Spain PM in Barcelona to reopen Catalan separatist talks

Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez (l) and Catalan leader Pere Aragones meeting last July. They will hold fresh talks on Wednesday but expectations are low
Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez (l) and Catalan leader Pere Aragones meeting last July. They will hold fresh talks on Wednesday but expectations are low Borja Puig de la BELLACASA LA MONCLOA/AFP
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Barcelona (AFP)

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.

"I will lead this negotiation on behalf of the Spanish government," Sanchez said late Monday, confirming he would meet Catalan leader Pere Aragones on September 15 for talks on the region's political situation.

Since the crisis of October 2017, Catalonia has been a dominant theme in Spanish politics and one which Sanchez's government has vowed to tackle through negotiations.

"The situation in Catalonia is very different, much more stable than in 2017 or in 2019," the prime minister said of the huge violent protests that followed Spain's jailing of nine separatist leaders exactly two years after the failed breakaway bid.

In January 2020, Sanchez agreed to open talks after ERC -- Catalonia's oldest and largest separatist party -- offered crucial parliamentary support that got his minority government approved.

Initial talks began at the end of February 2020 but were soon suspended as the pandemic took hold.

Expectations of success this time are low, with both sides coming to the table with radically different expectations.

The separatists have two key demands -- 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 said on Monday, 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 October 2017 when the Catalan regional government staged a referendum banned by Madrid and then issued a short-lived declaration of independence, triggering Spain's worst political crisis in decades.

Those behind the move were arrested, 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.

Since the last round of talks, there has been a shake-up within Catalonia's separatist-dominated leadership, with the moderate leftist ERC taking over the regional coalition and its hardline counterpart JxC taking a junior role.

This had an immediate effect.

Within weeks, the Spanish government had pardoned the jailed separatist leaders and agreed to resume top-level talks on resolving the Catalan crisis.

ERC favours a negotiated strategy to achieve independence via dialogue with Madrid, while JxC, which wants to keep up a confrontational approach, maintains that dialogue is "not our strategy".