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Last Updated: Saturday, 11 February 2006, 13:32 GMT
A tale of two Spanish cities
By Nick Caistor
BBC News, Barcelona

A proposal to give greater autonomy to the wealthy and powerful region of Catalonia and its capital Barcelona is coming under fire for jeopardising Spanish unity. Much of the criticism has come from Madrid, but as Nick Caistor reports, it has not taken the Catalans by surprise.

Men argue in Madrid
The Catalan proposals have provoked heated debate in Spain

It has been snowing in Catalonia.

In the vineyards south of Barcelona, you can almost see the black vine stumps shivering.

The hills up behind the city are blanketed in white, which makes the Mediterranean down below seem even bluer.

Eduardo, a Catalan writer friend of mine, has brought me to the top of the mountain called Tibidabo to admire the view.

He explains the legend behind its name, which means "All this I give you".

The Catalans claim this has a biblical origin: It was here that the Devil brought Jesus to tempt him with all the riches of the Earth if he renounced his faith.

Ever since, the rest of the world - and in particular the Spaniards elsewhere in the country - have been jealous of all that Catalonia has to offer.

Nowhere is there more jealousy, they say, than in the Spanish capital, Madrid, which has no sea, no mountains, but most of the political power.

For 40 years during the Franco regime, Catalonia was made to suffer.

The Catalan language was forbidden in schools and in the street. Catalan political organisations were banned, and the organised labour movement that was still strong in Barcelona suffered violent repression.

Catalonia had a military governor appointed from Madrid, and troops from the rest of Spain were stationed there.

After the return of democratic rule in the 1970s, Catalonia, like other regions of Spain, was given a statute of autonomy.

This allowed the Catalans to appoint their own police force and created a national assembly with powers to decide judicial, health and educational matters.

The Catalan language was officially recognised once more and taught again in schools.

Push for independence

The Spanish Socialist party returned to power in 2004, while, at the same time, a left-wing coalition won a majority in the Catalan assembly.

Barcelona pushed for a new and wider statute of autonomy.

Catalan politicians Artur Mas (left) and Joseph Lluis Carod Rovira
Spain's parliament approved plans for greater autonomy in November

The regional assembly voted for this new statute by an overwhelming majority.

This would not only give it greater powers of taxation, but would acknowledge that Catalonia is a separate "nation".

The legislation was then sent to Madrid for consideration by the national parliament, which also approved it late last year.

This was too much for many on the right of Spanish politics.

In January this year, the head of the army, General Mena Aguado, told fellow officers that if Catalonia was to declare its independence, this meant that Spanish troops had the right to invade it to defend Spain's interests there.

My friend Eduardo told me that when his grandmother heard this, she had started stocking up with tinned food and other supplies, in case Barcelona was blockaded as it had been 70 years ago.

Most Catalans did not go to such extremes, but were genuinely horrified at the knee-jerk authoritarian reaction still prevalent in some of Spain's key institutions.

Rallying point

General Mena was immediately sacked, but the damage had been done.

Right-wing politicians jumped on the bandwagon, thinking that this kind of nationalism might be a new rallying point after their defeat in elections almost two years ago.

Some of the Spanish press called for a boycott of Catalan goods such as their Cava, or champagne, as well as agricultural produce and industrial goods.

The conflict between the Catalan authorities and central Spain was also brought to the fore in another recent confrontation.

At the end of the Civil War, General Franco ordered a huge investigation into anyone who could be considered an opponent of his regime - from communists to folk dancers.

All the files on these people have been stored ever since in Salamanca.

The next morning in Barcelona, all the snow had gone, and the sky seemed to promise spring

When the Catalan authorities demanded the return of these records recently, the high court at first dismissed the idea, although this too was rectified later.

The main argument employed was the one always heard - if we allow the Catalans to do it, where will it end - the Basques, the Galicians will all want the same treatment.

To which my Catalan friends reply: So what?

The next morning in Barcelona, all the snow had gone, and the sky seemed to promise spring.

I went with my friends to have lunch in one of the small restaurants that have somehow survived all the attempts to smarten up the city for the 1992 Olympics and the new millennium.

Over our typical Catalan meal, starting with bread smeared with tomato, followed by fried Catalan fish, Catalan vegetables and meat, and ending with Catalan custard, my companions laughed at the idea that the recognition of the new statute would cause real trouble with Madrid.

They took the quarrel back not just 70 years to the Civil War, but shrugged their shoulders and said: "The Spaniards have been envious of us for 800 years at least.

"Let them get on with it."

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 11 February, 2006 at 1130 GMT on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

Catalan MPs pass autonomy plans
30 Sep 05 |  Europe
Catalan concerns over EU vote
17 Feb 05 |  Europe
Catalan bid for 'sovereignty'
24 Mar 03 |  Europe

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