Spain's govt sets timing of talks with Catalonia leaders

BARCELONA, Spain (AP) — The Spanish government and leaders of the Catalonia region will start formal talks this month in a bid to end one of the biggest political crises since Spain's return to democracy in the late 1970s, the country's prime minister said Thursday.

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Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez announced the timing of the talks after he met with the separatist president of Catalonia, Quim Torra, in Barcelona. As expected, the meeting produced no major breakthroughs on the divisive issue of Catalonia's independence.

“What I propose is that we need to start over,” Sánchez told journalists. “To restart the dialogue at the point where our paths diverged.…I appreciate the tone and the willingness of President Torra. It was a respectful conversation between two presidents.”

Torra said later that he insisted during the meeting that Sánchez needed to allow a legal referendum on whether the wealthy northeast region should secede from the rest of Spain.

Sánchez’s government has repeatedly said a referendum is out of the question since it would violate the Spanish Constitution. Sánchez tried to steer the discussion toward social issues, financing for Spain’s regions and the impact of recent storms in the east of the country.

“The Spanish government has not budged on its position regarding (Catalonia’s) self-determination,” Torra said afterward.

“If this marks the start of a new era, we will see," he said. "We still don’t know what the Spanish government would propose.”

Last month, Sánchez agreed to open talks between his government and the Catalan government as part of a deal to win the support of some separatist lawmakers in the Spanish Parliament that he needed to form a government. Thursday’s meeting with Torra was not considered part of that negotiation.

The two leaders appeared to chat amiably as they walked up an ornate stone staircase in the inner patio of the medieval Palace of the Generalitat, which is home to the Catalan government. Once inside the meeting room, Torra gave Sánchez two books on human rights.

The building was under extra police protection, but there were only a handful of protesters outside the building, in stark comparison to the last time Sánchez met with Torra in December 2018. The day before that meeting, protesters clashed violently with police while Sánchez held a meeting of his Cabinet in Barcelona.

Any significant outcome of this new meeting is also in question as Torra’s future as the leader of Catalonia is in serious doubt.

Torra was stripped of his seat in the regional parliament last month after a Catalan court barred him from public office for 18 months for disobedience. Torra has appealed the decision to Spain’s Supreme Court and is clinging to his presidency in the meantime.

Torra recently said he would call a snap regional election as soon as the Catalan parliament can pass a budget because of the strained relations with the other separatist party that forms part of his coalition government.

Catalonia’s separatist movement is in disarray. Nine of its leaders are serving prison sentences for holding an unauthorized secession referendum and attempting secession in 2017. Other leaders fled the country.

Polls and election results show that Catalonia's 7.5 million residents are roughly equally divided over the secession question.

“The last decade has been dominated by friction,” Sánchez said. “Nobody has won, all of us have lost. Nobody can feel proud. People are frustrated and tired. I have come to speak of hope. Now is the moment to move forward.”