What is the Catalan for Magic Pony?

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Yesterday Catalonia held elections for the regional government. Since Madrid frustrated their hopes of an independence referendum, the tactic if the secessionists has been to try to turn every election from rat-catcher up into an independence plebiscite. From that perspective, yesterday was not a win. Pro-independence parties narrowly failed to get a majority of votes. They did together win a narrow majority of seats, and will continue to control the Generalitat. That does not look a basis for UDI.

The circumstances in the last few years could not have been more favourable to their cause: a disastrous boom-and-bust cycle in property, leading to bank rescues that doubled Spain’s national debt; mass unemployment from austerity dictated by Brussels and Berlin; and a governing party in Madrid mired in scandal. The economy has now started to improve, not dramatically but steadily, which should erode support.

The pedestrian Mariano Rajoy (no pigs, no bribes) has opposed the separatists by standing pat on the constitution. This has given him institutional wins through the Constitutional Court, but has done nothing to win Catalan hearts and minds. There has been no counterpart to Gordon Brown’s spirited defence of the Union in Scotland on emotional grounds: shared battlefields and war cemeteries, and the NHS. (Imagine an American politician defending US healthcare as a glorious achievement. On second thoughts …) Can you make such a case in Catalonia? Sure. Catalans died in 1714 and 1812 and 1936 in defence of a particular vision of Spain, not just Catalonia. Bringing up the Civil War is dangerous stuff of course, precisely because the memories are high voltage. If the stakes are the unity of your country, you have to take a few risks.

How serious is the independence project? I looked up the programme of Junts pel Si, the main separatist coalition in the election. Website, programme. The first thing that struck me is that while there is a button for a Castilian version of the 125-page programme, it doesn’t do anything. The party’s key document is not available in any language but Catalan. The electorate includes recent immigrants who only speak Castilian; the population include foreign residents. The monolingualism suggests contempt for anybody who does nor read Catalan. The programme would keep Castilian as an official language, but that’s clearly a purely formal concession. The animating spirit of secession is ethnic chauvinism.

It is worth pointing out here that the separatists have no case on grounds of linguistic discrimination. Administration, schools, road signs, and the media are all run in Catalan, the co-official language. Catalan  is the main language in Valencia and the Balearics, and a thriving minority one in Roussillon; none of these have significant separatist movements. Universities elsewhere in Spain don’t have programmes on Catalan: big deal.

In an electoral document, not translating into English is narrowly justifiable. But the separatists must know by now that acceptance of the Catalan state would not be automatic. They badly need friends in Brussels, New York and national capitals. Who is going to read a long document in Catalan, any more than in Slovenian? Not providing an English version is an indicator of unseriousness.

There is a much more striking one. The programme does not include the strings OTAN (the Romance acronym for NATO) or defensa in the military sense. Really. Has anybody told them that states have to defend themselves? The SNP in Scotland (5.3m) has a defence spokesman and a policy debate. They don’t expect an independent Scotland to spend nothing. The future of the Trident nuclear submarine base near Glasgow is a big issue. Spending 1.5% of GDP a year, similar to the defence spending of Denmark and Norway, would be £2 bn.  Portugal (10.5m) spends a bit more, 1.8% of GDP, or $4bn in 2012.  Catalonia (7.5 m) would need to spend $3bn a year or so to keep up with other small nations.

What about doing without an army or navy entirely, like Costa Rica since 1948? It’s worked out fine for them. But Latin American armies are basically aimed at their own people, and considerably less useful for meeting external threats from competent enemies, as the Falklands war showed. Costa Rica’s only land neighbours are Nicaragua and Panama, scarcely bogeymen. The precedent does not fit Europe. Article 3 of the NATO Treaty of 1949  provides (my emphases):

In order more effectively to achieve the objectives of this Treaty, the Parties, separately and jointly, by means of continuous and effective self-help and mutual aid, will maintain and develop their individual and collective capacity to resist armed attack.

Catalonia can’t therefore get into NATO by free-riding on its neighbours for defence. It could always pay Spain and France, which would be humiliating for the heirs of Jaime the Conqueror. Can it get into the EU without being in NATO? I’d be surprised.

The problem here is not the contours of the defence policy. It’s that in a decade of intense, indeed obsessional, separatist agitation, it has apparently not occurred to the movement’s leaders to think at all about one of the central functions of a sovereign state.

Thee is a bit more detail on the economics of secession (pages 19-20 of the programme). The calculation presented is this, per year:

Repatriation of taxes sent to Madrid:           + €45.3 bn
New expenditures for currently central functions, including
debt interest and administrative setup:         – €39.5 bn
Net fiscal gain:                                                     + €5.8 bn
Payments to international organizations:       – €1.4 bn
Non-participation in amortization of the Spanish national debt: + €7.2 bn
Total net gain:                                                       + €11.6 bn

Much of the rest of the 125 pages is devoted to dozens of ways of spending this nice windfall: a minimum income, schools, higher education, health, environment, R&D, infrastructure, a fund for this and a fund for that. None of them are costed or prioritised. Oh, and income tax and VAT will be lowered.

See the little problem? The assumption about the Spanish national debt is ridiculous. How does it become a cash inflow in the first place? Perhaps the idea is that Spain is being forced to run a large primary budget surplus, which baby Catalonia wouldn’t. But surely Catalonia’s share of this is already included in the tax outflow? So any reduction is already included there.

In fact it’s the other way round. If you take on a share of the national debt, you become responsible for servicing it, capital as well as interest. If Artur Mas thinks that nice Herr Schäuble will let this helpless, small new state of dusky Mediterranean types knocking on the door of the EU get away with not paying its debts, I have a nice temple on the Acropolis to sell him.

A realistic table looks more like this:

Net direct fiscal gain from independence: + €5.8 bn (unchanged)
Payments to international organizations:  – €1.4 bn (unchanged)
Defence force:  – €2.5 bn
Coerced primary budget surplus: – €1.9 bn (total guess, with Schäuble in a good mood)
Net gain available for pork: € 0

The defence estimate assumes that Catalonia will inherit from Spain at no cost a share of the military assets like bases, ships and planes. If it has to buy these the estimate doubles, easily: a single new frigate can cost €1.5 bn. Second-hand, I dunno. I am also uncertain whether Schäuble does good days. Independent Catalonia could very easily be forced to raise taxes or cut expenditure. Hello, real world. Goodbye, magic pony.

The gap between the separatist electoral programme and reality is so wide that I have to conclude that the separatists are either fools or con-men. For now, I’m going with the con-men.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]