José Luis Bonet (Barcelona, 1941) holds the presidency of the Spanish Chamber of Commerce for the third consecutive term, a position he reached in 2014 and for which he was re-elected in 2019. The Catalan has developed an extensive business career and He has been in charge of Freixenet since 1999. In addition, he is a Doctor of Law from the University of Barcelona, where he has also developed as a professor of Political Economy and Public Finance. Bonet is a firm defender of entrepreneurship and of Spain, as a state of autonomies that walk in the same direction.
Question: We are in an electoral year in which it seemed that the economy was going to monopolize the debate in the municipal and general elections, but other issues have entered the agenda, the deterioration of institutions, health, the law of ‘only yes is yes’… What are we going to talk about in the electoral campaign?
Answer: They are going to talk about everything, but above all economics, but also politics. There are issues that fly over the debate, such as the question of the loyalty of the autonomies. I am very much in favor of the system of autonomous communities as long as they are loyal, when they are not we have problems that can have a negative influence on the progress of the region itself and of Spain. In the case of Catalonia, it is clear that it is not going to collapse, the power of this community is monumental, but its economy has lost steam and leadership in the country as a whole. And this must be recovered from the normalization of the political and economic life of Catalonia, for the benefit of this territory and of Spain.
Q: We come from a year marked by inflation, the loss of purchasing power of citizens and demands for salary increases. Can the economy be what decides the citizen’s vote?
A: Yes, but it is closely related to the political issue itself. I have lived through the evolution that Spain has experienced in the last 60 years and, above all, since the Transition and the Constitution of 1978, which enshrined a model of social market economy and another series of principles such as the Welfare State. The leap that the country has taken since then has been monumental, firstly because we Spaniards have the capacity and secondly, because this framework has allowed us to do so with extraordinary elements such as help from Europe. We saw it in the pandemic. Although in 2008 Europe was on a different wave, wrongly, not now, it has been right, it is on the right track and for Spain this has been key, such as the arrival of Next Generation funds.
Q: The role of businessmen has been fundamental in this process…
A: The role of businessmen is key in the system. It is based on the company and I don’t want to say on the employer, but also on his collaborators, the ‘stakeholders’ and the workers, as a whole. We listen to people who make strange criticisms of this system, but it is what has worked, that is why he defends entrepreneurship. At the beginning of my third term as head of the Spanish Chamber of Commerce, in 2019, I had the opportunity to convey to King Felipe the lines that we were going to follow. I told him we are going for training, we are going for sustainability, we are going for the internationalization of companies and the economy in general and for entrepreneurship.
The Next Generation funds covered the first, which is why I stressed the importance of focusing on internalization and entrepreneurship, because the large European countries (France, Germany…) have already done so, but Spain is on the way. Last year there was significant growth in exports, given the war scenario, the winner is the United States, which sells gas 40% more expensive. Who can put up with this in Europe? Spain for its foreign sector. Exports grow with a certain price revision due to inflation, which somewhat offsets the cost raised by the US. In addition, Spain has what I call the oil of our economy, foreign tourism.
“There is a resilient spirit among businessmen, to adapt to the situation, they have come to the conviction that they must transform themselves and if not, they are left out.”
Q: What are your economic prospects for this year? Are you optimistic and rule out a recession?
A: I am optimistic in the discussion about the current situation. Last year the recession was feared and they always told me that I was going to be wrong, but already in April I was guided by the spirit of businessmen in the food sector, which was later reflected at a general level in the survey that we do every year. There is a resilient spirit among businessmen, to adapt to the situation, they have come to the conviction that they must transform themselves and if not, they are left out. And for me, after the stability of Spain as a safe country, this is the most important factor. Entrepreneurs are willing to take risks. And companies, which are mostly family businesses in which a generational transition is taking place, are aware of the importance of digitization. The pandemic has been disruptive and there is no institution or company that can continue as before, or is transformed, or is finished.
Q: European funds represent an opportunity for small and medium-sized companies to carry out this process, but there is also talk that they do not reach the real economy. Is there a blockage in the autonomies in the distribution of transfers?
A: I remember that at the beginning of the pandemic I clamored saying “a Marshall Plan is needed” and the Next Generation funds have been in an improved version. It is an opportunity that must be seized yes or yes. Europe has authorized the third transfer of 6,000 million, if it did not see that it is being detected it would not have done so. The Chamber is collaborating a lot in the Digital Kit that is vital to change the Spanish economy. At the beginning there was talk that if 40,000 companies signed up they would be a success, today there are more than 77,000 and they have not done so because of the subsidy they received, but have seen the opportunity to carry out this change. This project is advanced, it looks good, but I would warn that small companies do not end with 50 workers.
José Luis Bonet, minutes before the interview with La Información.
In Spain there are 85 Chambers of Commerce that have an Acelera Pymes office and help them in this process because they can’t do it alone. The solution goes through the four ‘a’: unite, help, accompany and alliance. In this project there is a very positive alliance between Red.es and the Spanish Chamber of Commerce, I believe in public-private cooperation, when I started talking about it in the 90s they looked at me strangely, but either we go together or we don’t do anything .
Q: Part of that cooperation is the long-awaited income agreement, which seems increasingly difficult to close.
A: I wish there was. If there is no consensus, we can also work by combining public and private efforts and with internal cooperation from the company. I have lived in my own experience the tensions that occur when each company looks after their own, it is logical, but as a result there has been a very clear understanding. There may be some exceptional case or activism on the street that launches complaints, but what matters to me is that the employer has his workers with him and vice versa. Some say that there is a class struggle, but in companies what prevails is understanding.
“When I started talking about public-private collaboration, they looked at me strangely, but either we go together or we don’t do anything.”
Q: In recent days, the compensation for unjustified dismissal has been debated in Congress, several formations spoke of recovering the 45 days per year worked or expanding the criteria to calculate it.
A: I think they are excessive, the courts are already capable of judging as a general rule, they do their job and they do it well, perhaps slowly, that could be the defect and that is why the Chamber is working along the lines of mediation. The companies compete and also fiercely, but they can collaborate. Entrepreneurs also have a sense of country that is sometimes denied to them and they are also interested in strategic cooperation. In life there is always the cooperation-conflict game, not the Marxist vision that there is only the latter. Those who defended this are in the SXIX.
Q: In the last year, three specific taxes on banking, energy and large fortunes have been developed. An avalanche of resources is expected that will reach the Constitutional Court, what role does this play for the legal security of the country?
A: It is normal for this process to go to court, they are strange issues, anomalies that should be put in their place. I believe that the greatest weakness of the policy that the Government is following is in the collection aspect, it is voracious, let’s say excessive. It is inexplicable to me that they have not deflated personal income tax with the inflation that exists, it is confiscating a significant part of people’s income and this cannot be. No government has done it, but there are ministers who are pointing directly at businessmen while they do not think to change this.
Q: The foreign sector is supporting the growth of the economy and has exceeded 43,000 regular exporters for the first time. What has been the evolution in recent years? Has the exporter’s profile changed?
A: When looking at these data with perspective, the evolution of Spain in this sense seems like another miracle. In the 90s there were hardly any Spanish companies with a position in the world, now they have significant exposure, also in terms of leadership. Has the task been accomplished? No, there is potential and I think it must be made visible and supported. It is very clear that internationalization continues to be an objective at the same level or above digitization, sustainability, although training is the most important thing. I am optimistic because there are reasons for this, we have stability, the encouragement of businessmen, public-private cooperation and support from Western democracies, on the other hand, there is no political consensus and there never will be.