Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy and Catalan Premier Arturo Mas adopted opposite positions – literally as well as politically – when they travelled on the inaugural high-speed train from Barcelona to Girona on Tuesday.
Literally, since at the table they shared with Crown Prince Felipe and Public Works Minister Ana Pastor, Rajoy sat facing forward while Mas looked towards the back. Politically, because the strategic visions of the two men, for Spain and for Cataluña’s place in it, have irrevocably (it seems) diverged following their failure to reach agreement over a new budget allocation framework in September.
Enforced proximity on the train to Girona may have been socially as well as politically awkward, but while the two leaders displayed little personal warmth they smiled obligingly for the cameras. This minimal affability was less evident in their formal remarks. The crown prince’s speech at the opening ceremony was delivered partly in Catalan, whereas the apparently incompatible agenda of the prime minister and the premier meant that their comments were less overtly accommodating.
Noting that the new train line was financed by the central – not the regional – government, Mr Rajoy described it as “a path to understanding” and one which coincidentally runs along the “backbone of Spain”, i.e. Cataluña.
After pointing out that the 131 kilometres of track had been completed only after a series of delays emanating from the bureaucracy in Madrid (and a full 20 years after the Madrid-Seville line went into operation), Mr Mas stressed that the new service is a symbol of Cataluña’s “European aspiration” – a theme that dovetails nicely with the “soft” independence argument that the difficulties of separation are likely to be mitigated by the common membership of Spain and Cataluña in the European Union.
Spain’s 3,000-kilometre high-speed rail network is the most extensive in Europe. The latest addition may not be particularly useful to the majority of citizens suffering as a result of the economic crisis, but it will no doubt be welcomed by those who can afford the 30 euro daily commute between Girona and Barcelona.
One man who can afford the train fare (but who has no reason to commute) is Lionel Messi, who last month renewed his Barcelona contract on terms that will provide him with a weekly salary of around 600,000 euros and keep him in Cataluña at least until 2018.
This week, the Argentine footballer, frequently bracketed with his compatriot Diego Maradona as the greatest player of his day, won FIFA’s Ballon d’Or for a record-breaking fourth time. Messi may have further encouraged the Maradona comparison when he appeared at Monday’s award ceremony in Zurich decked out in a Dolce & Gabbana polka-dot suit and bowtie, the sort of eye-catchingly inventive outfit that Maradona sometimes sported in his heyday and, alas, seems still inclined to favour in middle age.
While Messi may not be Spanish, the country’s claim to global soccer supremacy was cemented with the choice of national coach Vicente del Bosque as manager of the year and the selection of a FIFA dream team (chosen by journalists, coaches and team captains from around the world) made up exclusively of players from La Liga.
Passports and perks
Attending the Ballon d’Or ceremony was the French (and now Russian) actor Gerard Depardieu. Like Messi, Depardieu can afford to travel first-class as often as he likes, but he may have more compelling reasons to take public transport rather than drive himself.
Depardieu failed to appear in court in Paris on Tuesday in connection with an incident in November when, after crashing his scooter, he was found to be three times over the legal alcohol limit.
Despite moving to Belgium last month and acquiring Russian citizenship last week – Depardieu has made it clear that he remains French.
The actor will go to great lengths to protect his livelihood but won’t give up his citizenship. By contrast, some Catalans, including Mr Mas, seem willing to renounce their citizenship, believing this can be done while still protecting their livelihood.