Catalans haggle hard in Spanish coalition talks

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The Independent Online
ELIZABETH NASH

Madrid

The prospects of the Spanish conservative leader Jose Maria Aznar forming a stable government remain in doubt, despite his insistence thathe could reach agreement with Catalan and Basque nationalists.

In bitter contrast to his hopes of ruling with a "new majority", Mr Aznar is being subjected to the pressures of Spain's most accomplished political hagglers, the Catalan Nationalist Convergence and Union party (CiU). The Popular Party, whose victory in Sunday's elections left it 20 seats short of an absolute majority, is to open talks with the CiU today that could last weeks.

The CiU, led by the astute Jordi Pujol, is making Mr Aznar sweat, partly because of its strong bargaining position and because many Catalan nationalists yesterday jammed the party's telephone switchboards to oppose the idea that their 16 MPs might back a party they believe has long treated them with hostility and contempt.

As the price for their support, the Catalans are expected to demand a bigger share of taxes levied by Madrid, and control of all taxes raised in Catalonia. In addition, the CiU's parliamentary spokesman in Madrid, Joaquim Molins, would like the PP to recognise the Catalan people as a nation deserving more favourable treatment than other regions in Spain.

Mr Aznar said yesterday he was ready to discuss these matters. But the recognition of Catalan nationhood flies in the face of a deeply held PP conviction, an unexpunged trace of its Francoist origins, that Spain is a single nation and a single state. If taken on board by the PP's spokesman Rodrigo Rato, who is handling today's talks, the principle could be unpalatable to those on the party's right and create strong internal tensions.

Mr Pujol, prime minister of the region that attracts most of Spain's foreign investment, tried to calm the nervous business community yesterday by saying that Spain's existing budget needed only minor tweaking to keep the country on course for membership of European monetary union.

The conservative Basque Nationalist Party (PNV), with five MPs, said yesterday it wanted guarantees that its autonomy would be respected, plus a favourable policy on industrialisation in the region and co-operation on "methods of pacification", that is, dealing with ETA Basque separatists. The PNV does not rule out eventual talks with ETA, while the PP prefers firmer policing.

Mr Aznar yesterday won the support of four MPs from the conservative Canary Islands Coalition (CC) - a helping hand, but useless without the Catalans. None of the players wants new elections, not even the Socialists who would very likely improve their vote. But if no deal can be cut, or ad hoc accords fail to establish stability, new elections this year remain on the cards.

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