Spanish parliament to discuss Catalan question

Spain's parliament on Wednesday will debate bold proposals for changes to the charter that grants autonomy to the region of Catalonia, yet another test for a government facing growing regional nationalism.

The proposed overhaul, passed by the Catalan parliament in late September, does not mention independence, but it defines the wealthy northeast region around Barcelona as a nation, infuriating conservatives and even causing divisions within Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero's Socialist party.

The package of proposals seeks to give the Catalan government power to change laws passed by the Spanish parliament, equal status in its dealings with the Spanish government, exclusive control over tax-collecting, and authority over everything from education to airports. The package reflects a broader nationwide debate on the very structure of the Spanish state which, under the constitution of 1978, granted varying degrees of autonomy to regions with distinct and long-standing cultural identities and languages. These regions suffered severe repression under dictator Gen. Francisco Franco, who died in 1975.

Catalonia, like the Basque region, which will be watching Wednesday's debate keenly, says the 25-year-old charters are outdated and need to be rewritten.

Zapatero is in a delicate position in Catalonia because two of the parties that are the driving forces behind the proposed reforms also provide his minority government with the support it needs to pass legislation in Madrid. He cannot afford to alienate them.

Wednesday's debate will be followed by a vote on whether the Congress of Deputies, or lower house of parliament, should admit the reform package for formal consideration. The proposals are widely expected to clear this first hurdle, with only the conservative Popular Party planning to vote against.

They would then be taken up by a committee for possible amendments, and a definitive vote is probably a few months away.

Zapatero says he supports the idea of updating the Catalan charter but wants to tone down clauses he says are unconstitutional, such as the reference to Catalonia as a nation, and the calls for a Catalan tax-raising system and power to rewrite laws passed in Madrid.

The Popular Party says the reform package goes way too far and should be sent back to the Catalan parliament for a complete redo, reports the AP. I.L.

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