Spain PM heads to Barcelona to reopen Catalan separatist talks
Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez visits Barcelona Wednesday to resume dialogue with Catalonia’s separatist leadership on resolving the political crisis triggered by the region’s 2017 failed independence bid.
Sanchez confirmed earlier this week that he would meet Catalan leader Pere Aragones on September 15 for talks, which are expected to get underway at around 1300 GMT.
In October 2017, the Catalan regional government staged a referendum banned by Madrid then issued a short-lived declaration of independence, triggering Spain’s worst political crisis in decades. In 2019, violent protests followed Spain’s jailing of nine separatist leaders.
Since then, Catalonia has remained a major issue in Spanish politics and one that Sanchez’s government has vowed to tackle through negotiations, even if tensions have eased.
“The situation in Catalonia is very different, much more stable than in 2017 or in 2019,” the prime minister said on Monday.
In January 2020, Sanchez agreed to open talks after ERC — Catalonia’s oldest and largest separatist party — offered crucial parliamentary support to his minority government.
Initial talks began a month later but were soon suspended as the coronavirus pandemic took hold.
Chances of success this time are low as both sides have radically different expectations.
The separatists have two key aims — an amnesty for all those involved in the failed independence bid, and a new referendum on self-determination, this time with Madrid’s approval.
The Spanish government is implacably opposed to both.
“If we go with a list of maximalist demands, the conversation won’t last very long,” Sanchez has said, while admitting he was open to a possible vote on Catalonia’s place within Spain, but within limits.
“Within the constitution, a democrat has no problem calling for a vote, but it will have to be by agreement, not by going it alone.”
– More flexible leadership? –
Many things have changed since the October 2017 referendum and the ensuing crisis. Those responsible were tried and jailed while others fled abroad to avoid prosecution, leaving the separatist movement decapitated and deeply at odds over how to move forward.
And the issue of dialogue with Madrid has been a huge point of friction in this region of 7.8 million people who remain divided over the question of independence.
Despite the differences, negotiations are thought to have a better chance this time thanks to shake-up within Catalonia’s separatist-dominated leadership, with moderate leftist ERC taking the reins several months ago.
Last time, its hard-line counterpart JxC was in charge.
The shift had an immediate effect: within weeks, the Spanish government had pardoned the jailed separatist leaders and agreed to resume top-level talks on the Catalan crisis.
ERC favours a negotiated strategy to achieve independence via dialogue with Madrid, while JxC, now the junior coalition partner, which wants to maintain a confrontational approach.
JxC had wanted to send two pardoned prisoners as its representatives at the talks but Aragones refused, saying they were not elected representatives in a last-minute confrontation that threw an unwelcome light on the tensions within the Generalitat, or Catalan government.
“It doesn’t seem to be starting well for the Generalitat… even the most loyal independentistas are complaining about this ridiculous spectacle,” said Josep Borrell, the EU’s foreign policy chief and a Catalan who does not want the region to separate from Spain.
“Hopefully this won’t stop the talks taking place. We must recognise Pedro Sanchez’s enormous willingness to seek a way to resolve the conflict through dialogue and negotiation, which is the only way in a democratic country.”