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Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Mon Feb 6 22:04:24 UTC 2006

>>From the NYTimes, February 6, 2006

Spain's Chief Tries to Keep Risky Pledge to Catalonia

MADRID, Feb. 5 The issue of how to keep the perpetually rebellious region
of Catalonia content within Spanish borders has vexed generations of
Spanish leaders, leading most to adopt hard-line approaches. But Prime
Minister Jos Luis Rodrguez Zapatero, a Socialist who came to office in
2004 with a seemingly boundless faith in democratic solutions, offered an
open hand. He said he would accept demands for more autonomy if they were
approved by a majority of the Catalonian Parliament.

On Monday, he will take up the awkward task of trying to make good on that
promise without alienating other parts of the country, as he begins
shepherding the Catalonian demands in the national Parliament. The risks
involved in Mr. Zapatero's promise became apparent in September, when
Catalonia replied to his offer with a series of demands that directly
challenge the central government's constitutional authority over the
northeastern region, which has 7 million of the country's 44 million
inhabitants. The demands were part of a complex proposal, approved by 90
percent of the Catalonian Parliament, that declared Catalonia a nation
with self-government powers not restricted by the Spanish Constitution.

A poll published by the newspaper El Pas in late January found that nearly
half of the Spaniards who responded felt the proposal threatened to split
Spain apart. It is not widely popular even in Mr. Zapatero's Socialist
Party. Yet Mr. Zapatero has resisted pressure to reject the proposal
outright and has instead chosen to modify it through negotiations. After
receiving a briefing on its contents, Eduardo Zaplana of the center-right
Popular Party said at a news conference on Thursday that the revised
proposal still presented a risk to the nation's stability.

A central concern of Mr. Zaplana and other critics has been an agreement
on one point that Mr. Zapatero has made public to let Catalonia, among the
richest of Spain's 17 regions, keep 50 percent of its income taxes, up
from 33 percent. The concession drew requests from other regions for equal
treatment, which the government granted, fueling fears that the regions
would seek more control of their own funds, leaving the central government
without adequate resources. With Spain already transferring powers to the
European Union, the simultaneous surrendering of money and authority to
the regions threatens to drive the Spanish government toward irrelevancy,
Mr. Zapatero's political opponents contend.

Anxiety over the issue is in the air here. "For the first time in my life,
I am worried about the future of Spain," said Francisco Javier de la Mota,
30, a landscape architect who lives near Madrid. He said that the
uncertainty over Catalonia was inevitably a topic of conversation when he
gathered with friends, even those who did not regularly follow politics.
Mr. Zapatero says fears of a fragmenting Spanish state are exaggerated,
conjured by his opponents in hopes of scaring the public into turning
against the Socialists, who lead the government, though without a majority
in Parliament.

To secure the votes necessary to pass legislation over the past two years,
Mr. Zapatero has regularly relied on the support of a Catalonian
separatist party, Esquerra Republicana. He defends his approach,
contending that there is no use denying greater autonomy to a region whose
leaders demand it with near unanimity. He says that the proper response in
a democratic Spain is to negotiate, offer compromises and embrace the
concept of a pluralistic country. He insists that nothing in the revised
proposal would enable the Catalonians to challenge the authority of the
central government.

But one of the chief Catalan negotiators, Artur Mas, president of
Convergncia i Uni, the largest political group in Catalonia, has already
undercut his argument. He says the agreement with Mr. Zapatero will allow
Catalonia to address the Spanish government on equal terms. Only days
after the negotiations with Mr. Zapatero concluded, Mr. Mas said his party
would begin lobbying for additional freedoms.

Copyright 2006The New York Times Company

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