Only the beginning

It remains a mystery how Catalonia could split from Spain, even if a “yes” vote is returned in this Sunday's incendiary referendum. Even so, the region's business community is becoming nervous about possible effects of the protracted battle being fought between Catalonia and Madrid. This is a battle that will only escalate if Catalonians vote for secession at the weekend, impossible to realise as their dream appears to be.

The region's two biggest banks - Caixabank and Banco Sabadell - have long been worried about the economic status of an independent Catalonia. In the run-up to the region's parliamentary elections in the autumn of 2015 - which resulted in victory for Artur Mas's pro-independence “Together for Yes” coalition, now led by his successor Carles Puigdemont - the two lenders gave their name to a statement spelling out the perils of secession. In the event of a divorce between Catalonia and Spain, the statement said that “all banks with a presence in Catalonia would face serious problems of legal uncertainty”.

The banks' concerns are apparently shared by other companies with a stake in Catalonia, among them the foreign behemoths of Volkswagen, Nestlé and Airbnb. The Financial Times reported this week that some Spanish and international businesses have already prepared to leave Catalonia if a “yes” vote is returned (although it didn't mention which ones). According to insiders quoted by the paper, the prevailing concern is not necessarily that Catalonia will break from Spain; rather, it focuses on the aggressive standoff between Madrid and Barcelona, and the uncertainty this is causing over the wealthy region's immediate future. That uncertainty is likely to continue whatever the result of Sunday's plebiscite, although it will increase if independence is voted for.

Cue Donald Trump. As if to reassure fretting companies in Catalonia, the US president blundered onto the secessionist battlefield on Tuesday, during a joint press conference with Mariano Rajoy at the White House. Before pointing out that it was uncertain whether the vote would happen and that Rajoy didn't want it to, Trump declared: “I bet if you had accurate numbers... you'd find that [Catalans] love Spain, and [that] they wouldn't want to leave”. The weird phrasing here suggests that Trump has researched beyond the (apparently misleading) polls and knows what Catalans want, deep down.

The latest poll does in fact show that Catalans are against secession, with 49% opposing independence and 41% supporting it - although 70% are in favour of holding the referendum. Yet Madrid's military-state-style tactics - such as arresting Catalan ministers, banning pro-independence leaflets and posters and seizing ballot papers - are likely to inflame more moderate secessionists and might even induce fence-sitters to defy Rajoy by voting “yes”. And if Catalans ask for secession on Sunday, just one outcome can be predicted with certainty: the problems will only be beginning.