The Catalan business community that advocates a compromise with Spain gives Ciudadanos the cold shoulder

Businesspeople who used to support the orange party are now turning their backs on them, as they find them too radical

Albert Rivera with part of the catalan business community in 2016. / MANOLO GARCÍA
ÀLEX FONT MANTÉ / ANNA MASCARÓ / ALBERT MARTÍN

“Ciudadanos used to be useful, but not anymore”. This is how a top Catalan executive summarises what he regards as the general feeling among the top business leaders who support “the third way” [a phrase that in Catalan politics refers to those who support a self-government agreement between Catalonia and Spain, sometimes of a federal nature]. “Ciudadanos have become scary. Arrimadas [the party leader in Catalonia] has become scary. They advocate bringing back direct rule indefinitely”, and the same executive goes on to say that “the demonstration in Madrid’s Plaza de Colón [in support of Spain’s unity and staged by the two Spanish parties on the right: PP, Ciudadanos plus Vox, the far right’s rising star] is not where the political centre lies”. Their conclusion? Ciudadanos is not the answer to find a solution to the political conflict between Catalonia and Spain.

Other voices have been heard speaking —more or less vehemently— along similar lines. For a while Ciudadanos were seen as an element of stability by top firms in Catalonia, but this newspaper has quizzed ten people on the matter and they all agree that Ciudadanos have lost their appeal “because they do not provide solutions”. “It’s true that some sectors used to see the orange party in a better light than now”, some business groups admit. “Businesspeople and employers’ associations want stability and compromise, but Albert Rivera [the Ciudadanos leader in Spain who is running for PM in the general election of April 28] merely stokes the fire and seeks to deepen the conflict in Catalonia”.

An executive claims that “the top business leaders in Catalonia support a third way, but from a wide range of different positions”. He indicates that “many do not hold an ideological position, but a purely pragmatic stance: they are only interested in what will provide a solution”. In this context, Ciudadanos —which used to present itself as a social democratic party, but later made a number of turns— is no longer regarded as part of the solution. In contrast, according to our sources many of these businesspeople and executives —some of whom are associated with the so-called Barcelona-Madrid air shuttle lobby [which brings together top business leaders from Madrid and Barcelona]— have shifted their allegiance to the PSOE, led by PM Pedro Sánchez.

The Ciudadanos leadership is aware of this shift. A party source admits that “Obviously, Rivera has lost support. Not just among businesspeople, but also within the party, due to his new rhetoric”. The same source suggests that “Inés Arrimadas may garner more support [than him] in Madrid”. It is in the Spanish capital where you will find the greatest strain within Ciudadanos, specifically between supporters of the new, more radical rhetoric and those who favour a less aggressive stance.

Somebody who works inside the party’s engine room in Barcelona believes that “it is understandable that the business community who supported us feels disappointed: everyone must repay their debts. Rivera’s discourse has changed a lot and that’s not what he had promised to many people who backed him”. Yet for some of the top businesspeople a coalition between Ciudadanos and the PSOE remains a desirable outcome in the Spanish elections. An employers’ group claims that, if that coalition came to be, Ciudadanos “would have no choice but to tone down their rhetoric” and, therefore, they believe it might not be too late for the party to mend its ways. That would not resolve the conflict between Catalonia and Spain, but they argue that at least it would bring institutional stability. That said, Rivera’s announcement saying that he is not prepared to support the PSOE candidate in parliament was another blow to the trust which these businesspeople had placed in him.

The start of the infatuation

The backing that Ciudadanos received from some Catalan business leaders and executives was, in many cases, purely instrumental and it began to vanish as soon as the game changed. These business leaders had long rejected Catalan independence in private —in some cases they have actually started to speak out against it— but equally of the PP, whom they criticise for their lack of ideas to end the conflict [with Catalonia]. Podemos was never an option that they were prepared to consider and they never took the PSOE seriously until Pedro Sánchez unexpectedly became the new socialist leader.

For all that, after the 2015 Spanish elections Ciudadanos had became particularly attractive for some Catalans who are active members of the business community. Evidence of that is the welcome Albert Rivera got when he first attended the yearly event hosted by Cercle d’Economia in 2015. As ARA reported at the time, he was greeted enthusiastically (and sometimes warmly hugged) by the likes of Amancio López (Hotusa), Borja García-Nieto (then chairman of Círculo Ecuestre) and Jaime Malet (chairman of the US Chamber of Commerce in Spain). That day, in an observation whispered to economist Luis Garicano, who had just joined Ciudadanos, the president of Colonial and and Cercle d’Economia, Juan José Brugera, admitted that he had “enjoyed Rivera’s address very much”.

When a few months later Ciudadanos first struck a deal with the PSOE and then with the PP, the idea that Albert Rivera might bring stability to the increasingly complex Spanish politics got greater traction. But that has changed now.

Even sources within Manuel Valls’ mayoral campaign in Barcelona city admit that “it’s undeniable that many businesspeople have ceased to see Ciudadanos as an option”, but they point out that these executives do not sympathise with the parties that seek independence. Societat Civil Catalana [a unionist lobby] shares the sentiment: “Obviously, the business community is uncomfortable with such a belligerent rhetoric when, in fact, this is a time for building a consensus and mending the rift in society”, said someone close to the group’s leadership who has close ties with the business community. As a matter of fact, Ciudadanos have distanced themselves from Societat Civil Catalana because they regard its discourse as too soft.

The PSOE reaps the benefits

Presumable the PSOE is the big winner arising from the break-up between Ciudadanos and a certain segment of the business community. Once back in office, the socialist party has gone on to occupy the political centre and gain credibility in the eyes of these business leaders. An executive admits that “the Catalan businessmen who used to back Ciudadanos have shifted their support to the PSOE en masse, everyone says so”. The political meeting hosted by Pedro Sánchez in Barcelona last January brought together several key local figures, such as Miquel Valls (Chamber of Commerce), Marian Puig (Isdin) and Antón Costas (Cercle d’Economia). The orange party’s veto of the socialists has also given rise to tensions within the party, namely with newcomers such as Luis Garicano. A few weeks ago the former LSE professor announced in the Financial Times that Ciudadanos intended to run in the European elections with Emmanuel Macron’s La République en marche. Now the alliance is in jeopardy due to Ciudadanos choosing Vox as a preferential partner over the PSOE.

These comings and goings are disappointing for the Catalan executives and businesspeople who had once sympathised with Ciudadanos, a party that was born in Barcelona in 2005 and they now see more as part of the problem than the solution.

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