Businesses in Europe did not stand up to defend the system against the attacks of extreme parties and populist forces, says the president of Spain’s Chamber of Commerce, José Luis Bonet.
Bonet, who is also the president of Catalan cava maker Freixenet, also remains optimistic about the possibility of reaching an agreement between the EU and the UK that would minimise the negative impact of Brexit.
José Luis Bonet (Barcelona, 1941) is the president of Freixenet and Spain’s Chamber of Commerce. He spoke with EURACTIV.com’s Jorge Valero on the sidelines of the European Parliament of Enterprises.
Next European elections in May 2019 are being described as an election between pro and anti-EU parties. What is the role of the private sector in this dilemma?
This is very important because what we have to do is defend the system. This is an issue of utmost importance and perhaps we haven’t done enough. Part of the reason is that civil society is very weak in some countries, including Spain. Then it is logical that anti-system populisms have advanced. As it happens with the law of gases, if you do not fill in the space, another gas will take it.
Big companies and business organisations, including BusinessEurope, have not been sufficiently involved in alerting about the risks of populism. Do you think their silence contributed to the expansion of illiberal parties across Europe?
In my view, businessmen tend to speak up as little as possible. This is not good. Perhaps, it should not be individual companies but their representative institutions are the ones who should be more engaged. And they failed in this regard. As the president of the Chamber of Commerce of Spain, I believe the defence of the system should be the number one function. The social market economy is the best existing system in the world to organise the economic life of people. In this framework, companies are the key piece. Therefore, employers should play a critical role in defending the system.
Have they done enough?
No, they haven’t done enough. Sometimes the reason is the lack of resources. Besides, it was not considered necessary in the past because the system was sufficiently installed. But at this moment, the number one goal is to defend the system. In particular, chambers of commerce should be at the forefront of it, as they are public corporations by law that must defend the general interest.
The reason is not a conservative attempt to protect the status quo, but because this system has led to improving people’s lives. The crisis obviously had beaten people. But citizens never before had the welfare they enjoy nowadays. We must address the problems inherited from the crisis. But let’s not attack the system because we would destroy the welfare of people.
UK’s exit from the EU also represents a major source of instability for companies. How are you preparing for it?
Companies have to adapt to whatever situation comes up. I may be a staunch optimist, but I still believe that Brexit will not bring a major mess. I do not think people want to look for things that can hurt them. Like the Catalan pro-independence vote, the Brexit vote is not going to benefit anybody. In the end, UK citizens will understand it and all sides will try to minimise the consequences.
Even if consequences are reduced to the minimum, still the UK would exit the EU, which is a major change for Brits but also for the Union as whole…
Of course, damages will occur. As Barnier said it, Brexit is a bad thing. In our case, although more than 80% of our sales come from abroad, our markets are very diversified. Our UK market was more than 10% of our sales before, but the company has worked on diversifying its markets in past years. Companies with resources also have people in charge of reading the contingency plans for a no-deal Brexit drafted by the European Commission.
On Catalonia, do you think the situation has improved given the dialogue between Madrid and Barcelona? Or does the Catalan political deadlock and social tension say otherwise?
I agree with minister [Josep] Borrell. The Constitution and the law must not be breached. That said, we can talk about anything. Instead of focusing on a pipe dream, we should focus on those issues that Catalonia always cared about: modernity, creativity and progress. That is what many people want, as it was seen on December 21st [regional elections]. That was a true and legitimate vote, not like October 1 [referendum]. We must look for another way, and that is why dialogue is the way forward.
Do you also regret that the pro-independence politicians are imprisoned, as Borrell does?
It is up to the judges. Spain is a democracy, with a division of powers. But if you ask me if I like people in jail, I would say no. I’m sorry they’re in jail.
You were one of the most prominent voices in favour of using Article 155 in Catalonia to suspend the autonomy. Popular Party and Ciudadanos request to activate it again, given that the regional government maintains its pro-independence agenda. What is your opinion?
Now, the conditions are not in place to apply again Article 155. The situation was different in October last year. If someone declares independence, no matter how formal it is, that clearly requires the activation of Article 155 given that the Constitution is under attack. This article has proven to be an effective mechanism to defend the fundamental law.
Against the backdrop of many Catalan companies’ decision to flee the region last year, you said that businesses would not return. Freixenet, one of the most emblematic companies of the region, decided to stay after the activation of Article 155. Do you believe Catalan firms would return to the region?
If the conditions for their return exist, some of them may do it, as has been the case of Agbar. But that won’t happen if they see that the independence frenzy of October of 2017 still exists.
Do you think that the push for a unilateral break-up from Spain would soon strike again? Or does ERC (Catalonia’s republican left-wing party) ’s decision to abandon the unilateral independence as a political goal postpone a new major confrontation?
ERC has taken a more logical position. Last October, it saw the failure of the independence movement. They are still a pro-independence party, but within the existing order. That is legitimate. I have no problem with it.