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Let the People’s Party put the break on the autonomic follies in Spain

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There would seem arduous to find an all-Basque Alex Salmond-like conciliatory figure on the horizon yet, let alone a Catalan version of the fairly competent and electorally thriving Scottish National Party, so why is Madrid so fearful of calling the hyper-autonomists’ bluff?

A critical time as this brings the occasion Spain’s public finances are actually dying for. It is no democratic obscenity to say so and dispose of the decentralisation waste that has been piling up during the last three decades.

Unlike the rest of the worse economic performers among the euro zone member countries, Spain suffers from a regional administrative structure that right now apparently constitutes too high a barrier to demolish on the way to rationalisation of public finances and efficient use of taxpayers’ cash to enhance the economy’s recovery window. Budget austerity falls insultingly heavy on the most vulnerable sector of the society, while Keynesian money injections end lost (or robbed) amid a maze of regional government corridors and their often fake extensions into the business sector –a bleeding wound to real entrepreneurs, decent initiatives from private companies and competitiveness.

Conservative Catalan Economy minister Andreu Mas-Colell should have had a look at the map of the European Regional Development Fund for investment plans in 2007-2013 before defending the current regions’ status quo in The New York Times pages. Economic development within the Spanish state today roughly is as unbalanced as it was in 1978. Just follow the red brick-lane.

“In truth, the largest public budget and deficit and most of the regulatory power over fiscal and expenditure issues lie with the central Spanish administration,” the Catalan minister told NYT readers.

Mr Mas-Culell was disingenuous, at best. Firstly, although the central administration accounts for 5pc of the total deficit to GDP, its deviation has been of 0.2pc, whereas regions’ deviation has reached almost 1.5pc and their deficit is 2.7pc. In other words, autonomies have added €15bn of the total €20bn in excess deficit in 2011 over expectations, according to data Spain’s Treasury is about to release.

Secondly, being Catalonia one of the few regions with a positive fiscal transfer record to the central administration, surely it would have favoured its own interests had things moved on so Catalan money is less required outside Catalonia. But no,

“The matter is a sensitive one, as not everyone in Spain is reconciled to the post-Franco transformation of the country,” Mr Mas-Colell says. “There is now the temptation, with the economic crisis as an excuse, to turn back the clock. On the contrary, what the situation demands is a concerted effort by central and regional administrations for the success of fiscal consolidation.”

We need to talk about administrative consolidation, too, though. This debate will be unpleasant, excruciatingly tedious and the People’s Party and its leader Mariano Rajoy sounds like the least probable facilitator because of its traditionalist ideal of Spain as a nation.

Nevertheless, the past cannot matter more than the future. 17 autonomies are more than one too many, re-arrangements are feasible and doing nothing will be financially suicidal. Diluting Catalonia and the Basque Country in a roulette of regional concocted identities has proved both extravagant and pointless. It is a pity than even those who always excoriated unionist parties for the absurdity of Spain’s devolution architecture will now not let the cat out of the bag, either.

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