October 2, 2017
Well back in August 2014, I wrote here about “The Military Implications of Scottish and Catalonian Secession.” After this past weekend’s events in Catalonia, I thought that I should republish a slightly updated version of that essay, this time focusing on the Catalan question. It is important to remember, after all, that the secessionist government in Barcelona has indeed endorsed joining both the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Fairly, both organizations have warned that accession is not remotely automatic, depending rather on the agreement of every existing member state. Those are slightly different lists of 28 countries, and one must only remember the juvenile and endless exclusion of Macedonia by the Greeks—over a branding dispute—to understand how long a blackballing can last. As two of my Atlantic Council colleagues once questioned, the EU may not soon admit Catalonia, as some member states (particularly Belgium) have cause to fear further secessionist activity.

Even so, as ugly as the Spanish response appeared, the federal government in Madrid may not manage to block a determined move for self-determination. So, assuming that Catalonia was admitted to NATO, what would the newly independent country contribute? At the 2014 Strategic Foresight Forum at the Atlantic Council, Anne Marie Slaughter of the New America Foundation opined that an independent Catalonia would do a fine job of defending itself. After all, Catalonia is a country of over 7 million people, with more than $300 billion in GDP. Spending just 1.6% of that—well below the widely-ignored NATO threshold, of course—provides over $4.5 billion annually. That’s roughly the military budget of Denmark, which has well-regarded and efficient armed forces.

Catalonian military plans are somewhat vague, but when the issue arose back in 2014, they emphasized a navy. With excellent ports in Barcelona and Tarragona, Catalonia is well-positioned as a minor naval power, “with the Mediterranean as our strategic environment, and NATO as our framework,” as the nationalists’ think-tank on defense argued. The rough plans called for a littoral security group of a few hundred sailors at first. After a few years, Catalonia would assume responsibility as “a main actor in the Mediterranean,” with land-based maritime patrol aircraft and small surface combatants. Eventually, the nationalist ambition may include an expeditionary group with a light assault carrier and hundreds of marines, to take a serious role in collective security. That would be rather more helpful to the Alliance than Madrid’s focus on tanks and artillery to defend Ceuta and Melilla from a Moroccan invasion.

Of course, all these plans are subject to the vagaries of the country’s political process, but Catalonia’s ambitions are reasonable in part because they are restrained. If accurately characterized by the few white papers that have surfaced, the separatists’ position suggests a valuable and refreshing view of specialization in collective defense: build a navy that is comparatively focused on influencing events ashore. After all, in broad terms, the further one sits from Russia, the less important ground forces, and the more needed naval forces. By de-emphasizing the military forces that any landlocked country will have, and instead steering investments towards those it is comparatively positioned to provide, Catalonia could punch above its weight in European political affairs. There may be no further Álvaro de Bazáns in Barcelona, but there may be new littoral forces—flying the four bars of the Senyera—that NATO needs around the periphery of the Mediterranean.

In short, while NATO's member states may not treat the eventuality lightly, I expect the Alliance need worry little about losing much through Catalonian independence. Indeed, there was only one clear loser after this past weekend’s events: the Spanish federal government. Brutalizing people going to the ballot box is never a winning argument.

James Hasík is a senior fellow in the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security.

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