CATALAN QUESTION

How Rajoy plans to avoid confrontation with Catalonia

Prime minister bids to maintain a conciliatory stance as he plots a political escape route

Mariano Rajoy is hoping to avoid confrontation with Artur Mas, and by extension Catalonia, after the announcement that the regional government presided by the leader of the center-right bloc CiU is to present a resolution seeking a right-to-decide referendum. The news has caused consternation at Rajoy's Moncloa seat of government, but the prime minister is planning on seeking political exit routes that will douse the flame of secessionist zeal that is currently sweeping Catalonia.

There is visible and subterranean political movement in the corridors of power, all geared toward making Mas feel surrounded and unable to turn in any other direction apart from negotiating a financial agreement that will allow Catalonia to survive the current economic crisis - the reason, the government contends, for its talk of breaking away from Spain. The first chance Rajoy will get to test Mas' apparent resolve will come at a gathering of regional premiers on October 2.

Among the government's more discreet approaches is a campaign to persuade Catalan businessmen of the folly of independence.

"Uncertainty has an adverse effect on money and the business world; and that is what we have at the moment," said one businessman, who, despite his support for independence, admitted the current process has veered off a path of cogency.

Rajoy's Popular Party (PP) has also been revisiting the words of former Catalan premier Jordi Pujol, who said that independence is impossible, and the restraint of Basque Nationalist Party (PNV) leader Iñigo Urkullu, who, while seeking reforms to the Gernika Statute, has refrained from speaking of regional sovereignty.

There is asymmetry in the Constitution; we need to better define singularities"

At the October 2 conference, Rajoy intends to not only seat Mas in front of the central government, but also have him face his regional counterparts from both sides of the political spectrum. He wants Mas to hear his proposal for an entirely new fiscal deal for Catalonia rejected by the rest of the regions, which favor a global overhaul of the current model.

Rajoy's stance has been strengthened by the support of opposition leader Alfredo Pérez Rubalcaba. The two spoke before and after the prime minister's meeting with Mas last week and agree that the Catalan fiscal pact should be denied. But the Socialist leader also wants free rein to guide the Catalanist sector of the regional party (PSC) in the direction he wishes without appearing to be dictated to by the PP.

Rubalcaba said on Monday that the PSC "wants Catalonia to remain part of Spain, but that it should be a strong Catalonia." The opposition leader favors a shift toward a federal model to "guarantee equality and preserve diversity." His party's stance does not coincide with that of Mas or the PP's, which he accused of fomenting anti-Catalan feeling.

"There is asymmetry in the Spanish Constitution; what we need to do is see if we can better define singularities. Catalonia has put forward two problems: one is financing and the second is how it feels within Spain as a whole. The federal model is an improvement over the system of autonomous regions, because it allows for clearer mechanisms of cooperation," Rubalcaba said.

Socialist Party number two Elena Valenciano insisted her party was not planning on raising the question of a change to the Constitution but rather seeking debate on how to move toward a federal state. "The Constitution is not immutable. What is immutable is constitutional consensus."

If Rubalcaba is facing internal pressure from the PSC, Rajoy must contend with a sector of his own party that is even more radical and carries weight in the media. The prime minister was harangued into refusing to meet Mas if he did not withdraw what the PP sees as blackmail, while the party's leader in Catalonia, Alicia Sánchez-Camacho, made an unsuccessful attempt to persuade him to distance the PP from CiU in both Barcelona and Madrid. Rajoy, however, has maintained his conciliatory tone throughout. The aim of the PP is to avoid public confrontation, as well as extreme measures such as invoking the clause in the Constitution that allows the autonomous system to be suspended.

On Sunday Rajoy spoke of the need to "work together" with the regions, declaring himself open to "talking and listening, because not everything is black and white." Without directly mentioning Mas, he sent a clear message to the Catalan premier: "I am at the disposition of anyone who wishes to enter into dialogue because it is possible to find common ground. On my part there will be no lack of will."

The government's strategy also aims to force Mas to present his proposal on the floor of Congress, as happened under the previous administration with the Ibarretxe Plan for greater autonomy in the Basque Country. The former lehendekari's text, like that of Mas, spoke of self-determination. It was voted down in Congress by 313 votes to 29. If the Catalan proposal is presented under the same circumstances, a similar result is practically assured, with the PP, the Socialists and UPyD opposed to the resolution.

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