The 8 manipulations of the anti-independence dossier

The 8 manipulations of the anti-independence dossier

Joe Brew    
2018, Oct 07    

The anti-independence powerpoint

El Confidencial reports that Josep Borrell (Spanish Minister of Foreign Affairs) has forwarded to diplomatic posts a powerpoint presentation critical of the Catalan independence movement, with the intention of Spanish diplomats being able to use the document’s arguments. The document, a 27 page presentation, compares the independence movement with Marine Le Pen’s Front National and Brexit, points out Spain’s high rankings in democratic indices, highlights episodes of fake news related to violence against Catalan voters on October 1 2017, and contains charts and maps showing the independence movement as a populist political force driven by the rural and the wealthy.

“The real enemy of Europe”

The document was presented in a classroom session at the European Commission on September 28, 2018. A recording of the presentation is hosted was hosted on the EC website but has since been made “not publicly available”. In the conclusion of the presentation, the presenter calls the Catalan independence movement “one of the heads of this monster called nationalism” and “the real enemy of Europe”. During the question-and-answer phase of the presentation, the speaker suggests that the Catalan independence drive is “morally” wrong. When asked about police violence against Catalan voters, “it will happen again… it has to happen, because this is how democracy works… decisions adopted by the judiciary as a last resort has [sic] to be implemented”.

The entire presentation is viewable below:

Since the document is receiving significant exposure in social media, and since it was presented at the EC to people who may not have much knowledge of the current situation in Catalonia, it is worth exploring the presentation’s content, particularly insofar as it contains misleading and incomplete information. In this article, we’ll dive into 8 manipulations in the “anti-independence dossier” with the aim of providing a more complete and accurate picture of reality in Catalonia.

Manipulation 1: International democracy watchdogs approve of Spain

Truth: These organizations criticize Spain’s poor handling of the Catalan crisis

Several slides show Spain’s high rankings in freedom/democracy indices. These are true: Spain is considered by “Freedom House” as a “free” country, and the Economist Intelligence Unit ranks Spain as a “Full democracy” with scores similar to other Western European countries:

The presenter points out that Spain is considered to be democratic by both organizations, based on their scores. But the author makes no mention in the presentation of the reports which accompanied the publication of these scores. Including the scores, in a presentation on Catalonia, without any other information from these reports is misleading since Catalonia was mentioned in both organizations’ annual reports this year.

Freedom House

For example, in Freedom House’s report on Spain, the Spanish government is described as having “used aggressive methods to disrupt the referendum”. The report also points out that “the national public broadcaster RTVE was criticized by its own journalists…for biased coverage of the Catalonia crisis”. In the “Freedom of assembly” section, Spain is given a score of 3/4, noting that “police actions during referendum-related demonstrations in Catalonia prompted allegations of excessive force against protesters”.

Economist Intelligence Unit

The Economist Intelligence Unit’s 2017 report on their “Democracy Index” included the headline “Spain’s democratic credentials suffer” as one of its “highlights” of 2017. The report points out that Spain is “just above the threshold for full democracies” and that “the national government’s attempt to stop by force Catalonia’s illegal referendum on independence on October 1st and its repressive treatment of pro-independence politicians have put it at risk of becoming a ‘flawed democracy’”. Spain suffered the second largest decline in the democracy index score in 2017 (first place was Malta).

Manipulation 2: The independence movement is like Le Pen / Front National

Truth: The independence movement shares almost no ideological similarities with Le Pen

The presenter says that “we can use a similar approach to explain similar events in similar countries” before making a comparison between “this movement in Catalonia and nationalist movements taking place in other member States in Europe”.

The presenter suggests that the Catalan independence movement is similar to populist movements like the Italian Liga Norte and the French “Front National”. However, the movements he mentions are explicitly:

  • Anti-immigrant
  • Right-wing
  • Anti-democratic

The Catalan independence movement is, quantifiably, none of these three things.

The Catalan independence movement is not anti-immigrant

Data on attitudes toward immigration in Catalonia suggest that those in favor of independence are far less hostile to immigration than those in favor of union. The percentage of Catalans who “strongly agree” that “it no longer feels like home” due to so much immigration is twice as high among unionists as independentists:

The Catalan independence movement is not right-wing

The attempt to associate the Catalan independence movement with right-wing movements in other parts of Europe is intentionally misleading. This tactic seeks to characterize Catalan independence as the ideological equivalent of right-wing reactionary movements. The data show the opposite: the independence movement is ideologically to the left of the Spanish unionist movement, and is consistently more left-leaning than Spanish unionism in survey after survey:

As of the most recent data available (July 2018), support for independence was highest on the left. Support for union with Spain was highest on the right:

Additionally, the percentage of people who self-classify as far-right is higher in almost every other region of Spain than in Catalonia:

Relative to the rest of Spain, Catalans are consistently more left-leaning:

Self-situated ideology on a left-right scale (as in the above charts) is potentially biased. But the implication that the Catalan independence movement is right-wino also falls apart if you examine individual political policies. For example, relative to Catalan unionists, those in favor of independence are also more in favor of the government taking measures to reduce income inequality.

The above fact contradicts the presenter’s claim that “every nationalist movement is based on the ideas of selfishness and insolidarity” (31:50 in video).

In the same vein, if one examines negative attitudes toward homosexuality (a relatively good proxy for being “right-wing”), it is clear that those who are favorable to independence do not fit the “right-wing” category.

Finally, we can examine levels of support of different politicians from people of different ideological backgrounds. The most well-known independence leader in Catalonia is Carles Puigdemont; the most well-known union leader in Catalonia is Ines Arrimadas. Puigdemont receives high levels of support from the left, and low levels from the right; Arrimadas receives low levels of support from the left, and high levels from the right. The group in Catalonia which gives the highest levels of support to Arrimadas is the far-right.

The Catalan independence movement is not anti-democratic

The presenter clumps the Catalan independence movement with European nationalist movements as “the enemy of democracy”. The comparison of the Catalan independence movement with anti-democratic, authoritarian populists movements is questionable. Among Catalans in favor of independence, 91% say that democracy is preferable to all other forms of government in all circumstances; this figure is only 77% among Catalans in favor of union with Spain.

Manipulation 3: Independence movement is like Brexit

Truth: The independence movement shares almost no ideological similarities with Brexit

The presentation implies that the Catalan independence movement is a nationalist movement of the same nature as the British nationalist movement which drove Brexit to victory, since both show a rural-urban divide:

But the rural-urban divide is the only commonality - on all other metrics, Brexit and Catalan independence have very little in common.

Support for Brexit was positively correlated with age: the older one was, the more likely he/she voted in favor of Brexit. In Catalonia, support for independence takes on the opposite pattern:

Support for Brexit was negatively correlated with education: the more educated one was, the less likely he/she voted in favor of Britain leaving the EU. Again, in Catalonia, support for independence takes on the opposite pattern as support for Brexit:

Finally, support for Brexit was primarily driven by anti-immigrant attitudes (and as mentioned in the previous section, those in favor of independence are more favorable to immigration than those opposed to independence).

Manipulation 4: Independence is undesirable because it’s a movement of the rich

Truth: The wealthy are more pro-independence, but income also correlates with education, access to information, non-authoritarian political ideology, and more awareness of politics

The presentation contains a chart from El País which shows that more wealth is correlated with more support for Catalan independence.

This is true: support for independence is associated with higher income levels. But as dissuasive rhetoric, it should be relatively ineffective. Higher incomes associates with (a) higher access to information, (b) higher levels of education, (c) more engagement with what is going on in politics.

The wealthy support Catalan independence more than the poor. But the wealthy also opposed Brexit more than the poor and opposed Trump more than the poor. Those with higher income consistently vote for more open immigration policies and are less euro-skeptic.

A more relevant indicator than wealth, perhaps, would have been levels of information. Among Catalans, those who consider themselves well informed have higher levels of support for independence. The greatest levels of opposition to independence come from those who consider themselves not at all informed about what is happening in politics:

The simultaneous characterization of the Catalan independence movement as “populist” and “elitist” is both incoherent and not supported by any data on the subject.

Manipulation 5: More people oppose independence than support it

Truth: More people support independence than oppose it

The presentation shows results from the December 21, 2017 elections in Catalonia to suggest that independence is a minority movement:

The presenter points out that Ciudadanos (anti-independence party) received the most votes in the December 21, 2017 elections. He fails to mention that the candidates of the main independence parties were in pre-trial detention / exile (making running an electoral campaign difficult).

The figures presented in the above charts are misleading on several other levels, as well. First, they show electoral results in which the issue was not limited to independence (ie, it is not correct to assume that 100% of those voting for a party which opposes independence actually oppose independence themselves). Second, they tally numbers so that CatComú-Podem, a party which is explicitly in favor of Catalonia’s self-determination via a referendum, as “no” votes for independence.

Let’s go into more detail.

If you ask Catalans directly their views on independence, as has been done in surveys consistently and uniformly over the last 4 years, more say they are in favor than against:

Classifying “Podem/Podemos” votes as against independence is misleading. In the most recent surveys, only 56-57% of Podem voters are opposed to independence, and more than one third are explicitly for it.

The presenter calls Catalonia a “very divided society”. This is true insofar as there is ideological diversity and differences of opinion regarding independence. However, he fails to mention that there are very high levels of agreement in Catalonia on two issues:

  1. That a binding referendum is the best solution to the current political crisis (78.7%).
  2. That Spain’s pre-trial imprisonment of independence leaders is wrong (77%).

Finally, rigorous polling shows that more Catalans favor independence than oppose it.

Manipulation 6: Barcelona is not Catalonia

Truth: Barcelona is Catalonia’s capital and is not that electorally dissimilar to the rest of Catalonia

One of the final slides of the presentation shows a map originally features on with the “most voted” party in each Catalan municipality in the December 21, 2017 elections.

This map is factually accurate, but is misleading on the question of independence in that it shows only the most voted party (rather than the most voted “bloc”). Ciudadanos, a unionist party, was indeed the most voted in many urban areas, but this does not mean that those urban areas are predominantly anti-independence. In a parliamentary system, the party with the most votes is irrelevant if it cannot garner enough support from other parties (as is the case with Ciudadanos, which was unable to form a coalition government following the election).

Let’s examine the December 21, 2017 electoral results by “bloc” (pro vs. anti-independence). If we remove the CatComú/Podem(os) voters (of whom < 60% are opposed to independence), independence voters clearly outnumber unionist voters:

Additionally, even among parties whose stance on referendums/independence is more hard-line than Podemos, a significant portion of voters from unionist parties still favor independence.

Nonetheless, to the extent that the map’s purpose was to show differences in views on independence by geography, a less manipulative map would have been the one published by Rather than showing results by party, this map more accurately shows by “blocs”, and correctly excludes CatenComú-Podem (since the party is pro-referendum, anti-independence, and many of its voters are pro-independence; see previous section):

This map, which gives a better idea of views on independence than the party-specific map, makes clear that Barcelona (like most of Catalonia) voted more for “independentist” parties than “constitutionalist” ones:

There indeed exists an urban periphery around Barcelona which is predominantly unionists, but asserting that “Barcelona is not Catalonia” in terms of the question of independence is misleading.

Manipulation 7: Police violence against voters on October 1 may have been “fake news”

Police violence against voters occurred in unprecedented levels for modern Europe and has been rigorously documented

Several slides of the presentation show images of police violence overlapped by a scroll-with-wings icon to show which images were false:

The implicit argument is that since some of the images showing police violence on October 1, 2017 were false, one cannot know if or how much police violence occurred. This tactic is a familiar one. It seeks to minimize the perception of the level of police violence during the Catalan referendum by changing the topic of the conversation from real violence to fake images. It was employed last October by then Foreign Minister Alfono Dastis:

The “fake news” angle has more recently employed by Spanish government spokesperson Isabel Celaá, who suggested that “many of the images” from the October 1 referendum were fake, and that the police acted in “proportionality” with the exception of very few cases. It’s essentially a Trumpian tactic: deflect attention from a scandal by questioning the evidence of the scandal.

It is true that some images showing police violence and victims in October 2017 were false, manipulated, or simply from other events. These images were widely shared in some cases, but also quickly discredited.

True occurrences of police violence have been meticulously documented and fact-checked, and reported on by international media. Police body-camera footage has been released as well.

Though the prevalence of “fake news” has certainly increased with the internet, the facts remain:

  • Police used excessive violence on October 1st 2017.
  • Hundreds of Catalan citizens were injured by police.
  • Thousands of images and videos of that violence are real and have been verified.

Manipulation 8: Independence of Catalonia is “nationalism” but union with Spain isn’t

Truth: There is nothing inherently “nationalistic” about wanting to be governed by one state or another

The presenter concludes the presentation by saying that the referendum of last October was “just one of the heads of this monster we call nationalism”. He goes on to call nationalism the “main enemy of Europe” and says that “we need to fight him [sic]”:

But clumping the Catalan independence movement into the violent, exclusionary nationalisms which brought Europe to war in the 20th century is misleading. After all, according to survey data, Catalan independentists are overwhelmingly pro-EU, pro-immigration and liberal. Like Ireland, Denmark, Slovakia, Switzerland, and Austria, Catalonia is a small country with unique traditions and language in which the majority of people want to govern themselves.

After the presentation, during the question-and-answer section, the speaker says that some ideas (referring to nationalism) are “morally condemnable” and “morally bad”. It is strange to argue that wanting independence and seeking it democratically constitutes “morally condemnable” nationalism but preventing people from governing themselves how they wish - ie, exercising the right to self-determination - does not.


This article was authored by Joe Brew (@joethebrew). Any errors are his alone. The raw data used for the charts in this article are publicly available here.