September 28. 2021. 5:03

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Madrid government and Catalan leaders set for complex talks

Catalan regional president Pere Aragones, centre, in Barcelona marking the national day of Catalonia. Photograph: Josep Lago/AFP via Getty

The leaders of Spain and Catalonia are due to meet in Barcelona on Wednesday, as they resume talks aimed at reaching a solution to the country’s longstanding territorial crisis.

The negotiations are part of a so-called “dialogue table” that began in February 2020 but was interrupted by Covid and has not reconvened since. The eventual aim is to reach agreement on Catalonia’s relationship with the rest of Spain, which reached a crisis point in 2017 when the region’s government launched a bid for independence that failed.

Spain’s Socialist prime minister, Pedro Sánchez, has said the talks are part of a strategy to calm tensions in Catalonia and improve co-existence between unionists and separatists, who remain virtually split down the middle on the issue of independence. In June, his government approved pardons for nine politicians who were jailed for sedition for their role in the secession attempt four years ago.

“I am going to commit myself to dialogue and coming together again,” Mr Sánchez told Spanish national television this week. “My task, the task of the government, is always to reduce the distance between Catalans and I think we’re achieving that with a great deal of effort,” he added.

Bumpy talks

The Catalan Republican Left (ERC), the party of the region’s pro-independence president, Pere Aragonès, has agreed to provide Mr Sánchez’s leftist coalition government with crucial parliamentary backing in exchange for the continuation of the talks.

“Catalonia is on the verge of doing something it has never managed before: opening a negotiation with the Spanish state,” Mr Aragonès said in a video message on the Catalan national day, the Diada, on Saturday.

However, the talks are expected to be bumpy. The Spanish government has already rejected the Catalan administration’s main demands: a binding referendum on independence and an amnesty for dozens of Catalans facing legal action for having allegedly broken the law through their activism. Instead, Mr Sánchez has suggested he will offer increased investment and financing by the central government in the region, a proposal that is unlikely to win over many pro-independence Catalans.

Premier’s participation

The resumption of these talks comes just days after Mr Sánchez suspended plans to expand Barcelona’s El Prat airport, a project worth €1.7 billion. Citing a lack of support for the expansion from the Catalan administration, the prime minister’s decision has added to the tensions between the two governments, as did his refusal to confirm his own participation in Wednesday’s meeting until the last minute.

“A mature dialogue with the Spanish state, but also within Catalonia, is the best antidote to a pessimism which has already lasted too long,” noted Catalan newspaper El Periódico in an editorial, as it urged the two sides to end the territorial conflict that has dominated the political arena in recent years.

Further complicating the negotiations are pressures on Mr Aragonès from pro-independence hardliners, who are not convinced the Spanish government is entering the process in good faith. Among those who have criticised the talks is Together for Catalonia (JxCat), the junior partner in his regional government.