- Matt MoffettThe Wall Street JournalCANCEL
March 2, 2015 6:14 p.m. ET
BARCELONA—Not long ago,
discovered that some prospective customers were shunning his company’s products because the government in his home region of Catalonia was seeking to secede from Spain.
“It’s unfair, because many of us want nothing to do with secession,” said Mr. Segura, whose firm Esbelt SA, make conveyor belts and employs 110 people.
That is why the normally nonpolitical Mr. Segura showed up at the inaugural meeting in December of a new organization, Business People of Catalonia, which advocates against independence.
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On the other end of the spectrum,
integrated his ardent pro-independence views into the chain of service stations he started last fall, Petrolis Independents. Business has been so good he has expanded to six outlets.
The two are reflective of a greater willingness among Catalan business owners to stake out public positions, through political activism or corporate marketing, ahead of regional parliamentary elections, set for September, that are being viewed as a plebiscite on the issue.
Many previously had kept a low profile for fear of offending customers or the local government, which has been spearheading the independence drive.
Now, “business is finally starting to come out of the closet,” said
an Autonomous University of Barcelona economist who opposes secession himself.
“You can’t be silent anymore, because being neutral means you’re in favor of the union,” said
president of the Catalan Business Circle, a group of businesses favoring independence.
A poll published by the Catalan government’s Center for Opinion Studies in December showed that for the first time in two years, opposition to independence surpassed support for it, although the difference was within the margin of error.
Some surveys suggest Catalan business executives are more wary of secession than the general population. A survey published in July by PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP found just over a quarter favored a referendum on independence, while more than half favored some kind of negotiated solution to keep Spain together.
Executives’ views are often colored by how their main market might be affected.
Catalonia, Spain’s leading exporting region, sold €58 billion ($66 billion) worth of goods abroad in 2013. Catalan companies sold an additional €44 billion to other Spanish regions, about the same as they sold in Catalonia itself.
Freixenet, a producer of Catalonia’s sparkling wine, or cava, that is consumed throughout Spain, included a thinly veiled pro-union message in advertising celebrating its corporate centennial. The spot featured a Spanish pop star raising a toast “to the next 100 years together.”
In contrast, Parlem Telecom, a newly launched regional phone company, has made Catalan nationalism an integral part of its bid to compete with giant, Madrid-based
Besides publicizing endorsements from prominent figures in the pro-independence movement, Parlem touts its Catalan-speaking operators and locally based call centers.
called the early vote as part of a strategy to attain independence in 18 months. The central government in Madrid says secession is unconstitutional and won’t be permitted.
‘Business is finally starting to come out of the closet.’
—Ferran Brunet, economist
Pro-independence economists assert that secession would be good for Catalonia because it would end the large fiscal transfers to the rest of Spain, which they estimate at 8% of regional gross domestic product. Opponents cite risks that include possible trade boycotts from other Spanish regions, strains on the Catalan financial system, and uncertainty over an independent Catalonia’s relationship with the European Union.
History indicates that political strains between Catalonia and other Spanish regions can affect the bottom line.
Cava producers were hit by a boycott from the rest of Spain in 2005 after a Catalan politician spoke out against a bid by Madrid to host the Olympic Games. Domestic sales plummeted by more than 6% that year. Yet Catalan cava producers made up for the loss with increased exports.
Several leaders of Catalonia’s economic establishment have expressed wariness about the separatist push.
Joaquim Gay de Montellà,
head of the main Catalan business confederation, Foment del Treball, said that early elections generate “instability in the markets and mistrust” and that big companies are developing contingency plans in the event of independence.
“It worries us that, depending upon the result of the coming elections in September, there are investment decisions in Catalonia that are being blocked, [put] on standby due to the political situation,” he said.
Big Barcelona-based banks, utilities and infrastructure firms are so tied to Madrid that they are nicknamed “Puente Aereo,” or air-shuttle companies, for the frequency with which their executives commute to deal with major customers or regulators. They have generally tried nudging leaders in Barcelona and Madrid toward the negotiating table.
Spain third-largest, has called for King
to mediate “a grand agreement.”
president of Grup Bon Preu, a Catalan supermarket chain, said it would be a mistake to generalize about the entire private sector from a handful of large corporations.
Mr. Font, who sits on a Catalan government commission planning a transition toward independence, said the region’s economic engine comprises “medium-size family companies that are heavily internationalized.” Some of them feel almost as put upon by the Catalan corporate elite as they do by the government in Madrid, he said.
Mr. Pont, of the Catalan Business Circle, complained that some “Puente Aereo” banks have benefited from Catalan deposits but were being stingy with loans to credit-starved entrepreneurs in the region.
A CaixaBank spokesman disputed that, saying the bank last year launched a program aimed at boosting its small business and independent professional client-base by at least 15%.
Write to Matt Moffett at firstname.lastname@example.org
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