Rajoy rejects Catalan call for greater autonomy

Fri, Sep 21, 2012, 01:00

A MUCH-AWAITED meeting between the leader of Catalonia and the Spanish prime minister on financing issues yesterday failed to produce an agreement, putting further pressure on the already fraught relations between Madrid and the northeastern region.

Catalan premier Artur Mas said afterwards that talks with prime minister Mariano Rajoy over whether the region should receive greater autonomy in areas such as taxes “did not go well”. Mr Rajoy, he said, had refused to consider his proposal. “An historic opportunity in the understanding between Catalonia and the rest of Spain has been missed,” Mr Mas said.

Mr Rajoy’s answer came as little surprise. He has repeatedly insisted that changing Catalonia’s relationship with the rest of the country would be unconstitutional. A statement issued by the prime minister’s office said that during the meeting Mr Rajoy “warned [Mr Mas] the instability certain political initiatives create is a very negative factor when it comes to restoring the confidence needed to emerge from the economic crisis”.

Catalonia’s relationship with the rest of Spain has hogged the headlines in recent weeks, with a grassroots campaign for independence for the region gaining momentum.

On September 11th, hundreds of thousands of Catalans took to the streets of Barcelona to vent their anger at the central government and demand secession from Spain.

On Tuesday King Juan Carlos issued an appeal on the royal website for Spaniards to unite, in an apparent attempt to cool Catalan nationalist fervour.

Spain’s economic crisis has contributed to the discontent in Catalonia, with both the central and regional governments implementing heavy spending cuts. In August Catalonia requested a €5 billion emergency loan from the state in order to meet looming debt obligations.

The logistics of yesterday’s meeting highlighted the existing tensions, with Mr Mas giving his press conference afterwards in the Catalan regional government’s Madrid headquarters, rather than in the prime minister’s building as is customary. “I think that in Spain a mistake is being made, and that is that the constitution is being reread in a centralist fashion,” said Mr Mas.

Alfred Bosch, of the radical nationalist ERC party, said he hoped the rejection of the fiscal pact would encourage Mr Mas to “put his foot on the accelerator” towards independence.

Mr Mas, who leads the mainstream nationalist CiU coalition, has mostly avoided addressing the independence issue in public. Instead he has preferred to focus on increased financial autonomy for Catalonia, the so-called “fiscal pact”, which was one of his campaign promises when elected two years ago.

This has made him vulnerable to criticism that his own agenda is unclear and that the recent upsurge in pro-independence feeling has caught him unawares.

The Catalan leader hinted that he would soon call early elections in the region in response to the central government’s refusal to accept his demands. The independence issue would almost certainly be central in the campaign ahead of such a vote. A recent poll by the Catalan government showed that just over half of people in the region favour independence.