Marlene Wind became famous in Spain for exposing Puigdemont in a talk in Copenhagen. In her new book, she points to Catalonia as an example of the populist threat
The new book by Marlene Wind.
05/13/2019 05:00 – Updated: 05/13/2019 18:02
Marlene Wind (Skive, Denmark, 1963) is Professor of Political Science and Director of the European Policy Center at the University of Copenhagen. Specialist in European mediation, she received the Women of Europe award in 2009 as one of the leading specialists in that field. In Spain, her face became famous on January 22, 2018. That day, at the University of Copenhagen, subjected Carles Puigdemont to one of the greatest discursive ridicules suffered by the ‘ex-president’ in his journey through the various European institutions in which he has given talks about the independence of Catalonia. The Professor threw a battery of uncomfortable questions which Puigdemont, surprised, dodged as he could.
Wind publishes now in Spain the essay ‘The Tribalization of Europe’ (Espasa), in which she identifies identity populism as one of the great global trends and, at the same time, one of the greatest dangers for democracy and the rule of law. Catalonia occupies in the successive pages of the essay a fundamental role as paradigm of tribalization of a society, together with Hungary and the United Kingdom.
QUESTION. In the first paragraph of the book you already put the cards on the table about Catalonia. You refer to the independence movement as “populist movement”.
ANSWER. You only have to see how they act. They use the same tactics we see in other identity populisms, that is: use of the media, simplification of complex issues, use of tricks to get the attention of the press, and also that way of singling out as a special people with a culture superior to the Spanish one. It is the classic rhetoric of “them against us” based on simplistic slogans, typical of regimes such as Hungary. Even that obsession to hold referendums to listen to the voice of the people as the essence of democracy. Who are the people, only the ones who vote? It is populism as described in handbooks.
Who are the people, only those who vote in a referendum? It is populism as described in handbooks.
Q. That description does not coincide exactly with the high democratic and progressive values they proclaim in Catalonia.
A. I know. It is really a paradox, but it is a very deliberate tactic. The Catalan independence movement needs international support to have some success, and for that it has to convince in Europe. The problem is that if you take its rhetoric and compare it with its facts, it does not hold up. How could they embrace the European integration project if they are not even capable of embracing the common Spanish project? That is the question that many Europeans ask themselves. The rhetoric of the Catalan independence movement is pure contradiction and people in Europe are realizing it.
Q. In Catalonia you will be told that they have been reaching out to Spain for 40 years and they have grown tired of the fact that the response is looting and oppression.
A. Maybe it was true during Franco’s dictatorship, but that is already history. Spain is today a very decentralized country in which the autonomies decide on many aspects such as the education system, culture and the media. Catalonia was surely oppressed during the dictatorship, but I can hardly believe that this is the case today.
Their obsession about the Denmark of the South is a bit weird. Only because of their lack of solidarity with the rest of Spain, this comparison is invalidated
Q. You are Danish. Surely you know that Catalan leaders like to say that Catalonia will be the Denmark of the South when it is independent. What do you think?
A. (Laughter). But they do not say it anymore! [in reference to the scolding Carles Puigdemont did get in his visit to the University of Copenhagen]. That comparison is a bit strange. If they refer to improving the quality of life and the welfare state, Catalans already enjoy very high standards that they have achieved with much effort, it is true, but also thanks to the rest of Spain. The proof is that Catalonia is a privileged place, one of the richest autonomies. Just for the fact that one of the bases of independence is the lack of solidarity with the rest of Spain, with whom they do not want to share their wealth so that they could also become that alleged Denmark of the South, invalidates any comparison with my country. It just seems inappropriate to me.
Q. Maybe they say it because of that very Spanish complex leading them to believe that in Scandinavia everything is much better.
A. It is possible. Although I do not think it is very kind on the part of the Catalans to distinguish themselves from the rest of Spain by saying that they are like Scandinavians based on strange arguments. Perhaps they should try to improve the whole of Spain and contribute to the social development instead of trying to be above it.
Q. Does this conflict have a way out?
A. Many things can be done if the dialogue between Madrid and Barcelona is resumed, if communication channels are opened. And here I would like to refer to the many mistakes made by the Spanish Government, particularly the previous one by Mariano Rajoy. From Madrid, the Catalan conflict can be handled much better than what has been done up to now. The communication power of the independence movement has been underestimated, it was a mistake to remain silent for years and not respond to their ‘fake news’ and their distorted stories. The Generalitat has been very clever in propagating that narrative of the oppressed nation, of mistreatment on the part of Madrid. And I’m surprised that Madrid did not do anything about it. The Spanish government has shown that it does not understand how social networks work, how the international media work, has not understood how important it is to tell the world that Spain is a full democracy with a legitimate government which is trying to solve the Catalan conflict as best as it is able to.
Q. The government “has underestimated the communication power of the independence movement, it was a mistake to remain silent for years”.
A. In short, it has been very easy for the pro-independence groups to sell their speech to the international media, which have swallowed their stories without even asking Madrid if that is the case or not. The Government of Pedro Sánchez seems to have understood better that we have to counteract the propaganda, but also reach out for dialogue. You cannot just send the police forces and be quiet and silent. That was the big mistake. I hope for the good of Spain that Pedro Sánchez has learned the lesson.
Q. Many people in Spain criticize the dialogue between the Government and the Generalitat. The meeting in Barcelona between Pedro Sánchez and Quim Torra was interpreted as a betrayal, there are political campaigns that have been based exclusively on rejecting dialogue. The Spaniards do not make it easy either.
A. Criticizing the dialogue with Catalonia is a very immature way of reacting on the part of the rest of Spain. There is the huge growth of Vox. Civilized societies need dialogue. On the separatist side they must lower their weapons, beginning by stopping spreading lies about Spain and abandoning that violent language of making people believe that they live under a dictatorship. In the rest of Spain they have to understand that the only way out is dialogue and negotiation. Nothing will improve if Pedro Sánchez is continually criticized for approaching Catalan politicians. There is no other alternative. All the voices have to be heard, also those of the independents.
Q. The fact that successive governments have allowed Catalonia to take the pro-independence project to the extreme shows that Spain is the most tolerant and receptive country in Europe?, or, on the contrary, it proves that it is a weak country?
A. It is incredible that Spain has allowed the Catalans to do everything they have done. It has shown how dangerous it is not to counteract the populist narrative and remain silent. Already stuck in that dynamic, they should have stayed in the same mood with the referendum. Ignore it, turn your back. The pro-independence segments wanted problems to arise and they succeeded. It was not a serious referendum, with people voting several times and the majority of Catalans staying at home, and even so they managed to transmit to the international media that this was a fight for freedom against the oppression of Madrid. The government should have thought: “If thousands of Catalans want to spend the afternoon voting in a referendum, then very well”. But the opposite happened.
Just allowing Catalonia to develop an education system that makes it difficult to speak Spanish in the classroom is something that would not have happened in any other European country
Q Tribalism drinks from different sources according to the country in which it develops. In your book, you have a particular focus on education in Catalonia.
A. Allowing Catalonia for decades to develop its own education system, in which it is difficult to speak in Spanish in the classrooms, is something that would not have happened in any other European country. It would have been inconceivable. It is very easy to indoctrinate the young generations with separatist feelings if they are not inculcated with a sense of belonging to their country, in this case Spain. I’m not saying that Catalan has to be cornered in school, a beautiful and strong language, but it cannot be the only language of instruction. I do not know how Spain has not insisted all these years on something that for me is fundamental to explain everything that is happening.
Q. The school in Catalan was a concession to the nationalism of Jordi Pujol to purge the sins of Franco’s cultural oppression.
A. It’s fine, but that has to be revised. It seems simply very strange to me that a country which wants to remain united does not insist that the common language be at the same level as Catalan. When you allow Spanish to be reduced to the same number of hours as English, I think you are very far from understanding how important a language is for the unity of a country. I regret that children and young people in Catalan schools do not learn a language as powerful globally as Castilian.
Q. Positive discrimination is precisely the way to protect a minority and oppressed language for centuries against a language as dominant as Castilian. That is the argument used by Catalonia, where it is considered a totally successful policy that has favored social cohesion.
A. It’s a ridiculous argument, let me tell you. Look at all the minority languages of Europe. Today they are even stronger than in previous generations. Culture is not suppressed by European integration or because of the predominant languages. On the contrary, today people speak several languages, their mother tongue and in addition English or French, and they do not feel that their language is oppressed. Catalan will never disappear because Spanish is allowed to enter the school, it is an artificial argument. The Catalan culture has a strong identity with a lot of social penetration within Catalonia. They should not be chauvinists towards those who speak Spanish and who want to live in a united Spain.
Q. You are dealing perhaps with the most emotionally sensitive point of all.
A. I know, and it is the root of all problems. It is difficult to discuss with the Catalans on this subject, they are very sensitive, but we must change the model if we want future generations of Catalans to feel Spain as their own. There is no other place in Europe where that happens. In Switzerland, the cantons teach in their predominant language, but never use that language as a weapon against the unity of the country. On the contrary, the Swiss strive for everyone to handle themselves well in all their official languages. The same in Belgium, where two large minorities speak Flemish and French without using the language as a tool of hatred. All signs and signals are in both languages. Why cannot the same thing happen in Catalonia? Prohibiting labels in Spanish sends a very negative message to the rest of Spain: we do not like each other. It is a message full of hatred and I do not believe that hate will make Europe advance. Look at what happened in the Balkans in the 90s. It is very contradictory to say that you embrace European values when you do not allow to label a business in Spanish. I insist, it seems to me a very chauvinistic way of conserving your culture.
Q. Catalonia has been gasoline in the fire of Vox?
A. Of course it has influenced, but I would not say it is the only reason. The issue of immigration is fundamental. Vox is a phenomenon feeding from several fronts.
Q. If tribalization is the greatest danger to the future of Europe and Catalonia is one of the spearheads of this tribalization, the conclusion seems obvious.
R. The tribal movement is not exclusive to Catalonia, we see it in many parts of Europe. I understand that the Catalan separatists do not like to see themselves in the mirror as tribal people but as a modern and sophisticated and very democratic society. However, to involve political action in cultural identity is tribal. It’s about ‘Hungary only for the Hungarians’, or the Brexit movement that yearns for the old imperial days of the ‘Britannia rule the waves’ and looks down on Europe because it is not as sophisticated as they are. The tribalization has infected several places and is a huge danger for coexistence. If we let it succeed, it is capable of breaking the European Union. That is my message in this book.
Q. How do you interpret the fact that the Catalan independence movement appears fundamentally as a middle class movement?
A. Brexit voters and Donald Trump voters have a similar profile, aside from the obvious differences. Well-off people, whites and conservatives. It is curious that the poor and the better educated want unity and the middle classes fight for a tribal nationalism. Identity issues have penetrated very strongly among the Western middle classes. It seems as if some kind of people are looking for meaning in their lives and have embraced nationalism to reinforce their self-esteem and identity.
It seems as if the middle classes “were looking for a meaning to their lives and have embraced nationalism to reinforce their self-esteem”
Q. It is curious how nationalisms, particularly in Spain, consider themselves progressive movements. His rhetoric seduces even the leftist parties.
A. Independence and right-wing populism use the same discourse, put it as they wish. If you use culture as a weapon, if you constantly use the rhetoric of ‘them against us’, it does not matter if you consider yourself progressive or the summum of democracy, what you are doing is a cultural war and that is rightist. I’m sorry to say it.
Q. In the book you regret how difficult it is for governments and academic elites to oppose identity politics. Why does it cost so much?
A. Because the populists have been very clever and skilled in constructing a discourse in which the enemy is the political and intellectual elites. We saw them in the United States and we are seeing it in Europe. They say: the elites are oppressing ordinary people, the people! And those academics, who in the past fought for liberal values, do not insist on that anymore because then people dismiss them as despotic elites and send them to silence. Many politicians and intellectuals remain in shock for what has happened with Donald Trump and Brexit, and now they prefer to remain silent. They think “I was wrong not to see the rise of populism coming, if that is what the people want, then go ahead”. And it is a serious mistake. We need more than ever to defend diversity and liberal values as a guarantee of the future for the European Union. We should not be tolerant of the intolerant, we cannot harbor within Europe the exclusionary tribalism that undermines the liberal democracy that has suffered so much. My book is a cry of warning to the political leaders of Europe, because they are not up to the historical moment we are living through. We are slowly assuming the values of illiberal democracy, seeing how institutions are undermined without anyone doing anything. I do not want to live in a Europe with the democratic values of Russia.
Q. I get the feeling that for you Catalonia is an example of illiberal democracy.
A. Absolutely. The Generalitat uses these techniques when launching the people against the Spanish elites, considering the judgment of the Supreme Court as illegitimate because it is manipulated by the political power. Living immersed in theories of conspiracy is one of the most evident features of illiberal democracy and a danger to our democratic system. Inventing stories about the enemy, which in Hungary is Brussels and in Catalonia is Madrid, intoxicates society. Its political leaders demonstrate a great lack of respect for democracy and the rule of law. We must rise up against tribalization urgently, but in a civilized way. Do not scream like they do, because they scream a lot. Screaming and hate are not the solution.