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Madrid begins talks with Catalan separatist leaders

Spain’s new Socialist government held talks with Catalonia’s separatist executive on Wednesday in the first such meeting in seven years as tensions eased but sharp divergences remained over the region’s self-determination drive.

Representatives of both executives met for almost four hours at the headquarters of the regional government in Barcelona as part of a bilateral commission that has not met since 2011.

Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez and Catalan president Quim Torra agreed to re-activate the commission when they met on July 10 in Madrid.

“There were some important disagreements, but to be able to say normally that we have big disagreements is also important,” Spain’s minister of regional administration, Meritxell Batet, who headed the central government’s delegation, told reporters after the meeting.

Sanchez, who came to power at the start of June after a no-confidence motion toppled his conservative predecessor Mariano Rajoy, promised to improve relations between Madrid and Catalan leaders, who unsuccessfully proclaimed a republic on October 27 following a banned independence

But pro-independence leaders, whose support of Sanchez’s no-confidence vote was key to its success and on whom he partially relies to remain in power, have asked for concrete action.

Catalonia’s leaders want to talk about the possibility of holding a new independence referendum in Catalonia and are calling for the release of separatist figures in jail as they await trial for their role in last October’s failed secession attempt.

But Batet said the central government had reiterated its opposition to a new referendum during the talks “because the constitution does not allow it” and said it was up to the courts to decide whether to release the jailed separatist leaders.

The only agreement to emerge from the meeting was the establishment of a calender for further talks between September and December.

“We have very different concepts of normality,” said Catalonia’s regional minister for foreign affairs, Ernest Maragall, who headed the Catalan delegation, after the meeting. The central government had not presented any plan to solve the conflict between the two sides, he added.

Catalonia’s deposed president Carles Puigdemont, wanted for rebellion in Spain and who remains influential among separatists, warned Saturday that Sanchez still has “homework to do”.

“We hope that, once the summer holidays are over, he has used his time, because the honeymoon is over,” he added during a news conference in Belgium.