BARCELONA, Spain (AP) — Spain’s prime minister met Tuesday with the chief of Catalonia for the first time since his government pardoned nine separatist leaders of the affluent region’s separatist movement in an attempt to further mend relations between their governments.
Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez sat down with Catalan regional president Pere Aragonès for two and a half hours at the Moncloa palace, the seat of Spain’s government.
As expected, the meeting was more about getting the sides to talk again than real achievements.
Aragonès repeated his demand for an authorized referendum on independence, as well as a complete amnesty for all those facing legal trouble for their roles in the region's illegal 2017 secession bid. Sánchez had previously said that a ballot on independence by a region is unconstitutional and that the way forward is satisfying the Catalans’ needs by focusing on social and economic issues.
“The first meeting with Pedro Sánchez has shown how far apart our positions remain and the evident differences that exist to resolving the conflict,” Aragonès said afterwards.
But, Aragonès added that the two leaders agreed that delegations from their respective governments will meet in September to start “a new round” of negotiations.
Government spokeswoman María Jesús Montero said that Sánchez did not take up Aragonès’ demands. Instead, she said the prime minister focused on “the need to establish a framework of trust.”
“The government is not naïve and knows that this road is not easy,” Montero said. “It is time to end a chapter of pain and frustration and open a new one for Catalans and the rest of Spaniards that can allow us to resolve this conflict that has festered for far too long."
Last week Sánchez’s government pardoned the nine separatists who had spent over three years in prison for instigating the 2017 secession bid that threw Spain into crisis.
Spain’s government hopes the meeting with Aragonès can help foster a new period of calm in the nation’s northeastern corner surrounding Barcelona where roughly half the voters support pro-secession parties.
Sánchez, a Socialist, has made rebuilding bridges with the separatists a main goal of his left-wing coalition government. He and the separatists agreed to open talks in February 2020. But the issue of the imprisoned separatist leaders was a major stumbling block, and Sánchez had not met with a separatist leader since then.
While Sánchez has been accused by Spain’s right-wing opposition of appeasing radicals who want to rupture Spain, the meeting comes with political risks for Aragonès as well. Aragonès, who became the new regional leader of Catalonia in May, is being pressured to not renounce another unilateral attempt at secession by his hard-line cohorts like former chief Carles Puigdemont.
Despite the pardons, the legal plight of some separatists is not over. Puigdemont and others are still on the run from Spanish law after fleeing to other European countries, and Spain’s National Accountability watchdog said Tuesday that it will ask former Catalan officials to pay back millions of euros that they used to promote the secessionist cause abroad.
As for Aragonès insistence that Spain stop seeking the extradition of Puigdemont, Montero said that Puigdemont must face the law in order to return home.
Joseph Wilson, The Associated Press