"Catalan process is not populist", states Meindert Fennema, expert in European populism

The Emeritus Professor at the University of Amsterdam and political scientist, Meindert Fennema, spoke with the CNA about the Catalan independence process. According to this recognised expert in populism throughout Europe, the "Catalan process is not populist". Fennema emphasised that the origins of European populism and the Catalan independence movement are rooted in different historical contexts, and pointed out that the two have indisputable differences. One great contrast is that "populism started as an anti-immigrant movement", while "for historical reasons, Catalans have always embraced their immigrants". Moreover, the Catalan attitude towards government and the European Union integration is totally different than those adopted in populist stances, he highlighted. Furthermore he asserted that the claims that the Catalan independence process is a populist movement are false.

Meindert Fennema interviewed by the CNA (by A. Casino)
Meindert Fennema interviewed by the CNA (by A. Casino) / ACN


November 27, 2014 11:21 PM

Barcelona (ACN).- The Emeritus Professor at the University of Amsterdam and political scientist, Meindert Fennema, spoke with the CNA about the Catalan independence process. According to this recognised expert in populism throughout Europe, the Catalan process is far from populist, and he explains why such a comparison is false.  Not only are the historical roots of both very different, but while populism "started as an anti immigration movement", "for historical reasons, Catalans have always embraced their immigrants". Moreover, populism is traditionally anti-government and against European Union integration; "a populist would not trust any government, neither Madrid nor the Generalitat (the Catalan Government’s official name)", he emphasised. However, the Catalan independence movement has always been democratic, supportive of granting more powers to the Catalan Government and open to inclusion within Europe.  Dr. Fennema goes onto debunk the myth that the Catalan independence movement is similar to the stance adopted by the French populist and extreme-right party Front National, headed by Marine le Pen; although this is a myth spread by a small minority. The Dutch expert pointed out that given the religious and political differences it is "nonsensical" to say that the Catalan movement looks like Le Pen’s; it is "not true", he insisted. He admits that there are elements of radicalization in Catalonia’s independence movement; however he explains that they represent a small part and they come from the "fringe" aspect of being a cultural and linguistic minority, like that of the Frisian movement in his home country The Netherlands. Finally, he explains why Spain is a more corrupt country than Holland, and how best to fight against corruption today. 

The Catalan process has on many occasions been likened to populist movements by Spanish nationalists, who have even compared it to Nazism. The MEP of the Spanish nationalist UPyD party, Beatriz Becerra, sent a letter on October 8 to the 751 Members of the European Parliament in which she compared the Catalan self-determination process with what happened in "Italy and Germany during the twenties and thirties of the twentieth century." Following this incident the German MEP Ingeborg Grässle, told the CNA that they asked the UPyD MEP for an apology for using an "inappropriate and false" simile and because to "trivialize" Nazism "is a disgrace to victims".

Only a few weeks later the leader of the Catalan Socialist Party (PSC), Miquel Iceta, made a similar comparison regarding the plebiscite elections that the President of the Catalan Generalitat ,Artur Mas, is planning to call as  ‘de facto’ referendum on independence taking into account the Spanish Government’s blocking attitude for a mutually-agreed vote,. According to Iceta, the plebiscite “reminded him” those elections behind the rise of Adolf Hitler in 1933. The PSC leader, however, later corrected this and said that "any comparison with Nazism is not accurate."

These comparisons are inadequate for Fennema and even "ridiculous". According to the Dutch Emeritus Professor, the Catalan independence movement cannot be described as populist, and his first reason is that the two share very different attitudes towards immigration.

"For historical reasons, Catalans have always embraced their immigrants"

While "populism started as an anti immigrant movement" and became later "anti European" with a common ground in "nationalism", the Catalan movement, on the other hand, was pro-immigration. Furthermore, Spain "had always exported labour rather than imported it", making inclusion with Europe advantageous. Fennema points out that "for historical reasons, Catalans have always embraced their immigrants", inducing them to "learn Catalan and become Catalan".  He argues that this "open-minded strategy" to including immigrants within Catalonia is very different to one adopted by a populist movement. He points out it is a mutually-advantageous relationship, given that "the biggest enemy of Catalonia is Madrid", so any one with a similar attitude "is welcomed”. Moreover from the other perspective, "immigrants would benefit from more independence, because Catalonia is a fairly wealthy nation", and the "rest of Spain is not".

"A populist does not believe in any government, neither Madrid nor the Generalitat"

Not only are the historical roots and attitude to immigrants very different, but the Catalan process is far from populist in its attitude to government. While the Catalan process seeks self-governance, European populism is anti governments of any kind. He admits that "there may be populists in Catalonia" but "most Catalan parties are not populist".

The Catalan process has also been compared to extremist political parties, including that of the French far-right party Front National, led by Marine Le Pen. Dr. Fennema rejects this comparison however, pointing out that to say that because both are "nationalist" does not make them the same, this is a simplistic comparison. "It is very nonsensical to say that since the Catalan movement is a nationalist movement and Le Pen is a nationalist movement", they are similar; "that is not true".  He explains the two movements have different political and religious backgrounds; "actually Catalan nationalism is very republican" unlike the Front National, and while the latter has "very strong catholic roots" in contrast to the Catalan movement.

If anything, the Catalan process is better compared to one of an ethnic minority, and he uses the Frisians of his home country The Netherlands as an example. "The Frisians have always had a good contact with the Catalans", according to the Dutch Emeritus Professor, as both are "a cultural minority". While there may be "elements of radicalization" in both, he feels this to be a "fringe aspect" and represent a minority within these movements.

European populists are "ethnic nationalists" opposed to the"transfer of power to Brussels"

Fennema identifies European populists as being "ethnic nationalists" who want to close their borders to immigration, and do not want their nation to "transfer power to Brussels". This is unlike what is happening in Catalonia, which has an open stance towards immigration and wants to increase European political and economic integration. This definition fits more the attitudes of parties such as the Front National, or the UKIP party of Nigel Farage in the UK, which share similar views regarding immigration and corruption policies. For Fennema, and other experts in the field, such as Sarah de Lange and Sjoerdje van Heerden, authors of the book 'Not that different after all: radical right parties and voters in Western Europe', it is a mistake to simply warn the public of the dangers of such attitudes, what is needed is to understand why they are gaining popularity and now they are being treated as "normal". Another dangerous consequence of this, the experts point out, is that as the right-wing becomes more mainstream, the centre parties are being pushed into more radical policies in order to maintain the balance.

Regarding their presence in the EU, UKIP, (which has representation in the British parliament) is in the Europe of Freedom and Democracy group in the European Parliament, shared with the Italian Five Stars Movement, led by David Borelli. This October, the Euro-sceptics were about to lose their place when a MEP left, leaving them short of the 7 members of different countries required for representation. In the end however, the position was maintained when Polish MEP Robert Jaroslaw Iwaszkiewicz joined his party with those of Farage and Borrelli. However, Marine Le Pen did not join and she simply shares an operational budget with a few other MEPs.

Spain "was always focused on becoming a part of Europe"

Fennema recalls that the particularities of Spain mean that the profiles of the Front National or UKIP cannot be applied to Spanish parties. This is both because Spain "was always focused on becoming a part of Europe", and also because unlike England and France, it has "always been a country which exported labour rather than imported it".  Moreover, the very different history makes the two incomparable; the experience of the Civil War and Franco’s dictatorship were key to preventing the rise of populism in Spain, said the Emeritus Professor, "because the Spaniards do not want any other kind of extremism". He concludes that while the "Partido Popular [People’s Party] is a legacy of Francoism, yet it has always behaved democratically", though "not always completely" he adds.

"Corruption is stronger in Spain... because in Holland we have stronger institutions"

The rise of populism could be explained by citizens losing confidence due to corruption increasingly leading states. In conclusion, Dr. Fennema compared corruption within Spain and his national Holland. In his opinion, strong institutions are key: there is more corruption in Spain, "not because Spanish people are worse or more immoral than Dutch people" but because "in Holland we have stronger institutions". The expert from the University of Amsterdam believes it is through "checks and balances" that we must lead the way forward, to "struggle against corruption by establishing strong institutions that check each other".