in common?
Photo: AFP

The crisis in Spain served as a stark reminder of the fault lines that run through Europe, with a country's central government battling a region whose leaders want to break away.

In Britain, the cry for sovereignty brought 17.4 million people to the polls to vote for Brexit in June 2016.

Campaigners also played on anger about having to fund the EU — arguing that it imposed bureaucratic rules from afar and prevented the country from engaging with the rest of the world.

In Catalonia, emotional arguments dating back to the Franco dictatorship combined with economic issues to fuel calls for independence.   

“The nationalists understood that in developed and prosperous regions, you can no longer simply appeal to the idea of historic oppression,” said Bruno Yammine, a Belgium-based historian.

 “Economic arguments have now legitimised cultural and ethnic nationalism, especially by renouncing fiscal solidarity with poorer regions,” he added.

'Thirst for local democracy'

The “Brexiteers” argued that money currently being paid by London to the EU would be better spent on the public health service, despite their financial figures being hotly disputed.

In Barcelona, “there was the idea of a Catalonia that could be an international platform within the framework of the EU, a North American style of platform that could bring additional growth,” said Andres de Blas Guerrero, a political scientist at Spain's National University of Distance Education.

Other sentiments seized on by populist nationalists include the threat of immigration to national identity and a rejection of elites.    

For Renaud Thillaye, European Affairs analyst at Flint Global in London, a management consultancy, the success of nationalism is linked “on the one hand to corruption and the discrediting of traditional parties, and the thirst for more local democracy.

“On the other hand, there is a need for cultural anchoring around a common language and heritage at a time when everything is moving very fast and the artificial character of nation states is all the more apparent.”

Against this backdrop, nationalists have been able to paint supra-national bodies such as the EU as instruments of globalisation, which they blame for reinforcing the domestic wealth gap and testing national solidarity.

Separatist risk 'theoretical'

Thillaye said the EU wants to avoid the proliferation of states at all costs and is doing everything possible to discourage independence movements, whether it be in Scotland, Catalonia or Corsica, who may at one point have seen the EU as an ally in their fight against the central state.

The EU sided with Spain in the Catalan crisis and refused Scotland's demand for a separate status after Brexit.   

Bruno Yammine said this demonstrated that the danger posed by Catalan nationalism, and by extension all nationalist movements within the member states, is more than theoretical.

“No state wants a proliferation of separatism, since almost every European country has minorities of its own, some of whose leading figures have nationalist aspirations.”

'Unstable' Europe

Europe has so far resisted the shock of Brexit.   

The eurozone has been spared any financial instability linked to the move since Britain is not a member.

The tortuous nature of the Brexit negotiations may deter other member states considering leaving.

But nationalist tensions are “not about to disappear,” warned Thillaye.   

“The countries that will not be able to find an outlet for these demands risk being plunged into serious trouble, as we see in Catalonia.”   

For Matthew Goodwin, political scientist at the University of Kent, Europe's political systems “have never before been so unstable, with record levels of vote-switching and a loss of support for the mainstream”.

The value-divide between nationalists and cosmopolitans is “becoming as important as the traditional divide between left and right,” he said.   

The performance of anti-elite, eurosceptic and populist parties in next year's elections in Italy, Hungary and Sweden will be an acid test of the scale of the challenge facing the EU.

By Florence Biedermann / AFP


Brexit: Brits in EU feel European and don’t want to return home

The majority of Britons who live in the EU, Norway, Iceland or Switzerland and are protected under the Brexit agreement feel European and intend to remain in Europe permanently, but many have concerns about travel problems, a new survey reveals.

Brexit: Brits in EU feel European and don't want to return home

The research also shows that problems exist and “travel is where most issues relating to the new status currently occur”. For instance, border officials are still stamping passports of UK citizens with residence rights under the EU UK withdrawal agreement, even though they shouldn’t.

“There is constant confusion around passport stamping. I was ‘stamped in’ to France on a short trip… but could not find anyway to be ‘stamped out’ again. I think I can only spend 90 days in other EU countries, but have no idea how anyone can check or enforce that – until someone decides to try. It’s a mess,” was one of the answers left in an open question.

“Every time I go through a Schengen border control, I need to provide both my passport and Aufenthaltstitel card [resident permit in Germany] and watch to check that they don’t stamp my passport. As I am currently travelling a lot that’s been 20-odd times this year…” another respondent said.

The survey was carried out by Professor Tanja Bueltmann, historian of migration and diaspora at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, between October and November 2022. About 1,139 UK citizens replied.

Of these, 80 per cent found acquiring their new status easy or very easy, 60.7 per cent feel their rights are secure, while 39.3 per cent have concerns about their status going forward.

Staying permanently

More than three quarters (76.6 per cent) of respondents said they plan to live permanently in the EU or the other countries of the European Economic Area and Switzerland. In fact, 65.7 per cent said that Brexit has increased the likelihood of this choice.

For some, the decision is linked to the difficulty to bring non-British family members to the UK under new, stricter immigration rules.

“My German wife and I decided we no longer wanted to live in UK post Brexit referendum. In particular, we were affected by the impact of immigration law […] We cannot now return to UK on retirement as I cannot sponsor her on my pension. We knew it was a one-way journey. Fortunately, I could revive an application for German citizenship,” was a testimony.

“My husband is a US citizen and getting him a visa for the UK was near impossible due to my low income as a freelance journalist. We realized under EU law, moving to an EU country was easier. We settled on Austria as we had both lived there before… we could speak some German, and we like the mountains,” said another respondent.

Professor Bueltmann noted that the loss of free movement rights in the EU could be a factor too in the decision of many to stay where they are.

Citizenship and representation

Among those who decided to stay, 38.2 per cent are either applying or planning to apply for a citizenship and 28.6 per cent are thinking about it.

A key finding of the research, Bueltmann said, is that the vast majority of British citizens do not feel politically represented. Some 60 per cent of respondents said they feel unrepresented and another 30 per cent not well represented.

Another issue is that less than half (47.5 per cent) trust the government of their country of residence, while a larger proportion (62 per cent) trust the European Union. Almost all (95.6 per cent) said they do not trust the UK government.

Feeling European

The survey highlights the Brexit impacts on people’s identity too. 82.6 per cent of respondents said they see themselves as European, a higher proportion than those identifying as British (68.9 per cent).

“Brexit has really left me unsure of what my identity is. I don’t feel British, and I certainly don’t identify with the mindset of a lot of British people who live there. Yet, I am not Danish either. So, I don’t really know anymore!” said one of the participants in the survey.

Professor Bueltmann said the survey “demonstrates that Brexit impacts continue to evolve: this didn’t just stop because the transition period was over or a deadline for an application had been reached. Consequently, Brexit continues to shape the lives and experiences of British citizens in the EU/EEA and Switzerland in substantial, sometimes life-altering, ways.”

Considering the results of the study, Professor Bueltmann recommends policy makers in the EU and the UK to address the issue of lack of representation, for instance creating a joint UK-EU citizens’ stakeholder forum.

The report also recommends the UK government to rebuild trust with British citizens in the EU introducing voting rights for life and changing immigration rules to allow British-European families to return more easily. 

This article was prepared in cooperation with Europe Street News.