According to a story published on Monday by online newspaper El Confidencial, seven large Spanish corporations listed on the IBEX-35 stock market index —plus El Corte Inglés— funded an international campaign to thwart “the foreign propaganda efforts in support of Catalan independence” sponsored by the Catalan government. The campaign was masterminded by Mariano Rajoy’s government and it included events held in key cities across Europe and the US. El Confidencial claims that the campaign was launched in October 2017, when the referendum on independence was held, as the Catalan authorities were using their “embassies” abroad to frame the independence debate in terms of a “struggle between the vote’s democratic spirit and Madrid’s totalitarian efforts to thwart it”.
To prevent this narrative from being picked up by media —which was already beginning to happen—, the Communications Secretary of the Ministry for the Presidency, Carmen Martínez de Castro, hosted a power breakfast with top executives from Banco Santander, BBVA, Caixabank, Telefónica, Repsol, Iberdrola, El Corte Inglés and Inditex.
The campaign was the brainchild of Real Instituto Elcano
According to El Confidencial, at the meeting they discussed the sensitive time that Spain was going through and the consequences that it might hypothetically have for the country and business. In order to counter the Catalan government’s campaign, PM Rajoy’s right-hand woman asked the businesspeople to finance a campaign masterminded by Real Instituto Elcano, a Spanish think-tank whose president is King Felipe.
Rajoy’s government chose this approach because all the companies involved were Instituto Elcano patrons and this way it would not look as if they were footing the bill for a government campaign. El Confidencial reports that between the start on 6 November and the end on 19 December, the campaign included a number of presentations in Paris, London, Brussels, Berlin, Rome, New York and Washington. Real Instituto Elcano was aided by Français Relations Internationales, Chatham House, Egmont, Institut für Euroapaische Politik, Istituto Affari Internazionali, the Wilson Center, the Peterson Institute for International Economics and the Council on Foreign Relations.
The dossier that the business executives were presented with to enlist their help mentioned the involvement of Josep Bou, the chairman of Empresaris de Catalunya [a unionist business lobby]; Joaquim Gay de Montellà, then-president of Foment del Treball [an employers’ group]; CEOE chairman Joan Rosell [another employers’ group], and former Spanish minister Josep Piqué, who was on the board of several companies such as Amadeus, Alantra and Aena. El Confidencial’s report also mentions Josep Borrell, but on Monday the Spanish Foreign Minister denied any involvement in the events.
El Confidencial quotes sources from the companies who funded the project stating that Spain’s situation at the time required “a decisive response” and that Real Instituto Elcano —a think-tank with a good reputation abroad— was ideally suited to provide it. At the Spanish government’s request, the companies agreed to make “a special payment” to fund the campaign. El Confidencial claims that Juan José Brugera, the chairman of Colonial, was among the sponsors. However, when ARA asked for confirmation a company source categorically denied Brugera’s involvement, suggesting that the alleged campaign might have been “a tentative project” that never came to fruition.