Madrid strikes historic deal on Catalonia self-rule

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Jose Montilla, Spain's Industry Minister and a senior figure in the Catalan Socialist Party, hailed it as "a great day for Catalans and Spaniards".

The Socialist Prime Minister, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, backed by the region's ruling left-wing coalition, clinched a long-awaited deal with Catalonia's conservative nationalist Convergence and Union Party yesterday, a breakthrough described by Madrid as a "global agreement".

The accord, if ratified as expected by parliament in coming days, resolves the most serious political problem that has dogged the Spanish government for a year. The revised statute of autonomy updates the one agreed in 1979 during Spain's fledgling democracy, and pushes the limits of the country's post-Franco constitution. The charter recognises Catalans' desire to be considered a nation and gives them joint equal powers with Madrid over the region's taxes.

The deal was achieved after laborious cross-party haggling that culminated in a marathon session on Saturday in Mr Zapatero's office in Madrid. The new statute is bound to be seen as a possible blueprint for a solution to the decades-long Basque conflict. If Mr Zapatero can pull that off, he will carve his name in Spanish history as the man who ended western Europe's last armed struggle for national identity.

The deal was struck hours after thousands of radical Basque nationalists rallied in Barakaldo, near Bilbao. Arnaldo Otegi, the leader of the banned Batasuna Party, seen as Eta's political wing, told supporters "the obstacles we face show we are approaching a process of solutions".

Spain's main opposition Popular Party remains opposed to the Catalan statute. It fears the revised charter could lead to the break-up of Spain, especially if the momentum is seized by the Basques and other regions. A PP spokeswoman condemned "a deal struck in secret ... disregarding the wishes of most Spaniards". The PP is a minority in Catalonia and the parliament in Madrid, and would not muster strength to block the accord.

More serious for Mr Zapatero is possible opposition from the pro-independence Catalan Republican Left (ERC), a partner in the region's left-wing coalition, which may face pressure from members to demand a stronger declaration of nationhood. The preamble of the draft describes Catalonia as a nation and a "nationality within Spain" in the main text.

Mr Zapatero met the ERC leader, Josep Lluis Carod Rovira, yesterday to ensure his support, which is crucial, because if the ERC quits the coalition the regional government could fall, throwing the whole agreement into doubt. The party said earlier it was "not satisfied" but "there was still opportunity to reach agreement." The ERC leader conceded in an interview with Barcelona's La Vanguardia newspaper yesterday that independence was not his immediate priority. "Only 16 per cent of Catalans want it... Everything depends on whether Spain grants Catalonia the instruments with which it feels comfortable."

The new charter also devolves to Catalonia powers over matters that affect it. Some, including administration of the region's railways and the acceptance of Catalan as an official language equal to Spanish, respond to long-held demands. Others, including responsibility for immigration into Catalonia, reflect changing social conditions over the past 25 years.

A senior general was sacked recently for suggesting the army might intervene if Catalan demands breached the constitution. Days later an army captain in Spain's African enclave of Melilla warned of "dismemberment of the fatherland". But General Felix Sanz, Spain's armed forces chief, urged troops yesterday to "be loyal, have confidence in their commander" and respect parliament and the constitution.