During the first week of October, things could not have looked bleaker for the pro-union parties. The Spanish government was licking its wounds from its disasterous performance on October 1st and learning that plugging a group of generally peaceful proponents of a democratic vote with rubber balls is not the way to garner sympathy from the general public; there were general strikes in protest that were crippling Catalonia; the foreign press and social networks were lighting up the internet with support for the victims of “Spanish oppression”; even King Felipe VI of Spain’s attempt to put things in their place had failed miserably. The king is a good man, I guess, and he tries to help the monarchy return to the respectability it has lost over the previous few years as a result of some unseemly behavior by members of the royal family, but he doesn’t seem to carry much weight in the matter, if you ask me. Three decades before, his father came to rescue when he ordered the fascist coup d’etat to back down, pretty much cementing his place of honor in contemporary Spanish history. His son tried to pull something similar and almost got laughed out of town. The problem this time was that the pro-independence Catalans are self-proclaimed republicans, that is, they are anti-monarchical, and pretty much could not care less about what the king has to say. It was a hopeless cause from the beginning. It was a hopeless result as a result.
But, alas, not everything was going the independentists’ way. Poderoso caballero es don dinero, so goes the saying in Spanish as coined by the Spanish writer Francisco de Quevedo. It translates rather literally as “Mr. Money is a powerful gentleman”, except the Spanish version rhymes and just flows better. The English version which most succinctly sum up the poetic verse might be “money talks”.
You see, while a sizeable percentage of the Catalan population was getting all orgasmic about creating a new state, some of the region’s most important financial and business institutions had an entirely different course of action in mind: leaving. Literally picking up and relocating to other parts of Spain…just in case. They weren’t closing offices and laying off workers, or anything like that. They just moved their headquarters elsewhere to ensure they would remain in Spain. It started with Catalonia’s two largest banks, Caixabank and Sabadell, and the major utilities like the water company and natural gas, construction and many, many others. After a week, hundreds had packed up and settled on the other side of the hypothetical border.
The reason, in many cases, is not really so much a question of rejecting political reality as it is one of taking refuge from very real economic disaster, as becoming an independent country would mean being kicked out of the European Union and, as a result, the euro. Secessionists tried to play down the importance of outflow, arguing that moving the headquarters didn’t mean anything, but that’s a total crock. They were scared shitless, and for so pretty good reasons. 1. Fiscally speaking, moving your headquarters to another part of Spain means reducing corporate tax revenue for Catalonia, and that is never good. 2. On an international level, this looked horrible. How can you convince the world your movement is bonafide if all your major corporations, including your main financial institutions are going awol? What kind of message does it send to investors abroad?
A dreadful one. Catalonia had already suffered a drop of nearly 75% in foreign investment in the third quarter…before the real tension got going. As a result, it lost its position as second in this category to the Basque Country. One can only guess at what has happened since then. We will find out soon enough, but as of December, more than 3,000 firms have packed up and gone, and the exodus has not ended. Radical nationalists, often of the anti-establishment nature, will tell you that they are willing to ride out the storm if it means achieving sovereignty. But many of them are the people without tbe moolah. You should ask the ones who have it and you will get a very different answer.
Catalonia has always prided itself in its long and successful history as a land of merchants, traders, entrepreneurs and shrewd business practices. That’s why it alone makes up about 20% of Spain’s economy. Ironically, this strength which they use to argue that they are the nation’s turbine and thus deserve to be their own country (that makes no sense whatsoever, but nor do most of their arguments), just happens to be the area which is doing the most damage to their cause. Money is their true king.