Contrary to expectations, the first round of talks between Spain’s central government and the Catalan authorities on the future of the northeastern region did not focus on how to resolve the ongoing political crisis in Catalonia, or whether the region has the right to hold a referendum on independence. Instead, representatives from both sides – who until recently appeared irreconcilable – spent nearly three hours on Wednesday discussing a historical issue: what were the origins of the Catalan crisis, and when do they date from?
Although no agreement was reached on key issues such as the right to an independence referendum or a government pardon for jailed separatists, the 15 participants at the meeting underscored that the most important point was holding the meeting itself, and the fact that further negotiations will take place in the coming weeks and months.
The meeting ended with a joint statement, and several people who were present agreed that while there were major discrepancies, the tone was friendly and even seemed, at times, like a therapy session.
Holding these talks was a condition set by the Catalan Republican Left (ERC), a separatist party with 13 lawmakers in Spain’s Congress of Deputies, in exchange for its commitment to abstain at the congressional vote in January to confirm Pedro Sánchez, of the Socialist Party (PSOE), as the prime minister of Spain.
On Wednesday, 15 representatives from the Catalan and central governments, led by Sánchez and the Catalan premier Quim Torra, met in Madrid for the first of these talks.
Ministers who were present at the meeting said they were surprised at the unified position shown by the Catalan delegation, which included members of ERC and the other major separatist party, Together for Catalonia (JxCAT). The discrepancies between both parties are well known and recently reached such a point that Quim Torra had to announce early elections in the region.
Besides discussing historical issues, the Catalan delegation underscored demands that Madrid finds unacceptable: a government pardon for separatist leaders who were found guilty of sedition last year, the right to decide in a referendum, and an outside mediator at talks.
The Madrid team averted these issues and instead focused on a list of 44 points – many of which involve increased financial autonomy for the region – that Sánchez handed over to Torra when the pair met recently in Barcelona. The prime minister and his ministers sought to discuss reforms and the economy. But the Catalan delegation, in particular Torra, refused, saying that those issues had no place at the talks. Instead the conversation returned to self-determination, which was the issue on which the Catalan politicians wanted to focus.
Pressed to provide a response to the demands for self-determination and amnesty, Sánchez and his team diverted the conversation and both sides ultimately agreed to take up the issue again at a future time.
A number of ministers consulted by EL PAÍS insisted that everyone at the table knew perfectly well what Sánchez’s position is on self-determination and amnesty for the jailed politicians – i.e. he is opposed to both. But that it was not the time to end up trapped on the main sticking point, but rather to save the meeting.
“There is a massive distance on nearly everything, but there is a willingness to meet again, and we’ve agreed on the methodology, which is no small matter,” said one minister.
Talks will be held once a month between the teams, and plenary sessions every six months attended by the Spanish and Catalan government leaders and their deputies.
The incentives to keep talking are strong. The Sánchez government rests on ERC’s support in Congress, and Catalan elections are coming up: JxCAT knows voters would make it pay for being the party that ruined talks that have taken so long to become a reality.
The talks will continue while it is in the interest of everyone involved for them to do so. That could be for some time, although when it comes to speaking about the possible outcomes of the negotiations, everyone involved is a lot more sceptical.
English version by Susana Urra.