Catalan situation will be fraught for Europe
Catalan situation will be fraught for Europe
09 OCTOBER 2017 7:13 AM

Catalan calls for independence has obvious parallels to Scotland’s referendum in 2014, but the potential impact from an independent Catalonia would likely cause more ripples across Europe.

I was very humbled last week to be invited to Valencia, Spain, for Choice Hotels International’s European franchisee conference, which was attended by approximately 300 hotel owners and GMs.

The weather was very warm, which was one reason, it was revealed to me, Choice bigwigs plumped for Spain as a location for the three-day event.

Also, it offered a great opportunity to market Choice in a country where it currently has no hotels. (The hotel firm’s brands in Europe are so far limited to its Clarion, Quality Inn, Comfort Inn and soft-collection Ascend flags.)

Mark Pearce, Choice’s international division SVP, who spends much of the year in Amsterdam, told me one shortlisted destination for the event was Barcelona, but event planners could not find exactly what they wanted there.

Valencia is more than a perfect replacement—it is, after all, where my Italian wife Francesca’s twin sister and family live. It is a city I know very well. (A restaurant recommendation is Pare Pere, and let the owner order for you based on the fresh, daily ingredients. It is yards from another excellent spot, Racó del Turia.)

Valencia was also a good choice in that Barcelona was not. As I tucked into soft artichokes, voting was taking place in Catalonia in an independence referendum that the Spanish government declared illegal.

Supporters of Catalan independence claimed policemen, sent to Barcelona and other cities to stop voting, were heavy handed at best and violent at worst.

There is support in Catalonia to remain part of Spain, I should add.

The Spanish government, though, might deploy police, even the army, if they felt the situation merits it. Under Article 155 of the Spanish Constitution, they will say legally they can take over the running of Catalonia’s regional government—a move that will, no doubt, bolster claims of and support for independence.

The hotel industry is shaking its head, hoping for the calm that the business world prefers. Adding to hoteliers’ woes is the fact that in May Barcelona declared a moratorium on hotel openings and refurbishments amid locals’ concern that tourism has reached unsustainable levels, generally accepted as more than 8 million tourists per year.

Stock markets always are jittery in such scenarios, and that was true in Barcelona and Madrid following last Sunday’s vote.

Tourism has been a success here—evidently too much so—since Barcelona hosted the Summer Olympics in 1992.

The moratorium, push back against tourism and, now, strenuous calls for independence will not do the hotel industry any favors. The brand’s siren calls and USPs of Mediterranean sunshine, Las Ramblas and Antoni Gaudí will keep it, ultimately, in good stead, but there are worrying signs in the wider Spanish and European context.

These will be along the lines of the worry seen in the Scottish independence referendum in 2014, in which independence was voted down, albeit somewhat narrowly, and more so with Brexit in all of the United Kingdom.

One voice I heard on the matter—my brother-in-law Jaime—said the difference, in his opinion, between Scotland and Catalonia is that Scotland was the smaller brother to the United Kingdom in its decision, but Spain is the smaller brother to Catalonia in this episode.

News agency Reuters reported on 1 October that across Spain, there are 2 million fewer jobs than in 2007, debt of nearly 100% of GDP and a budget deficit of more than 3%.

Pain during and since the global recession has been felt in Catalonia, too, with German statistics firm Statistica reporting unemployment in Catalonia in the first quarter of 2017 was 15.28%, down from 24.45% in Q1 2013.

Statistics can often say what their owners want them to say, but it does seems that Spain, and Catalonia, would suffer if there is a breakup of the country.

There are wider issues as to what Catalonia’s relationship with the European Union would be, as there were when Scotland pondered divorce. The EU does not generally get involved in issues that it believes relate directly to its member states.

And for hotel firms? Two of Spain’s largest, Barceló Hotel Group and Meliá Hotels International, are both based in Palma, Majorca, in the Balearic Islands, which, although not in Catalonia, is one of Spain’s 19 autonomous communities and the only one, other than Catalonia, where Catalan is an official language.

When I walked around Valencia—whose province is known as the Valencian Community and where residents speak Valencian, with linguistic links to Catalan—I saw a numerous Spanish flags hung from apartment windows. I interpreted that visual message as being “we are Spanish,” and the same might well be true of the Balearic Islands.

All that said, with Catalonia’s autonomous government perhaps declaring independence as early as tomorrow, this scenario could add ripples to what already is the stormy sea of Europe.

Email Terence Baker or find him on Twitter.

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