BARCELONA — Call it Project Fear, the Catalan version.
Proponents of keeping Catalonia in Spain are making a similar case to that made by the Remain camp ahead of last year’s Brexit referendum: You can’t afford the economic risk of any further separatist trouble.
Their pitch ahead of Thursday’s regional vote — that independence is bad for business — runs head on into the long-held separatist claim that Catalonia will flourish once unshackled from Spain. It’s a new and bold bet by the so-called unionists that, if it works, will change the political dynamics of the northeastern region.
In the run-up to the election, the unionists have seized on every bit of evidence, ranging from job losses to thousands of firms threatening to up sticks and move to Madrid, in their efforts to put the threat of economic turbulence at the heart of the campaign.
Their aim is to deprive pro-independence parties of their current majority in the regional parliament, and restore normality after October’s chaotic referendum on secession and the ensuing unilateral declaration of independence from Spain.
“Not only have you driven companies away, if you remain in power, you’re going to cause more harm” — Inés Arrimadas
What’s really at stake, the unionists argue, is the continued prosperity of a region that accounts for a fifth of Spain’s economic output and a quarter of its exports.
“What these gentlemen have provoked in Catalonia is institutional madness, economic debacle and social fracture,” said Inés Arrimadas — the leader in Catalonia of the centrist, pro-business party Ciudadanos, which some opinion polls predict will win first place on Thursday — in a TV debate this week.
“Not only have you driven companies away,” she accused the separatist parties who won a majority of seats at the last regional vote in 2015, “if you remain in power, you’re going to cause more harm.”
To her left, Catalan Socialist leader Miquel Iceta, who currently polls fourth, was even blunter: “Don’t deny reality — you’ve impoverished the country.”
Meanwhile the separatists’ campaign is trying to keep the focus on accusations of Spanish police brutality at polling stations on referendum day and the subsequent jailing of the leaders of the pro-independence Catalan government.
Articles about more than 3,000 companies — including six out of the seven Catalan blue chips listed on Madrid’s Ibex share index — saying they will move their legal headquarters out of the region in response to the turbulence have gained more traction than the separatist side’s arguments that only about 300 of those firms have actually completed their applications with the commercial registry.
Even the ones who did do the paperwork “have changed their legal headquarters, while their production facilities and jobs remain in Catalonia, fortunately,” said Carles Mundó, an ex-regional minister from the Catalan Republican Left (ERC), which was part of the pro-independence coalition government sacked by Madrid for unilaterally declaring independence in defiance of the Spanish constitution.
When Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy’s local candidate Xavier García Albiol — who is polling sixth or seventh — was asked in a TV debate what would be the conservatives’ first move in the unlikely event of them winning the regional presidency, he said he would “call the companies that have left and ask them to come back.”
Josep Rull, a former regional minister running on the list of ousted Catalan President Carles Puigdemont (who has fled to Belgium to avoid arrest), argued in a TV debate that the independence discussion “does not affect the Catalan economy — we’ve seen spectacular growth in the past four years.”
“What has generated extraordinary convulsion are the deplorable images of October 1,” he said, referring to the footage of police officers beating unarmed voters at Catalan polling stations.
Such arguments cut little ice with Catalan business leaders.
In a poll of 123 company executives for the Esade business school, 80 percent expressed concern about the political situation, 44 percent said they had lost clients in the past few months and 46 percent said they had put investment plans on hold while waiting to see what happens in the region.
Unionists have attempted to put the threat of economic turbulence at the heart of the election campaign | Lluis Gene/AFP via Getty Images
“The situation is grave … but it could become even worse in coming months depending on the evolution of the political situation,” said Jordi Alberich, general director of the Catalan business think tank Cercle d’Economia. “The wide majority of the Catalan business world is conscious … that there’s a lot at stake, that this is not a joke at all.”
“We hope that everyone is conscious that persevering with this (confrontational strategy) will weaken Catalonia,” said Salvador Guillermo, economic director of Foment del Treball, a Catalan big-business lobby. “While we argue amongst ourselves … the world doesn’t stop and other people are making the most of the opportunities.”
It’s far from clear, however, whether economic concerns will tip the scales in the unionists’ favor when Catalans go to the polls on Thursday, with the two sides running neck and neck in most surveys.
“The degree of emotional mobilization of some pro-independence sectors is so high that they consider this [the economic impact] a secondary issue,” said Enric Juliana, deputy editor of leading Catalan newspaper La Vanguardia.
Opinion polls show that some independence supporters, though not the majority, share business leaders’ concerns about economic turbulence and they also show that some unionist sympathizers are critical of some of the Spanish government’s actions in Catalonia.
“I see Catalan independence as very difficult, or rather practically impossible, in the coming years” — Jordi Alberich, general director of Catalan business think tank Cercle d’Economia
But such surveys also indicate that most of the transfer of votes on Thursday is likely to take place inside the rival camps, rather than people changing their mind completely about the independence argument and defecting to the opposite side. The decisive question, therefore, is how effectively each camp is able to mobilize its supporters and persuade people who abstained in previous elections to get to the ballot box.
“We’re witnessing a dialogue of the deaf,” said Josep Joan Moreso, a law professor at the Pompeu Fabra University. “Emotions and faith have overcome reason, especially among supporters of secession.”
“We’ve basically got two blocks of offended people,” argued Juliana at La Vanguardia. The unionists tend to consider the independence push as a threat to their interests — such as their jobs — while the separatists believe the central government has intervened unfairly in Catalonia’s affairs.
Such deep divisions, combined with the adamant opposition of the rest of the country and the support for Madrid across the rest of the European Union, said Alberich of the Cercle d’Economia, argue for the fact that conditions are not ripe for Catalonia to become an independent country.
“I see Catalan independence as very difficult, or rather practically impossible, in the coming years,” he said. “What we’re deciding here is whether we can bring the situation back to a certain level of governability and stability … or if we’re going to get bogged down for years.”