Some Catalan residents were shifting their bank accounts to lenders and branches in other regions of Spain on Monday with the aim of safeguarding their savings should Catalonia declare independence and tumble out of the European Union.
In Fraga, a rural town just across the border in neighbouring Aragon, dozens of clients of Caixabank arrived early in the morning and queued for hours to open accounts.
The Catalan parliament may unilaterally declare independence as soon as Tuesday following a banned referendum on Oct. 1 which a majority of voters boycotted but that Catalan leaders say produced an overwhelming majority for secession.
Such a move would not have any immediate legal effect because it would be blocked by Spain's constitutional court.
But an eventual break from Spain would leave Catalonia outside the European Union and the consumer protections it offers -- a source of uncertainty and fear in the minds of some depositors.
A Caixabank spokeswoman told Reuters on Monday there was no deposit flight and that the vast majority of people going to branches to enquire about their money had decided to keep it with the bank.
"It's a marginal, short-term issue that has no impact on our branch network. Our operations are absolutely normal," she said.
Bilbao-based BBVA, which bought several Catalan lenders during the crisis and has become the region's second-biggest bank after Caixabank, declined to comment.
Even if an independent Catalonia were to persist in using the euro, as non-EU members Kosovo and Montenegro do, its lenders would cease to be supervised by the European Central Bank, whose deposit insurance scheme protects bank customers across the euro zone.
Catalonia's biggest banks, Caixabank and Banco Sabadell <SABE.MC>, moved their legal bases to other parts of Spain following the Oct. 1 referendum, ensuring they would remain under ECB supervision even if the region does decide to secede.
'Protect our deposits'
Caixabank said last week it was transferring its legal base from Barcelona to Valencia to reassure clients in Catalonia that their deposits were safe.
Sabadell says it has moved its legal base to Alicante.
A spokesman for Sabadell said he was aware some clients in specific areas were enquiring about their money but most of them had decided not to leave and no significant impact had been registered.
Spain's central government in Madrid has said it will act to stop the region breaking away and promised savers their money will be kept safe.
ECB officials have so far declined to comment on the Catalan crisis. The central bank's core roles include protecting depositors by ensuring euro zone lenders keep strong balancesheets as well as overseeing the deposit insurance scheme.
In Fraga on Monday, a Reuters reporter saw about 80 people queuing in each of the town's small branches of Caixabank and BBVA.
"If Catalonia gets independence, we will have to be able to protect our deposits," said 70-year-old Jose Sospedra, after opening a new account at the Caixabank branch. He previously had an account at Caixabank in Barcelona.
He and his wife had left the Catalan capital at 6 a.m. for the two-hour drive to Fraga, a town of 15,000 on the dusty flatlands south of the Pyrenees mountains. Once there, they had queued for two hours in the bank.
Many of their friends in the Catalan capital were travelling outside the region to do the same, Sospedra said. Local newspaper reports identified Vinaroz in Valencia as another town visited by many Catalans to open accounts. Reuters could not independently confirm this.
Some Fraga residents said Catalans had been coming to bank branches there since early last week.
Vicente Mezquita Gonzalvo, a 66-year-old retiree standing outside Caixabank waving a Spanish flag, said the queues were so long last week that they crossed the street.
On Monday, queues extended out of the front doors of the Caixabank and BBVA branches.
At one point, a BBVA branch employee told people queuing outside go to elsewhere in Aragon because there would not be enough time to deal with them all.