DIFFICULT times for Spanish Prime Minister, Rodriguez Zapatero, as he attempts to stop the calls for more autonomy from Spain's key provinces, the Basque Country and Catalonia. He is caught in a no-win situation; if he listens to their appeals he will be accused of being too soft with them but at the same time he can't just slam the door shut in their faces. The first challenge to his authority will come when the Basque premier, Juan Jose Ibarretxe, goes ahead with his referendum on his new plan for greater home-rule for the northern state. The plan was defeated by parliament in Madrid on Tuesday night but Ibarretxe remains defiant. The previous Partido Popular administration had threatened to put the Basque leader in jail if he persisted with his call for more autonomy. But Zapatero believes more in dialogue. The rest of the country is opposed to any more regional power for the Basques and the Catalans. And to make matters worse Zapatero governs thanks to the support of an ultra-nationalist Catalan party, the ERC. They have made it quite clear that they wouldn't be too impressed if plans by their Basque cousins were just dismissed. There is no short term solution and this problem is not going to go away. Zapatero is going to have to use all his diplomatic skills to resolve the situation. He has already spoken of offering the Basques an olive branch in the form of a bit more power. But his offer has been dismissed.
However, there is some good news. Not all Basques support Ibarretxe and at the latest count it was about 60/40. Perhaps Zapatero should accept the referendum and launch an all-party effort to convince the Basques that more autonomy is not in their interest. Zapatero has few options and if he doesn't take this problem seriously it will cause him plenty of headaches in the years to come.