Thursday, August 20, 2015

Catalonia Ready to Turn Talarn Military Academy into World-Class Institution, Learning Hub

Growing tensions in Europe and multiple American commitments elsewhere are resulting in increasing pressure on NATO European partners to upgrade their military capabilities. The Pentagon has been vocal in pressuring the UK to formally commit herself to meeting Atlantic Alliance guidelines on defence investment, but the issue goes beyond resources, involving also the political will to enact the necessary military reforms to ensure that modern, agile, deployable forces are in place. Gone are the days following the Cold War, when the Old Continent looked forward to enjoying substantial “peace dividends”, and so are the days when US taxpayers could be counted upon to underwrite European defence, while their counterparts across the Atlantic kept their money in their pockets or enjoyed a comparatively higher level of social spending. Welcome to the real world.

Catalonia is not alien to these trends. With freedom comes responsibility, and anybody seeking the former must not only undertake the latter, but be seen by partners and allies to be doing so. On 30 June, the director of research at RUSI (one of London's two foremost defence and security think-tanks), said that “Independence (and UN membership) necessarily involves having capability of own armed forces”. Speaking at a conference organized by Diplocat, Catalonia's public diplomacy agency, at Cambridge University on 30 June, Dr Malcolm Chalmers added “we'd prob see Spain and Catalonia as members of every club possible”, in a thinly-veiled reference to NATO and ad-hoc coalitions.

Dr. Chalmers' words did not go unnoticed, and a couple of weeks later the Catalan National Assembly held a roundtable on the future of Talarn NCO Academy. Located in Pallars Sobirà County (Western Catalonia), this facility has been operating at half steam in recent years, to put it mildly. Limited to training NCOs and not even open for the full year, Talarn is served by a single train per day and most of its many buildings remain empty or infrautilized. Home to no reserve units, lacking any agreement with civilian universities, and devoid of any significant presence of students and instructors from Allied nations, Talarn is but a shadow of what it could be. The local community, which has often mobilized in order to press for its continued existance, sees with concern how the facility's contribution to the local economy and labour market is much less than it could be. Pallars Sobirà County is a rural area with falling population, devoid of major industries, and where young people are often forced to emigrate in search for jobs.

The roundtable took place in Tremp, the biggest town near the Academy, the event being recorded in full. The public included the mayors of Tremp and Talarn, as well as the chairman of the county council. First to speak was Marta Alegret, ANC Pallars Jussà County coordinator, who welcomed participants and explained the goals of the event. Next spoke Àngel Font, in charge of the event, who stressed that this was not a one-off roundtable, but rather intended to mark the beginning of a serious look at Talarn's future in an independent Catalan state. The Academy can and should make a major contribution to the local economy, while becoming a pillar of the country's national security, leaving behind its current shortcomings and lack of ambition. It was then the turn of the two speakers.

Alex Calvo, an expert in security and defence in the Indian-Pacific Ocean Region and guest professor at Nagoya University (Japan), said that the time had come to have a serious military academy. Explaining that defence was the hardcore of any state, he added that among other roles the military also contributed to the economy and to the balance among a country's different regions. The latter has traditionally been a goal of Catalan parties, bent on building the necessary infrastructure in rural areas far from the Barcelona connurbation, yet one that has turned out to be impossible in the absence of an independent state. Calvo next provided an outline of Spanish defence policy and its main shortcomings, among them the role that the military granted itself in the 1978 Constitution to preserve Spanish borders regardless of the will of the Catalan people, a distraction that hinders its contribution to NATO, the poor maintenance of a significant portion of its equipment, insufficient training, a small role for reserves, the harassment of Gibraltar, and a lack of logistic capabilities. He underlined that many of these shortcomings, for example poor maintenance and a lack of training, could also be found in other European NATO members. Concerning Talarn, Calvo explained that its facilities may well hold not only a much more serious, ambitious, and international-minded academy, but also other initiatives such as a national defence university. References to a lack of proper transportation infrastructure stirred the public, which bitterly denounced that only one train per day served the Academy and nearby towns. This is one of many anomalies that a serious military academy may help put an end to.

Josep Sort, lecturer at Ramon Llull University, emphasized that the military played a vital role in rebalancing economic activity across a country's territory. A traditional role for armies is to serve as economic engine in less populated regions. He said that Pallars Jussà was the county that would benefit the most from Catalan independence. Elaborating on this, Sort explained that it could be home to a university specialized in security and defence, offering also part time and distance-learning courses, and open to both civilians a military personnel. A world-class institution. Sort explained that Catalans were already paying Spanish military spending, but that the percentage reverting to the Catalan economy was very small. Concerning this, he criticized those voices discussing defence spending as something not already being shouldered by Catalonia. Spanish authorities tend to systematically locate all defence industry facilities outside Catalonia, in Madrid and Andalusia. We are financing Spain's defence industry, while securing no return from it in terms of employment and research. All this will change with independence. A Spanish Talarn's future is very negative, while that of a military academy in an independent Catalonia is brilliant.

Question time was witness to the public's interest in the future of Talarn, and the local population's anger at the lack of quality public transportation. A question concerned Switzerland's defence model, while another one dealt with the evolution in recent years of Catalan leaders' public statements on defence policy. Concerning this, we have moved from a certain confusion and even uneasiness when the independence recovery process began, to the current public commitment to NATO membership, explicitly stated by President Artur Mas in Parliament on 3 June this year.

The event concluded with a reminder that it was not intended as a one-off, but rather the launching pad of a processes aimed at seeing Talarn become a world-class military academy, serving Catalonia and her partners and Allies, and making a meaningful contribution to the local economy. Àngel Font stressed this, underlining that only independence could secure the academy's future.

Alex Calvo, an expert in defence policy in the Indian-Pacific Ocean Region, was one of the speakers at the roundtable.


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