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Catalan businesses have their backs to the wall. Retailers, the tourist industry and the restaurant business in particular are among the sectors that face huge difficulties in surviving the current stoppage of business activity due to the coronavirus crisis. To answer some of the many questions that are in the air, Club El Nacional invited Barcelona Chamber of Commerce president Joan Canadell to take part in a videoconference, and our subscribers were able to submit their own questions to the Catalan business leader. How is this key Catalan institution giving support and how does it see the path ahead? Joan Canadell spoke in detail about the difficulties, but he also had a message of encouragement to all entrepreneurs, assuring that "we'll get through it." And the Chamber of Commerce president had a key reflection which he believes is for the immediate future: "I ask all entrepreneurs to reflect on whether they think we'd be much better off with an independent state." This conversation is part of our Àgora ElNacional series during the lockdown period. Below, part one of the interview:


Good afternoon. How are you coping with lockdown Joan?
Good afternoon. Well, like all of us, with the resignation that it's what we have to do, but at the same time with a lot of activity. There are days when I think I'm working more now confined at home than before at the Chamber in the Avinguda Diagonal.

These days there is massive concern across all Catalan companies. Could you explain how this crisis is affecting our business fabric and which areas are the worst affected?
Obviously this hits some sectors especially and those that are affected most by the state of alarm provisions have been the most damaged. From day one, we've said that there are four significant sectors very badly affected: restaurants, tourism, non-essential retail, and culture.

They were the first to close and probably will be the last to return to their activity, so the impact will be very serious. And then obviously beyond that, there are many others: in industry, say, it is not the same if an industrial firm works in pharmaceuticals or the food industry and has more work than ever before, or on the other hand an industry that exports to countries that are now in lockdown. So there are different impacts, but in general the impact is very significant.

In fact, with respect to restaurants and retail, a reader asks us, what action is the Chamber of Commerce taking to help these areas?
To come out of this lockdown, we've been working on this for days based on what other countries have done, which is basically to work with two axes, one, have mass testing of the population, and the other, to have enough protection for a minimally normal life. But we have been thinking for some time now that this combination won't arrive. The Spanish state is showing that it's not doing this well enough and the proof is that now the process of lifting the lockdown has now started, and there are no tests, and there are no tests for health, so imagine for companies. And there aren't masks and gloves and other things, it seems.

We have to create protections that allow us to live a safe life with the virus, for as long as the tests take to arrive, allowing us to start up the business sectors, with the appropriate protections in each sector

So, what we've been working on for days now is that we have to think of a plan B in order to return to the maximum normal activity. And our goal is 100% of normal activity, even though that may seem radical, within as little time as possible. Obviously now, we are at about 30-35% of normal activity in all the indicators that we have. We're thinking about how we can do this and that means we have to create protections that allow us to live a safe life with the virus, for as long as the tests take to arrive, allowing us to start up the business sectors, with the appropriate protections in each sector.

For example, if you look at restaurants, there must be protection for all the employees of the restaurant so that the client feels safe and, of course, general protections for the public so that you go down the street safely and go into any establishment in a safe way. And we simply have to achieve this, and therefore, for days now we have been working on it and we have some models that are provisionally very good. Until we finish them, and especially until we have the support for them from the medical community, we will not formally announce anything, but we're working in this line.

And retail is quite similar, you have to be able to enter a shop without any worries, well protected, and seeing that the shop assistant is also well protected and this is more or less the goal that we are pursuing, and we hope that in the days ahead - we can't wait for weeks - we'll have some good news in this area.


A reader asks if you think the Spanish government's response to the proposal for total lockdown of Catalonia was more economic than it was based on health?
Probably, but I don't have the proof. What it obviously was, was a serious mistake, a very serious one. Here it was clear to us that all business establishments should be closed, and the state said no, and for a few days continued to maintain the contagion, and thus, raising the peak of the curve. And so, how many deaths have been caused by that cannot be calculated, but I'm convinced there were many. And how long have we thus delayed the time of returning to normal activity? It's not the same having a curve with a high peak as a flatter curve from the start.

I remember that weekend how we saw traffic streaming out of Madrid and all across Spain - and in Barcelona too, let's not fool ourselves about that. But the point was, there was no clear directive given from the government, saying listen, everyone stay home.

And that has had a very high economic cost and in lives as well. And we have to call that what it is: we're the worst country in the world, in terms of deaths per thousand of population. So in that sense, of the results, it's clear that we couldn't have done things any worse. People can give their opinions and views but the truth is we're the worst or the second worst country in the world. So it's very sad, once again, Spain is at the top of the negative statistics. Like unemployment, public deficit, so many other things, Spain is also among the last in those things.

A reader asks: with our own state would we be in a stronger position to get Catalonia going again after this crisis?
Yes, we're convinced we would be, we've been working on this subject for many days. Now is the opportunity to change our model, generate a rethink of the economic and social model we need to use. So, for example, we see president Macron starting to talk about this, and other presidents too. President Torra, with whom I've spoken, is also tending towards this area. On the other hand, in Spain there is no suggestion of a change of model when in fact for decades a change of economic model has been needed.  

So we think it's the moment for a change of model, and if we had an independent state, we could do it. A small state enables you to move much more rapidly. It's like an ocean liner versus a small boat, if you have to turn around, there's a huge difference. And now we have a crisis and the IMF says it will be like the Great Depression as a minimum. And look, for all countries it'll be hard, but for those which go more slowly, because they're ocean liners, the problems will be much worse still. Now, more than ever, it's in our interests to have a state which is small and agile and can focus on the model it wants to follow as a country. 

Catalonia has to go to a model much less based in excessive consumption, more towards added value, social responsibility, respect for the environment

And here we have the good luck that we've already been thinking about this, the Chamber of Commerce recently produced its Catalonia 2030/40 document [link in Catalan]. The only thing that instead of changing in 2030, 2040, we have to do it from 2020 to 2025. We have to make that change in five years, accelerate in many cases, but the 15 axes we used are practically all valid: we have to go to a model much less based in excessive consumption, more towards added value, more towards social responsibility, more towards respect for the environment. To export more, be more international, be more digitalized. We have those 15 axes already, now we have to activate them. 

There are things that are already accelerating with this crisis - we're doing this interview by telematic means, and many changes of this type are going to remain long term.
Yes, of course. There are some things that will change naturally. And in the public sector, its been shown that almost everything can work at a distance, so perhaps in the long term we could have a mixed model, working 2-3 days at the office, 2-3 days at home. That's a substantial change because it means that, for example, in terms of space, the Catalan administration could reduce its space by half. That's a very significant cost. 

That's a natural change. But then there are changes which will have to be forced at a much more accelerated rate. If we had a state, we could start that change of model rapidly. With the Spanish state we can't. 

And moreover, the type of change that the Spanish state needs is different to what we need. We are already a much more industrial society, they have to industralize more, with the exception of regions like the Basque Country, Valencia, a little Andalusia and a little Madrid, but Spain doesn't have the whole state at a sufficient industrial level, and it's been shown there are many deficits. The state needs to create a change towards a more industrial model, which we already have. We have to look for added value. They are different strategies. 

But since there's a single state with a single vision which is very monolithic, which wants everyone to do what that state wants, we don't fit. So I think it's very important that everyone makes this reflection. Do you really think that in the Spanish state we'll come out of this as well as we would as a small independent state? To me it's extremely clear that as a small state we would come out of this better and furthermore come out it relatively strengthened.

In part two of the interview: Joan Canadell discusses the ERTO temporary layoffs, the Universal Basic Income proposal and more of the Barcelona Chamber of Commerce's proposals. Below, the video of the interview in Catalan.     




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