The Spanish Prime Minister, Felipe Gonzalez, wearing his authority as President of the European Union as gracefully as his habitual cashmere jackets, yesterday defied his Catalan government partners over plans for the next six months and in effect challenged them to pull the plug on his minority rule.
Heedless of threatening grumbles that have been emanating from the Catalan camp in recent days, Mr Gonzalez laid down his vision of Spain's EU presidency in parliament, at the core of which lie strict budget controls.
Mr Gonzalez pledged to prepare the Spanish economy to join the third stage of European monetary union, that of a single currency, by 1999 - a timetable that many consider ambitious, given Spain's undistinguished economic performance. To that end he promised to limit the budget deficit to 4.4 per cent of gross national product, an aim that would need a "rigorous and austere budget" for 1996 and 1997.
This was unwelcome news for the nationalist Catalan Convergence and Union (CiU) party, which has been urging a more relaxed timetable of budget restraint gradually leading up to 1999. Catalonia, the economic heartland of Spain, has been hit hard by the protracted recession, and the CiU's leader, Jordi Pujol, had thrown in his lot with the minority Socialist government in 1993 largely in expectation that his support would be repaid by co-operation on measures of economic recovery.
Mr Pujol yesterday cancelled a trip to Germany during which he was to talk to car manufacturers whose Catalan subsidiaries are in trouble. He expressed his disquiet over his party's relationship with the Socialists and indicated the partnership was coming to an end.
"CiU has fulfilled its programme and its promise to the electorate, and its commitment to the stability of Spain ... It really seems that we have reached the end of an era," Mr Pujol said in Barcelona. His party had put up with "a heap of scandals" that had discredited the government, rebounded against the CiU and "seriously affected collective morale". The worst of these was the illegal telephone tapping conducted by the secret intelligence service, Cesid, he said.
The Catalan leader has been angling for specific commitments from Mr Gonzalez in return for which he would continue to give his support. One of these was the budget, on which Mr Gonzalez appeared to turn a deaf ear to Catalan pleas.
The other is a commitment to bring forward general elections, due in 1997, to next spring. But Mr Gonzalez would not reveal his electoral plans, despite Mr Pujol's last-minute appeals. The Catalans want to hold their regional elections in November, before their reputation is further damaged by association with the government.
Mr Gonzalez has thrown an additional provocation at the Catalans, announcing that the cabinet would approve on Friday its long-promised white paper relaxing the abortion law. The proposal is deeply offensive to the Catholic CiU, but a shrewd move to stem the haemorrhaging of left- wing support from the Socialists.
Clearly Mr Gonzalez seeks to show that he, not the Catalans, determine the timing and content of government actions. But some suspect that Mr Pujol and Mr Gonzalez have tacitly agreed to end their formal pact and are staking out public positions the better to negotiate terms. A possible outcome is that the Catalans would be freed from the partnership, while permitting the government to survive until spring elections.