Tensions between Madrid, regions as Spain votes

FIGUERES, Spain (Reuters) - In Salvador Dali’s home town of Figueres in northeastern Spain, Joan Carreras is chatting about soccer, but he’s really talking about politics.

Tax and legal advisor Ignacio Abascal Vicente poses for a picture in Barcelona in this February 12, 2008 file photo. REUTERS/Gustau Nacarino/Files

“As a child I never understood when I was in a bar and all the adults cheered when Spain scored a goal,” said Carreras, 41, who teaches the Catalan language and special classes to immigrant pupils in a school in the wealthy region of Catalonia.

Now, Carreras finds himself dealing with a similar sense of confusion from his 11-year-old son, who wonders why Catalonia -- a region with its own language and distinct customs -- cannot play Spain in the football World Cup.

Such questions expose the emotions behind separatist movements in Catalonia and the nearby Basque Country -- emotions that have come to the fore again as Spain prepares to elect a new government on March 9.

When Kosovo declared independence this month, it lifted the lid on this sensitivity. Spain refused to recognize Kosovo’s unilateral declaration, saying it did not adhere to international law.

How to deal with restive Catalans and Basques is an important campaign issue. The conservative Popular Party (PP) accuses Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero’s Socialist government of failing to defend national unity.

Zapatero led a peace process with Basque separatist guerrillas ETA but talks broke down after a bomb attack on Madrid airport in 2006. ETA guerrillas have killed more than 800 people in a 40-year campaign for Basque independence.

Although polls predict a narrow win for the Socialists, they may have to strike deals with moderate nationalist parties in Catalonia and the Basque Country to form another government.

And they are likely to charge a high price for their support -- something that enrages many in the rest of Spain.

The Catalans, led by the moderate nationalist Convergence and Union coalition (CiU), would demand the right to collect the region’s taxes, while the Basque Nationalist Party wants Madrid to let it manage social security, worth an annual 1.5 billion euros ($2.3 billion).


In both regions, there are those who think these demands go too far, and others who think they don’t go far enough.

Teacher Carreras is among the latter.

He will vote for Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya (ERC) -- a small left-wing party which wants Catalonia to be independent.

He’s in a minority, but Catalan and Basque politicians say separatist sentiment has grown as a reaction to what they say is the central government’s refusal to grant enough concessions to the regions.

“What stands out now in Catalonia is the vision that the relationship between Catalonia and Spain has to be changed,” says Artur Mas, president of the socially conservative CiU.

“What we are demanding is that we Catalans decide for ourselves in many areas,” he said.

Some are demanding this more forcefully.

Last year, some Catalans burnt images of the Spanish king -- a shocking act in a country where the monarch is widely admired.

For others, demands for more autonomy are rooted in economics -- many in rich Catalonia are angry with heavy taxes to bankroll poorer regions in the south.

“Here we pay a lot (of Spain’s total tax) and we don’t really understand what they return to us,” said Xavier Espunya Soler, owner of a sausage and cured meats company in Olot in Catalonia’s Girona province. “You can strangle an economy if you don’t invest enough in it.”

Some Catalans, like Soler, blame Madrid for a string of infrastructure problems.

In 2005, a metro tunnel collapsed in the Carmel district of Barcelona, making around 1,000 people homeless. Last summer, the city suffered power blackouts and late last year commuters faced chaos on the trains due to the completion of the final stage of Barcelona’s high speed network.

“All that creates disaffection towards Spain,” says Ignacio Abascal Vicente, a tax and legal adviser who moved to Barcelona six years ago and is a member of the left-wing green party ICV-EUiA.


The Basque Nationalist Party, which denounces ETA, has also become more assertive and now wants to hold a referendum to authorize the start of a debate about the region’s status.

Zapatero says such a move would be illegal. Polls show most Spanish Basques do not want independence.

But the threat makes many uneasy in a country formed from 17 autonomous regions -- of which Catalonia and the Basque Country have the most far-reaching powers.

For now, Catalonia’s regional government -- a coalition of ERC, Greens and the Socialists -- is looking north for ideas to enhance its autonomy.

This summer, it will meet with members of the Scottish National Party to discuss common concerns. One topic will be the Catalan nationalists’ desire to copy the Scottish model of playing in international competitions like the Rugby Six Nations and the football World Cup.

“Why can’t we have a selection like Scotland?” says ERC’s General Secretary Joan Puigcercos. “It’s a way of articulating our identity in the world. Scotland is known all over the world but not Catalonia. When they recognize you abroad, that will give an international comprehension of the problem.”

(For a special package of features and stories ahead of Spain’s March 9 vote, please click on)

Additional reporting by Ben Harding in the Basque Country; editing by Clar Ni Chonghaile