Would an independent Catalonia continue to attract high-tech talent?

Catalonia intends to hold a referendum on independence on Sunday, despite the efforts of the Spanish government to prevent it doing so because such a plebiscite breaches the Spanish Constitution and is therefore illegal. With police ordered to prevent people from voting throughout the northeastern region, the outcome is likely to be contentious and inconclusive, and we can expect the campaign to secede from Spain to continue.

I was asked my thoughts on the likely impact of the independence drive on the technology sector in Barcelona and Catalonia by Mario Moreno of the Spanish edition of Computer World, some of which are included in a Spanish-language article here.

I have no intention of giving my opinions on the merits of Catalan independence per se: they would be of no use and would not affect the issue in any way, but it is certainly worth considering the impact of the process: Barcelona has attracted large numbers of technology companies over the last decade, and the likelihood of instability as a result of its position, initially at least, outside the European Union, along with an uncertain financial situation, and presumably having come through a bitter divorce from Spain, is highly, if not inevitable.

Tech companies are looking for the same things in Barcelona as they do everywhere else: a modern city with a benign climate, economic and political stability and an interesting and varied leisure and cultural scene. Barcelona ticks all the boxes, and among the latest it has attracted is Amazon, which is to open a machine learning R+D hub early next year, hoping to attract researchers from around the world. Amazon’s move is not an attempt to bolster Catalonia’s image: it planned the investment long ago, after all, large companies are not interested in politics as a rule and simply seek the right conditions to make a profit.

What can researchers expect if they move to Barcelona? Instability would certainly be a disincentive for taking up residence. Under the current circumstances, attracting talent to a city where the political and economic outlook is unclear, even for a company like Amazon, may not be easy. And presumably, an independent Catalonia would function in the Catalan language, as opposed to Spanish, one of the most widely spoken ​​in the world. Furthermore, in the short to medium term at least, Spain would effectively blockade an independent Catalonia, while the fledgling nation of 7.5 million, 41% of whom say they support independence, would have no support from the EU, realities that would somewhat undermine the image of modernity and stability it likes to project.

Furthermore, leaving aside the merits of independence, there is no doubt that the methods adopted by the regional government in Catalonia to obtain it have been anything but optimal, and do not appear to be garnering any positive results in the short or medium term.

What happens if businesses, in whatever sector, discover that their investments in Catalonia are threatened by instability and an uncertain future, along with recent outbreaks of hostility toward Barcelona’s huge numbers of tourists, combined with the treatment of businesses like Uber and Airbnb, making it increasingly difficult to attract or retain talent? Quite simply, they will make plans to move somewhere more stable. And that will be one more element in the perfect storm that is coming over the next few days, a dispute that has been mishandled by all those involved, the worst of its kind in recent Spanish history, and one that will bring no benefit to anybody.

(En español, aquí)