The President of the Spanish Chamber of Commerce discusses business’s role in responding to the Catalan secession crisis.
In October 2017, a contentious – and illegal – referendum was set to take place in Catalonia, a region in the northeast corner of Spain. The issue before the region’s voters was independence – whether Catalonia, which is responsible for almost 20 percent of Spain’s economic output, would remain part of the country or form its own. The referendum had been deemed unconstitutional by the Spanish courts, yet the Catalan regional government announced it still intended to hold one.
In the weeks leading up to a vote that wasn’t supposed to take place, both “leave” and “remain” proponents held heated protests. Media coverage showed a region, and a country, starkly divided. The subsequent vote was declared void by the central government in Madrid.
More than a year later, Catalonia remains divided, yet part of Spain.
The region’s political uncertainty and unrest remains a delicate issue for businesses there. The question of secession is central to the lives of their employees and customers, and it obviously has the potential to affect almost every aspect of their operations. But what is the right move, exactly? Stay silent on a contentious topic, or take a stand and risk alienating those on the other side?
For José Luis Bonet, now serving his second term as President of the Spanish Chamber of Commerce, the answer is clear: Businesses should have a point of view and communicate it respectfully. It’s not simply about being relevant, but about fulfilling a responsibility. “Employers, as social leaders, have an obligation to speak to their employees, customers and clients about the consequences that political decisions can have for a company’s future,” said Mr. Bonet.
A Catalan himself, Mr. Bonet’s views on leadership and the business climate are informed by almost five decades of teaching at the University of Barcelona as well as more than 50 years at the family company, the cava producer Freixenet, where he still serves as Co-President. Mr. Bonet recently sat down with Brunswick to discuss the effect the secession crisis has had on the Spanish economy, and the role that companies have to play in responding to the crisis.
How has the crisis around the question of Catalonia’s secession affected Spain’s standing in the global business community?
The independence process hasn’t affected Spain’s global economic position. And the proof of that is simple: Spain’s economy has continued to perform better than the European average and the analysts believe that it will continue to do so in 2019.
There is no doubt that the independence process has had a detrimental impact on Catalan economic growth. Absent this crisis, growth in Catalan business would have been more vigorous – and would have helped the country as a whole.
Were any sectors particularly affected by the secession crisis?
Certainly. I’ve spent my life working in the wine industry, and I have witnessed firsthand the negative impact on the wine sector. Other sectors, such as tourism and the retail industry, have also been affected and shown lower growth rates.
Beyond that, I do think that Catalonia has lost some major opportunities as a result of the crisis, such as the decision by the European Medicines Agency not to have their headquarters in Barcelona.
Of greater concern is the fact that the political crisis in Spain really hurt the country’s ability to capitalize on global business opportunities. The Spanish securities market regulator recently pointed out that Spain has failed to attract financial firms that are leaving the United Kingdom due to Brexit.