August 26, 2014


Scotland will free-ride in the Atlantic without sustained investment, but Catalonian maritime specialization would be welcome in the Mediterranean.

On 18 September, Scotland votes on the question of independence from the United Kingdom, and the polling strongly suggests a vote of no. On 9 November, Catalonia could be voting on the same issue vis-à-vis Spain, but the polling slightly suggests a yes—if the Spanish Constitutional Court allows the vote to take place. NATO members should treat neither case lightly, but the independence of Catalonia would pose fewer military problems for the alliance than that of Scotland.

The secessionist movements in both countries have endorsed joining both the EU and NATO. But both organizations have warned that accession is not remotely automatic, and depends 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. The Spanish probably could not manage to block a determined move for Catalonian self-determination. That said, two of my Atlantic Council colleagues have questioned whether the European Union would admit Catalonia, as some member states (e.g. Belgium) have cause to fear further secessionist activity. Would the British accede to Scottish independence, but then plausibly attempt to exclude the country from NATO? A currency union may be off the table, but such dickering over the serious business of defense would be unacceptable.

As Griffe Witte of the Washington Post argued just this week, in the long run, Scottish secession could be challenging for maintaining Britain’s Trident submarine force. The Scottish National Party (SNP) aims to declare independence in 2016, and see the nukes off by 2020. Today, the submarines and their warheads are conveniently somewhat isolated at Her Majesty’s Naval Base Clyde, 40 kilometers from Glasgow. The Royal Navy’s other two major facilities, HMNB Devonport and HMNB Portsmouth, are both in populated areas on the south coast of England. This has caused some to question whether the south coasters would appreciate the sudden arrival of a few hundred nuclear weapons. But Devonport is where the RN overhauls and refuels those nuclear submarines, so the locals are already accustomed to the presence of things nuclear. In the breach, it is likely that they would prefer the several thousand high-paying industrial jobs that would transfer down from Scotland.

That could be all well and good, but assuming that Scotland and Catalonia were admitted to NATO, what would they contribute? At the Strategic Foresight Forum this past spring at the Atlantic Council, Anne Marie Slaughter—late of Princeton and the US State Department, and now running the New America Foundation—opined that an independent Scotland and an independent Catalonia would do a fine job of defending themselves. At the reception afterwards, a former defense official and defense industrialist argued to me that the consequences for NATO would be adverse, “because the Scots think that defense is a free good”. But even beyond the hyperbole, it’s important to note how significantly plans for forces flying the Saltire cross and the four bars of the Senyera differ.

Scotland is a country of 5.3 million people, with over $200 billion in GDP. The SNP has in mind a tiny version of Britain’s armed forces as a whole: a navy of a few frigates, a fighter squadron, and an armored infantry brigade. With enough investment, a short-ranged maritime patrol squadron might follow as a welcome addition to the recent loss of RAF Coastal Command. The problem, however, is that Scottish resources aren’t likely to match these goals. Spending the NATO average of 1.6% of that GDP on defense would provides just over $3 billion annually. That level of spending is equivalent to the budget of Austria, a neutral country which needn’t maintain a navy. Unless Scotland steps up to a higher rate of spending, its exit from the United Kingdom would produce another free-riding Celtic state on the periphery of the open North Atlantic.

 Catalonia has 7.3 million people, with more than $300 billion in GDP. Spending just 1.6% of that on defense provides over $4.5 billion annually, or roughly the budget of Denmark, which has well-regarded and efficient armed forces. Catalonian military plans are more vague, but so far, they emphasize the 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 argues. The rough plans call 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.

 Of course, all these plans are subject to the vagaries of each country’s political process, but even the announced policies differ importantly. Scotland’s tiny replication of British capabilities wouldn’t be so clearly efficient. On the other hand, Catalonia’s ambition would be more 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. 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 that NATO needs around the periphery of the Mediterranean.

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