Madrid fury as left-wing forges Catalonia pact

Three Catalan left-wing parties formed a new government yesterday when Pasqual Maragall, socialist leader and former mayor of Barcelona, signed a historic pact.

"This is the first time in a hundred years that Catalonia has had a stable progressive government," Mr Maragall said with tears in his eyes. The ceremony took place in a 14th- century hall in the heart of Barcelona's Gothic quarter.

Under the deal, Mr Maragall will become president of the Catalan government after approval by the regional parliament in Barcelona tomorrow. The agreement promises more self-government, a Catalan tax revenue body, and increased social spending.

Mr Maragall yesterday appealed for unity: "I am not going to be president of a socialist Catalonia, or even a left-wing Catalonia. I am going to be President of Catalonia, full-stop."He promised his party would become more responsive, especially to the young.

Catalonia's socialists forged a detailed plan for regional government with the pro-independence Republican Left party and a green-communist alliance, Initiative for Change. The deal was struck during weeks of haggling following elections last month in which conservative nationalists, who had ruled for more than 23 years, were narrowly defeated. But it was unclear until recent days whether or not the Convergence and Union party might continue to rule, either in minority or with the Republican Left.

But Mr Maragall's words cut no ice in Madrid. Eduardo Zaplana, spokesman for Jose Maria Aznar's conservative government, had only just returned from the EU summit in Brussels on Saturday when he accused the Catalans of copying a Basque plan for independence that his government says is illegal.

Josep Lluis Carod-Rivera, leader of the Republican Left, is to be Mr Maragall's deputy, responsible for policy on Catalan language, immigration and international affairs. But the agreement does not propose the formation of a separate Catalan state.

It proposes to revise the statute of autonomy to increase Catalan powers and promises to submit the revisions to popular consultation. Mr Aznar said this amounted to a regional referendum, which he said was unconstitutional. Mr Maragall declined to specify what form the consultation might take, but said "we will stay within the law".