Thursday, September 29, 2005

Less than a year after the Basque region said it had the right to break away from Spain, Catalonia is debating a similar proposal that risks creating a new conflict between Madrid and the Spanish regions.

The proposal, which will be put to a final vote at the regional Parliament here Friday, includes an assertion of what advocates call Catalonia's "historic rights." Analysts say that this would challenge the supremacy of the Spanish Constitution over local law.

The debate in Barcelona has already created a political headache for Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, a Socialist, who is being portrayed by the conservative opposition as preparing to open the door to the Balkanization of Spain.

[...] An advisory body to the Catalan government has declared, in a nonbinding report, that 19 elements in the autonomy proposal are unconstitutional. They include a declaration that Catalonia's powers of self-government, already substantial in its current relationship with Madrid, are derived not from the Spanish Constitution but from historic rights that cannot be taken away.

That declaration, passed into law, could set the stage for future assertions that the region is free to ignore the Spanish Constitution, scholars say.

"Juridically, Catalan autonomy and the rights to self-government come from the Constitution," said Jeff Miley, a political science professor at Yale University, who has written about Catalonia and Spanish politics. "But if you put in the idea that it is a nation with these historic rights," he said, it can be argued that "the basis for autonomy comes from history, not the Constitution."

To be approved by the Catalan Parliament, the measure will need the support of two-thirds of its 135 members. With politicians seeming to modify their positions on the proposal almost daily, it is unclear what the final version will look like.

The measure would also be subject to approval by the national Parliament in Madrid, where Zapatero has pledged to support whatever the Catalan Parliament approves - as long as it does not conflict with Spain's Constitution.

Zapatero first made that pledge in 2003, before he became prime minister, in an effort to help a Socialist candidate in Catalonia, Pasqual Maragall, court votes from residents eager for more autonomy from Madrid, according to Miley.

"It made sense at the time," Miley said, since few people expected that Zapatero would win the general election in 2004 and would have to make good on his promise.

Everyone was expecting the incumbent Popular Party to win, Miley said. Instead, Zapatero won a surprise victory three days after the March 11 train bombings in Madrid, and Catalans are now calling on him to be true to his word.

Some members of Zapatero's government have already begun suggesting that the Socialist Party may back away from this commitment.

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