Rajoy plans fiscal bait to ease Catalonia tensions

Prime minister to visit rebel region and offer local leader Mas talks in attempt to stall referendum drive

The government of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy is planning to offer Catalonia improved public financing in an attempt to weaken the separatist stance of regional premier Artur Mas. It was precisely the central government's refusal to bow to demands from Catalonia last year for a tax deal such as that enjoyed by the Basque Country that lit the flame of separatist sentiment, at a time when austerity measures were taking their toll on the region's economy.

It is expected that Rajoy will dust off his olive branch after the announcement of the new state budget on September 27. In the short term, according to a minister consulted by EL PAÍS, the prime minister's aim is to "lower the temperature." Rajoy's idea is to open a period of negotiation — which will include a visit to Catalonia — focusing on matters of finance, in order to persuade Mas to place the region's drive for a sovereignty referendum on the back burner.

Catalan separatism is one of the issues that is most unnerving the ruling Popular Party (PP) hierarchy, which admits the need to tread carefully on the issue after party veteran Jaime Mayor Oreja recently compared the Catalan route map with that drawn up to bring about the definitive end to ETA.

Part of Rajoy's strategy is to strengthen the PP in Catalonia by giving its regional leader, Alicia Sánchez-Camacho, a greater national presence along with a role as chief interlocutor in the planned discussions. The key moment, Rajoy's visit to the region, could take place in the first two weeks of November to coincide with a PP conference.

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