Spanish PM backtracks on postponing talks with Catalan government

After announcing that he would not speak with politicians in Catalonia until after the regional election there, Pedro Sánchez has been pressured into accepting the dialogue

Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez.
Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez.Javier Lizón (EFE)

This time it wasn’t weeks or days, but less than six-and-a-half hours. That is how long it took the Spanish government to do a U-turn on the key issue of talks about the future of Catalonia.

At 12.35pm on Thursday, the executive said that it was delaying the talks until after the early election in Catalonia. This regional poll was announced on Wednesday by the separatist premier Quim Torra, of Together for Catalonia (JxCat), who said Catalans will be called to the polls once the regional budget is passed by parliament. This could take an estimated one to two months.

“The government hopes to be able to start the dialogue once the Catalan people have spoken and a new parliament has been formed, as well as a government,” said the central executive in a statement on Thursday.

The ERC termed the decision to postpone talks “a flagrant violation” of the terms of its deal with the PSOE

But the decision to postpone the talks was not well received by the Catalan Republican Left (ERC), the other major pro-independence party in Catalonia.

The ERC spokesperson in Spanish Congress, Gabriel Rufián, met with Sánchez that same day. By 6.57pm on Thursday, the central government had issued a new statement confirming that the talks on Catalonia will be held before the regional elections after all.

The dialogue was originally agreed between Sánchez’s Socialist Party (PSOE) and the ERC in exchange for the latter’s commitment to abstain at the prime minister’s investiture debate in early January in the lower house of parliament, the Congress of Deputies.

The PSOE won the repeat general election of November 2019, but as in April, the result was inconclusive and Sánchez needed the support or abstention of other parties to form a government. Sánchez now heads a coalition of the PSOE and the left-wing anti-austerity Unidas Podemos group, but still requires support from other congressional forces to get legislation passed.

In a recent interview with EL PAÍS, ERC leader Oriol Junqueras made it clear that his party’s support for the central government’s own budget plan will hinge on the way the talks on Catalonia evolve. Securing support for the national budget is a key matter, as Sánchez’s earlier failure to do so triggered the early election of April 2019, which was followed by a repeat vote in November.

“We manifest our willingness to hold the agreed dialogue between governments before the Catalan elections” - New government statement

The investiture deal between the PSOE and ERC stipulated that talks between the central and Catalan governments on the future of Catalonia would start two weeks after the appointment of Spain’s new Cabinet.

The sudden decision to postpone the talks was made unilaterally by the executive, and it triggered a political crisis between the PSOE and ERC. The ERC immediately termed the decision “a complete lack of responsibility” and “a flagrant violation” of the terms of its deal with the PSOE to get Sánchez back into office.

Rufián requested a meeting with Sánchez, after which the central government issued a new statement: “We manifest our willingness to hold the agreed dialogue between governments before the Catalan elections.”

The executive has tried to minimize the incident. Government sources said that the main takeaway is that it remains ready for dialogue.

High-placed sources in ERC said that the U-turn reflects how the central executive “has understood that the talks are necessary in order to unblock the situation in Catalonia.”

English version by Susana Urra.

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