In Spain, central and regional leaders hopeful despite their differences after meeting on future of Catalonia

Spain’s PM Pedro Sánchez and Catalan premier Pere Aragonès underscored that the main thing is to keep communication channels open but admitted it will be hard to reach an agreement

Spanish PM Pedro Sánchez (left) and Catalan premier Pere Aragonès greet one another in Barcelona on Wednesday.
Spanish PM Pedro Sánchez (left) and Catalan premier Pere Aragonès greet one another in Barcelona on Wednesday.MASSIMILIANO MINOCRI

A long-awaited meeting between central and Catalan authorities in Spain over the future of the northeastern region ended on Wednesday without any groundbreaking progress, other than an agreement to keep meeting regularly for as long as it takes.

Relations between Madrid and Barcelona have been frayed since Catalan separatists made a unilateral breakaway attempt in October 2017, and officials from both sides argue that the fact the Wednesday dialogue took place at all is in itself a step forward.

No such talks had taken place since February 2020, just before the coronavirus pandemic hit, and Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez, of the Socialist Party (PSOE), had waited until Monday to confirm his presence in Barcelona. Meanwhile, one half of Catalonia’s governing coalition had proposed sending representatives who were considered unacceptable even by the regional premier, Pere Aragonès of the Catalan Republican Left (ERC). Both leaders have admitted that they have vastly different positions on the issue of independence, but after years of tension, officials said that the main thing is to keep communication channels open.

Yet the differences were on display at the news conferences following the meeting. Aragonès insisted on a full amnesty for individuals who were tried and convicted for their role in the 2017 secession attempt, nine of whom were this year pardoned by the Sánchez government. He also defended a new independence referendum for this region of 7.5 million residents where opinion surveys consistently show a near-even split over the issue.

Sánchez and Aragonés followed by other delegates at the meeting.
Sánchez and Aragonés followed by other delegates at the meeting.Massimiliano Minocri (EL PAÍS)

But the Socialist leader said that both things are impossible because they are not allowed by the Constitution. “Catalan society cannot go through any more cleavages and fractures,” said Sánchez about a hypothetical referendum. Instead, he struck a positive note about the talks. “Images are important from a political viewpoint,” he said, adding that the meeting sends the message “that we want to overcome this crisis.”

Aragonès agreed on the importance of “showcasing the value of the negotiation and create trust.” The message may have been partially aimed at his own coalition partner, Together for Catalonia (JxCat), which was not represented at the dialogue after it proposed three delegates who were not members of the Catalan government. Two of them were well-known leaders of the 2017 breakaway attempt who were convicted of sedition and pardoned this summer.

Aragonès said that only Cabinet members could represent Catalonia and refused to allow them on the team, evidencing the split between the more moderate ERC and the hard-line JxCat, whose president is former Catalan premier Carles Puigdemont – who led the 2017 secession attempt, then fled to Belgium to avoid prosecution.

Both parties have been governing in tandem for the last five years, and in all that time hardly a month has gone by when they have not been at odds over something. Besides the coronavirus crisis and the push for independence, the government that emerged from the Catalan election of February 14 still has several challenging issues on its agenda, such as approving the 2021 budget and trying to revive derailed plans for a €1.7 billion expansion of Barcelona’s El Prat airport.

Sánchez and Aragonès at the Catalan government headquarters, the Palau de la Generalitat.
Sánchez and Aragonès at the Catalan government headquarters, the Palau de la Generalitat. DAVID ZORRAKINO (Europa Press)

And in Madrid, the central government is also a coalition whose members do not always see eye to eye on all issues: the PSOE and the leftist Unidas Podemos have clashed over labor laws and housing in recent times. As a minority government, the Spanish executive has often relied on Catalan parties inside Spain’s Congress of Deputies to get key legislation passed, adding to the complexity of political relations. Electoral considerations are also part of the mix, as Sánchez will be facing a national election in late 2023.

“In a year, the [Spanish] state will go into election mode. Sánchez will use the lack of agreement as proof of his firmness,” forecast Elisenda Paluzie, president of the pro-independence civil society group Catalan National Assembly (ANC), which played an active role in the 2017 breakaway bid.

Assumpció Laïlla, a lawmaker with Demòcrates, which is part of the JxCat group in parliament, also predicted that the talks between Madrid and Barcelona will fail. “It looks like they are negotiating devolved powers in return for parliamentary support,” she said. “If so, it would be a betrayal of the independence movement and of those of us who want to see the mandate of October 1, 2017 [the date of the illegal referendum] carried out.”

English version by Susana Urra.

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