MADRID — Corporate pressure is mounting on the Catalan government led by Carles Puigdemont to back down from plans to declare unilateral independence from Spain after a chaotic referendum last Sunday.
The decision, which is testing the nerves of the political establishment and the country alike, could come as early as Monday, when the Catalan chamber is scheduled to discuss the results of the vote in a session that has already been banned by the Constitutional Court.
On Thursday, the executive board of Spain’s fourth-largest financial company, Banco Sabadell, based in Barcelona, decided to move its official registration out of Catalonia to the city of Alicante, the Spanish financial regulator confirmed.
The bank wants continued access to liquidity lines and cover under the European Central Bank, according to press reports. Despite the Catalan regional government’s assurances, the European Commission has maintained that an independent Catalonia would find itself outside the EU.
Josep Oliu, president of Banco Sabadell, told reporters the company would consider all “necessary measures” to protect its clients, adding that all decisions would take into account the fact that its largest market is the whole of Spain, which represents 70 percent of the bank’s business.
Sabadell stocks had fallen almost 10 percent this week, but the relocation news pushed them up 4 percent. On Wednesday, Spain’s stock market suffered the biggest fall since the Brexit referendum last year.
On Friday, the executive board of the country’s third-biggest lender, Caixabank, also based in Catalonia, will meet to consider a similar move, El País reported.
Meanwhile, the Spanish government is preparing a legal reform to be approved to facilitate the relocation of the official registration of a company’s headquarters from one place to another without the need to call a shareholders’ meeting, according to local reports. Such a reform, to be carried out on Friday, would clearly be aimed at easing Caixabank’s way out of Catalonia.
The fast-developing situation reflects growing anxiety among Catalan corporate leaders since Sunday’s vote, when 90 percent of ballots cast were in favor of secession. The Catalan government said 42 percent of the electorate took part in the vote — though it was deemed illegal by the Spanish government, the country’s courts, and the European Commission.
Some companies have moved or announced a move outside the region in the past few months. However, supporters of secession and unity alike interpreted Thursday’s news from the banks as a political gesture.
“The action of Sabadell can’t be interpreted as a legitimate decision to depart but as an attempt to exert political pressure,” tweeted Xavier Sala-i-Martin, a professor of economics at Columbia University and a die-hard advocate of independence.
“It’s a serious warning to Puigdemont: Don’t go ahead [with the declaration of independence],” said Carlos Rivadulla, vice president of Empresaris de Catalunya, an anti-independence business association. He described the sentiment among business leaders as “very worrying.”
Back in the summer, a major Catalan business association, Foment de Treball, labeled the Catalan government’s law on the independence referendum, which paved the way for Sunday’s vote, a “coup d’état” and an act of “enormous political irresponsibility.”
‘Everything is at stake’
Catalonia’s Vice President Oriol Junqueras played down the news in a TV interview, saying that in the age of the internet, “any company works with banks from all over the world,” and adding that Catalonia is beating records when it comes to foreign investment.
However, Spanish Economy Minister Luis de Guindos told Bloomberg that the banks were signalling that “if this process goes on, they are totally open to relocating their headquarters to other places in Spain.”
“This is a clear indication of how insane is the regional government of Catalonia,” added De Guindos.
With little sign of any easy way out from the standoff between Madrid and Barcelona, all eyes are on the Catalan parliament on Monday to see what happens next. Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy urged Puigdemont to drop plans for a unilateral declaration of independence, according to an interview with Efe news agency on Thursday. “That would spare worse evils,” the Spanish leader warned.
On Wednesday, Puigdemont asked again for international mediators to step in to resolve the conflict, while at the same time vowing to go ahead with his plans. Other players, like the far-left Podemos, who oppose the declaration of independence, have asked for mediation to de-escalate the situation. There have even been discreet attempts to get the Catholic Church involved in the issue.
The government in Madrid, however, doesn’t trust Puigdemont — one Cabinet source called him a kind of “illuminati” who is trying to gain the moral high ground to justify going ahead with independence.
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Pro-independence organizations and political forces are divided about the wisdom of going ahead with the declaration of independence, which could prompt the central government to take control of the regional executive or declare a state of emergency. According to one Catalan political leader familiar with the situation, Puigdemont is among those pushing to go ahead.
“Everything is at stake here,” said Manuel Arias, a politics professor at the University of Málaga. “Not only the stability of the Spanish democracy … but also the whole configuration of Europe.”