MADRID – Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez on Wednesday held a much-anticipated meeting with his regional counterpart in Catalonia to try to end Spain’s territorial dispute, four years after a failed Catalan secession attempt and 18 months after a first round of negotiations was brutally reduced by the coronavirus pandemic.
Talks between Mr Sánchez and Pere Aragonès, Catalonia’s regional leader, mark the most important attempt to date to reach agreement on what has been the most controversial topic in politics over the past decade. Spanish: the fate of Catalonia, a region of 7.5 million people split in two over the desirability of becoming a republic.
Analysts have warned that negotiations will also be strewn with obstacles. While Mr. Aragonès, a moderate independence politician, took office this year promising dialogue, he had to face the skepticism of hard-line Catalan parties.
The breakdowns came to light on Wednesday when one of the parties, Together for Catalonia, failed to send delegates after their first choices were rejected by Mr Aragonès.
“The biggest obstacle will be the divisions within the separatist parties,” said José Ignacio Torreblanca, professor of politics at the National University of Distance Learning in Madrid.
The negotiations are taking place in the shadow of a conflict that reached a boiling point in 2017 and still shakes Spain.
That year, the Catalan government held an independence referendum in defiance of the Spanish government and its courts, which declared voting illegal. The police confiscated ballots and even beat people who were trying to vote. A number of organizers were arrested and sentenced to long prison terms for sedition.
Both sides remain bitter, but signs of a thaw have appeared this year.
After an election in March, Mr. Aragonès took office as the new regional chief. He is still seeking independence, but is committed to defusing the conflict with Spain through talks. Then, in June, Mr. Sánchez pardoned the nine pro-independence activists convicted of sedition.
In an interview after the talks, Mr. Aragonès said his position boiled down to two main objectives: a general amnesty for pro-independence leaders who he said were accused of crimes linked to their political actions; and the holding of a new referendum which would be negotiated with the Spanish government, a proposal that Mr Sánchez has so far rejected as unconstitutional.
Mr. Aragonès said he wanted to explore the possibility of creating legislation in Spain that would legalize such a vote. “What is important is that there is a political will” to reach an agreement, he said.
The issue of amnesty can also be thorny. Such a deal would include Carles Puigdemont, the former Catalan leader who fled Spain to escape charges. He has not been pardoned this year as he remains a fugitive, Spain said.
But Mr Aragonès said only an amnesty agreement could turn the page on the conflict.
While the Catalan separatists have failed to garner significant international support for their cause, especially at the European Union level in Brussels, separatism has also dominated the political agenda elsewhere in Europe.
On Monday, Nicola Sturgeon, the leader of Scotland, called on the British government to allow Scotland to hold another referendum on independence by the end of 2023, after the one in 2014 in which the Scots rejected the split.
Much like in Scotland, there are not only divisions in Catalonia over whether independence should be pursued, but also between parties seeking independence. The problem also showed the rift between residents of Catalonia’s capital and tourist hub, Barcelona, and the small towns that have helped separatists retain control of the regional parliament since 2015.
Mr Aragonès represents the left-wing party Esquerra Republicana, which edged out Ensemble pour la Catalogne – the purest separatist party of former Catalan leader M. Puigdemont – in the last regional elections in March to become the largest separatist force in Catalonia.
These tensions resurfaced in the run-up to Wednesday’s meeting. Mr Aragonès rejected Ensemble pour la Catalunya’s candidates for the Catalan delegation, as two of them were not part of the regional government, but were former prisoners who had been pardoned for sedition.
The quarrel between Esquerra Republicana and Ensemble pour la Catalunya shows “that there is now a very important gap between two parties which had at least managed to share the same vision and the same program until 2017”, declared Lluís Orriols, professor. of Politics at Carlos III University. to Madrid.
Unlike Together for Catalonia, he said, Esquerra Republicana has abandoned the idea that independence could be achieved unilaterally.
For Mr. Sánchez, on the other hand, the return to the negotiating table presents two short-term opportunities, declared Mr. Orriols: “to pacify what has long been a hostile climate in Catalonia and at least prevent the conflict from returning to the streets.”
Mr Orriols said it also increases Mr Sánchez’s options to remain prime minister if the forthcoming elections in Spain produce a result that would force him and his socialist party to continue to rule with the support of the main nationalist parties. of Catalonia.
Since the last elections at the end of 2019, Mr Sánchez has led Spain’s first coalition government, alongside the smaller and more left-wing Unidas Podemos party, and with the support of the Catalan and Basque parties to pass legislation in the Parliament.
In terms of an effective resolution of the Catalan dispute, however, political experts see little room for maneuver for Mr Sánchez, as head of a minority government in Madrid and at a time when right-wing opposition parties, in especially the ultra-nationalist Vox, are pushing for more centralization in Spain, not less.
Wednesday’s meeting was the first of its kind since February 2020, when Mr Sánchez sought to relaunch negotiations to resolve the Catalan conflict, but his plan was put on hold by the onset of the coronavirus pandemic that hit Spain with a particular strength.
“There is now an intense debate on whether decentralization has worked in Spain, and it is also clear that Sánchez cannot ignore the fact that any advantage given to Catalonia will be strongly felt in all other regions of Spain. Spain, “said Orriols.
In fact, the day before Mr Sánchez’s planned trip to Barcelona, Juanma Moreno, the regional leader of Andalusia, Spain’s largest region, called on Mr Sánchez to open a separate bilateral negotiation with Andalusia.
“It is not reasonable that privileges are negotiated to the detriment of other territories in Spain,” argued Mr. Moreno.