The geopolitical reasons why Spain can never afford to lose Catalonia

Catalonia and the Basque Country are critical to Spain's national security

Catalonia and the Basque Country are critical to Spain’s national security

Catalonia is critical to Spain’s national security for geopolitical reasons that are never mentioned, but which are blindingly obvious if you just look at a map.

As you can see from the map above, Catalonia and the Basque Country are the GATEWAYS to Spain (circled in red), because the rest of Spain’s European border is protected / isolated by the Pyrenees mountain range. Armies moving in and out of Spain by land have always had to pass through on or other of them, and all the country’s land-based supply lines to Europe run through these two gateway regions.

Basic geopolitical analysis shows that Spain can not afford to lose Catalonia and the Basque Country for reasons of defence, supply, and national security. If Catalonia is allowed to break away from Spain, the Basques will be right behind them.

Defense

It’s no surprise that all the invasions by land in the history of the Iberian peninsula have come through one or other of these regions (Napoleon invaded through the Basque Country). The Pyrenees are a natural defensive barrier, and it’s much easier to defend Spain from attack at the Pyrenees than hundreds of kilometers inside the Iberian peninsula. We are all friends in the EU now, but will we always be? European history is full of warfare between neighbouring states. Let’s hope we’ve left that all behind, but can a national leader assume that Spain will always be safe from attack, and willingly give up control of the country’s critical points of defence?

Supply

All of Spain’s land-based supply lines run through Catalonia and the Basque Country. These supply lines are critical to the country’s trade and ability to feed and provide for itself. If Catalonia and the Basque Country were independent and hostile to Spain, they could bring the country to its knees in a matter of weeks.

National security

You only have to glance at a map to see that Catalonia and the Basque Country are critical to Spain’s national security. The only circumstance in which a country would give up control of such regions is after military defeat, which is exactly how Spain lost control of Gibraltar, another strategic point. Would any big power like the USA, China, the UK, France, Germany or Russia willingly give up control over gateway regions critical to national security? No chance. An axiom of international relations is you don’t give up gateways to your heartland without a fight.

What about Scotland then? Well, the only reason Cameron allowed the Scottish referendum was because it’s not critical to British national security, so he could afford to take the chance with a referendum. If Scotland was in the home counties, sitting on all the UK’s strategic defence and supply lines, and Westminster was in the north, you can be sure that no UK leader would ever open the door to Scottish independence.

For geopolitical reasons it’s obvious that Spain cannot afford to lose the gateway regions of Catalonia and the Basque Country. Catalan separatists don’t realise this, and think it’s simply a question of raising the cost to Spain of hanging on to Catalonia. But at what point is the cost to Spain too high if it’s a matter of national security?

Catalan separatists are in a minority in Catalonia (36% if you don’t count expats living in Catalonia, and lower if you do). Though Catalan separatists are deeply divided amongst themselves, and would be at each other’s throats in an independent Catalonia, they are motivated and well organised behind the goal of independence. Though Madrid has not helped at all with it’s clumsy and stupid handling of Catalonia in the last few decades (for reasons of national security Madrid should have bent over backwards to make all Catalans feel at home in Spain), the main reason we are now in this mess is because Catalan separatists have driven us into it. Catalonia itself will pay the highest price for this folly. The question is not how high a price is Madrid prepared to pay, because it’s a question of national security for Spain. The real question is how high a price are the residents of Catalonia prepared to pay in pursuit of the divisive pipe dream of independence that only a minority want?

There’s a saying in Catalan ‘El que no pot ser, no pot ser i a mes, es impossible’ which translates as ‘what cannot be cannot be, and anyway it’s impossible’.

About Mark Stücklin

Mark Stücklin is a Barcelona-based Spanish property market analyst, and author of the 'Spanish Property Doctor' column in the Sunday Times (2005 - 2008). He can be reached by email on ms@spanishpropertyinsight.com. All articles published in good faith as a general guide but no substitute for professional advice. Please read the SPI disclaimer

4 thoughts on “The geopolitical reasons why Spain can never afford to lose Catalonia”

  1. Chris Nation

    Mark, a point well made. Nobody else on any medium I have followed has mentioned national security in this way. Why has Madrid not bigged this up?

    It seems to be the Iberian elephant in the room.

    I am surprised at what seems to be resounding silence in Guipuzcoa. Keeping their powder dry?

    Last week, using the western corridor into Spain, I happened to drive past the railway station at Hendeye where Hitler and Franco had their only meeting. Their only other option would have been at Le Perthus, in your easterly circle.

    If Hitler had not gone for Russia, he surely would have had the Panzer divisions racing through your circles. Gibralter would have been lost, the Med becoming a NAZI lake, north Africa lost, the way to the Mid Eastern oilfields opened up …

    I think the only vocal supporter of Catalonian independence of international stature, Vladimir Putin, has grasped your point but is keeping his reasoning to himself. It’s a point that won’t have been lost in the Pentagon and SHAPE, tho’.

    1. Mark Stücklin Post Author

      Hi Chris, yes, it’s odd that nobody else has brought it up. I haven’t seen it mentioned once in all the months and millions of words and ink spilt on this drama. But like you say, you can be sure that it hasn’t escaped Vlad’s attention, Churchill would have spotted it straight away, as would have Guderian and Rommel. You have to assume that strategic thinkers in Madrid have always known about it, though it’s curious that they haven’t made more of it. Perhaps Madrid is wary of giving the impression it sees Catalonia as ‘territory’, or talk about anything military, for obvious reasons. Have Catalan separatist leaders thought about this? I don’t know, but they don’t seem to have thought much of anything through. They are wrapped up in emotions, and I guess that clouds the mind.

  2. GarySFBCN

    Given my disappointment with politicians and actions on both sides of this issue, I am expecting the ‘worst of all worlds’ outcome.

    I suppose that those who are more optimistic than me will see that in a few months time, in real estate it will again be a buyer’s market in Barcelona.

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