Like Brexit, Spain’s attempt to establish historical justice for the past Reconquista is just another case of the economisation of immigration.
In 2015, the Spanish government issued a ‘law of return’, inviting descendants of Jews expelled more than 500 years ago from the Iberian Peninsula to apply for Spanish citizenship. The idea was to ‘correct a historical error’, as Spanish Minister of Justice Rafael Català stated. The ‘error’ was the Alhambra Decree of 1492, which asked all Jews living in Spain to either convert to Christianity or leave the now Christian lands.
The Decree of 1492 constitutes a turning point in the history of Spain – in fact, ‘Spain’ as we understand it today did not exist before this year. The Decree marked the endpoint of the so-called ‘Reconquista’, the battle of the Christian Kingdoms against the Muslim rulers, who governed the Iberian Peninsula for 800 years; and the beginning for a new understanding of ‘Spanishness’ in light of the strengthening Inquisition. To be ‘Spanish’ meant to be ‘ethnically Catholic’; conversion was no longer an escape. New Christians, former Muslims and Jews, were subject to the ‘limpieza de sangre’, the purification of blood.
This Inquisition officially lasted right up until 1834, fostering an atmosphere of constant suspicion between Spaniards. The entanglement of the Spanish nation-state with Catholicism and monarchy, which – at least superficially – held diverse cultural entities together, has caused tensions ever since: from Francisco Franco’s suppression of regional differences; to Basque anarchist, anti-monarchist nationalism and terrorism; right up until our own times with the Catalonian crisis.
The ‘law of return’ therefore seemed like a belated attempt at historical reconciliation as well of acknowledgement of Spain’s past and present diversity. It opened the young Spanish democracy, established in 1978, to an alternative concept of Spanish citizenship, away from Catholicism and the Catholic crown.
However, this is a deception. Basque congressman Jon Iñarritu García and others have questioned the motives behind this new law. It is clearly targeted at wealthy individuals who could financially boost the stricken Spanish economy. According to Iñarritu García, the complex conditions tied to the new law and non-transparent application process are evidence of this. Amongst other things, exams on Spanish history, culture and language must be passed to qualify; as well as proof of heritage, including onomatology. Iñarritu García estimates the total cost of the application process at 6.000 Euros. This is illuminating, especially when coupled with the fact that individuals, who cannot present their exact genealogy, can still apply for the citizenship as long as they have invested substantially in Sephardic culture. Finally, the applicants have to vow allegiance to the Spanish constitution, and incredibly, to the Spanish King.
Hence, the ‘law of return’ does not establish historical justice, as proclaimed by the Spanish government, but perpetuates the ideology behind 1492. Instead of a change in the Spanish mentality, it appears that Sephardi immigrants are not perceived as having the right to reside in Spain, but are evaluated according to their financial value to Spain. The Spanish government holds the power to pick and choose the ‘good’ immigrants, showing some uncomfortable parallels with the Inquisition during which certain useful ‘New Christians’ were protected.
The economisation of immigration is not an issue unique to Spain. Most recently the Brexit movement has displayed a similar pattern. For some that voted to Leave, the sovereignty of the UK state is paramount, especially the right to choose how many and what kind of EU-nationals are allowed to come to the UK; that is, those deemed to be ‘good’ immigrants, i.e. educated Western Europeans. The UK government has done little to ease the concerns of EU citizens currently residing in the UK during the ongoing Brexit negotiations and has often been accused of using them as bargaining chips for trade deals. It appears, then, that this is not so different from the Spanish case.
The often-cited ‘Empire nostalgia’ that accompanied the Brexit vote, supports this perspective. Though the idea of the former Empire implies a certain cosmopolitanism, it can also invoke a time when non-British nationals were seen as means to an end, which is not so dissimilar to the current situation.
To view immigrants primarily through a financial lens is dangerous. It de-humanises individuals and overlooks the cultural contribution of immigration to society. Perceiving immigrants as an economic cost puts every them under the microscope and invites scrutiny: Has he or she contributed enough to the economy to be accepted by the society in which they live in?
In short, contemporary rationales for both Spanish and UK immigration policy reflect far older power dynamics. A ‘historical error’ cannot be corrected. It seems that the lessons of the past have not been learned.
Susana Zickert (25) is a 2017 graduate from the MA programme ‘Religion in Global Politics’ at SOAS and lives in London.