Spanish and Catalan governments to begin talks on territorial crisis

Madrid warns of ‘tricky terrain’ ahead of negotiations on Catalonia’s future

Quim Torra, Catalonia’s president, is to attend talks with Spanish prime minister Pedro Sánchez. Photograph: Angel Garcia/Bloomberg

Quim Torra, Catalonia’s president, is to attend talks with Spanish prime minister Pedro Sánchez. Photograph: Angel Garcia/Bloomberg

 

A highly anticipated series of negotiations is due to begin on Wednesday between the governments of Spain and Catalonia, aimed at resolving the country’s territorial crisis.

Socialist prime minister Pedro Sánchez will host the first meeting, in his official residence in Madrid. On the other side of the table will be Catalan president Quim Torra and his deputy, Pere Aragonès, among others.

“We are on very tricky terrain and we have to calm things down, negotiate,” Manuel Castells, the Spanish universities minister who is also due to be present at the meeting, said of the talks.

Several senior ministers will accompany Mr Sánchez, including Pablo Iglesias, leader of the leftist Podemos party, which is part of Spain’s governing coalition.

The northeastern region of Catalonia has been at loggerheads with the Spanish government for several years, due to the region’s attempts to secede. In 2017, the Catalan government unilaterally declared independence, a move which led to several months of direct rule from Madrid and the jailing of nine political and social leaders.

But last month, the Catalan Republican Left (ERC), which is part of a nationalist governing coalition in Catalonia, helped Mr Sánchez win a parliamentary investiture vote as he formed a new administration. In exchange, he has agreed to engage with the region’s government in order to seek a solution to the crisis.

However, while the ERC sees the talks as a necessary step towards achieving secession, its coalition partner, Mr Torra’s Together for Catalonia (JxCat), has been much less enthusiastic. JxCat objected to the fact the prime minister had apparently failed to consult it before suggesting Wednesday as a starting date. It also called for an impartial mediator to supervise the talks, a demand the Spanish government ruled out.

Such reservations reflect the concern Mr Torra’s party shares with many pro-independence Catalans that talks will not bring the final objective of a new republic any closer.

Let down

Elisenda Paluzie, president of the largest rank-and-file pro-independence association, the Catalan National Assembly, warned that dialogue “has let us down many times before”. She added that, by engaging with the Spanish government, the movement could “convey the impression that independence is impossible”.

But while Catalonia’s nationalists are divided over the possible benefits of these talks they are united regarding their main demands: the right to stage a binding referendum on secession and an amnesty for the leaders who were handed jail sentences last year.

The Spanish government has said that if the two sides do eventually reach a consensus, then Catalans should vote on it. But Mr Sánchez already appears to have ruled out agreeing to an independence referendum or an amnesty, instead favouring increased self-rule for the region.

With this in mind, his government has sought to play down the drama of the talks while highlighting their pitfalls.

“Let’s not fool ourselves, this is not going to be resolved immediately,” said Salvador Illa, Mr Sánchez’s health minister, who will also take part in the first round of talks. “We need to agree on the framework and seek a starting point.”

Right-wing opposition parties in Madrid have called on Mr Sánchez to abandon the talks before they even begin, claiming he is jeopardising Spain’s unity in order to ensure the stability of his government.

There is a widespread perception that the negotiations will see little tangible progress before a Catalan election takes place some time later this year. With the more moderate ERC leading polls, that vote could see the party take full control of the Catalan government and lead a more fluid engagement with Madrid.

In the meantime, the Spanish government will deal with Mr Torra, who could soon be stripped of his office by the supreme court due to his refusal to remove pro-independence symbols from his government’s building during an election campaign last year.