Separatist lever grasped

In fact, he said in an interview this week, he would personally vote for independence if the opportunity arose. _...

In fact, he said in an interview this week, he would personally vote for independence if the opportunity arose. _Our ideal is to be part of the United States of Europe,_ he said.

That kind of posturing has thrust Mr. Mas, 56, to the forefront of Spanish politics and made Catalonia the biggest domestic headache for Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, who is facing troubles on all sides as he tries to satisfy demands from the European Union to straighten out Spain_s economy and from Spain_s heavily indebted regions, including Catalonia.

The question now for Mr. Rajoy, and for all of Spain, is just how far Mr. Mas, a once relatively obscure politician who was elected regional president two years ago, is willing to go in posing what may be the most serious challenge to a sovereign entity in Europe since the implosion of Yugoslavia in the 1990s.

Mr. Mas_s talk is not idle. With a $260 billion economy that is roughly the size of Portugal_s, an independent Catalonia and its 7.5 million inhabitants _ 16 percent of Spain_s population _ would rank ahead of a dozen of the 27 nations in the European Union. But like most of Spain_s regions, it is under great financial pressure and would like a better deal from Madrid.

In that respect, his threats may amount to nothing more than brinkmanship, as he applies to Madrid much the same tactic it has used to gain favorable treatment in its own dealings with Brussels: that is, that Catalonia, which has its own language and sense of identity, is simply _too big to fail_ without calamitous consequences that no one wants to see. On Friday, Catalonia_s government raised the pressure, saying it would not be able to meet its September payments for basic services like heath care on schedule.

The great risk is that Mr. Rajoy_s government _ squeezed as it is, itself weighing a European bailout _ is hardly in a position to appease Catalonia_s demands under a Spanish tax system that redistributes revenue from the richest to the poorest regions, without also raising tensions with other struggling regions.

The grievances run in both directions. In Catalonia_s view, Madrid has drained its finances, while Madrid accuses Catalonia, like nearly all of Spain_s regions, of mismanaging its books.

In the interview on Wednesday in the Catalan government_s medieval palace, Mr. Mas was unrepentant about further unnerving investors who already question Mr. Rajoy_s ability to meet agreed deficit targets and clean up Spanish banks. Instead, he contended that it was Mr. Rajoy who had forced Catalonia down the separatist path, after rejecting its demands unconditionally.

_When you get a clear no, you have to change direction,_ Mr. Mas said. Although he acknowledged that there was no guarantee Catalonia would succeed in imposing its claims on Madrid, he argued that _the worst-case scenario is not to try, and the second-worst is to try and not get there._

HIS advice to Mr. Rajoy was to avoid further delay in tapping a bond-buying program, devised by the European Central Bank largely with Spain_s rescue in mind. European financing _ in the form of billions of dollars in subsidies received after Spain joined the European Union in 1986 _ had already played a major part in Spain_s development, he noted.

_The problems of Spain now supersede its capacities, so that it needs help,_ Mr. Mas said. _If you have no other choice than to ask for a rescue, the sooner the better._

Asked, however, where Spain would stand without Catalonia, its industrial engine, Mr. Mas was unperturbed. _Spain without Catalonia is not insolvent but more limited,_ he said.

An economist by training, Mr. Mas comes from a Catalan family linked to the metal and textile sectors, which were at the heart of the region_s development after the Industrial Revolution. Having studied at a French school in Barcelona and then learned English, he also stands out as a rare multilingual leader in Spain_s political landscape.

He climbed the ladder of Catalonia_s politics over a long career as a public servant in the shadows of another politician, Jordi Pujol, who ran Catalonia for more than two decades. While hardly unknown in his region, Mr. Mas has surprised even party insiders this year by the way he has thrown caution to the wind in challenging Mr. Rajoy.

_We all knew Mas as an efficient technocrat and one of our very best managers, but I don_t think many people expected him to show such courage and patriotic feelings,_ said Josep Maria Vila d_Abadal, a mayor and member of Mr. Mas_s party, Converg__ncia i Uni__.

Mr. Mas insisted that his separatist drive was _not about personal ambition,_ saying he would retire from politics once Catalonia achieved sovereignty. He is married with three children.

Even though Catalonia would face an uphill struggle to join the European Union, particularly given Madrid_s opposition, Mr. Mas said that Brussels had shown in the two decades since the collapse of the Soviet Union that it could adjust to much more dramatic and unforeseeable nationhood claims.

Mr. Mas has already put words into action. Shortly after being rebuffed by Mr. Rajoy over his tax demands, he called early elections in Catalonia _ on Nov. 25, two years ahead of schedule _ that could turn into an unofficial referendum on independence, after a mass rally in Barcelona on Sept. 11 in which hundreds of thousands of Catalans demanded to form a new European state.

On the heels of the rally, Mr. Mas and his nationalist party are counting on significant gains in next month_s election as they try to convince Catalans that Mr. Mas can erase their longstanding complaints about control from Madrid.

_We have created a big feeling of hope among a big part of our society,_ Mr. Mas said.

SUCH comments, however, have also prompted criticism of Mr. Mas, led by Madrid politicians as well as other regional leaders, who have denounced Catalonia_s attempt to break ranks in a time of crisis.

While Mr. Rajoy has steered clear of the wrangling, some conservative politicians have warned of retaliatory measures. His deputy prime minister warned Mr. Mas last week that Madrid would use every legal instrument available to block a Catalan vote on independence, which would violate Spain_s Constitution.

Others accuse Mr. Mas of using the tussle with Madrid to shift the blame for Catalonia_s economic difficulties onto Mr. Rajoy and to distract voters from his government_s own shortcomings, including a failure to meet the deficit target that the Catalan government set for itself last year.

Last week, Pere Navarro, the leader of the opposition Catalan Socialist Party, called Mr. Mas _a false prophet,_ who talked about a promised land instead of recognizing that he had made Catalonia _worse than two years ago,_ when Mr. Mas took office.

By RAPHAEL MINDER

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