By JOSEPH WILSON
BARCELONA, Spain (AP) — Spain’s prime minister and the leader of Catalonia emerged from a meeting Thursday with an agreement to find a solution to the political crisis that has festered since the region’s failed secession attempt last year.
Following the talks in the Catalan city of Barcelona between Spanish leader Pedro Sanchez and Catalan head Quim Torra, their governments issued a joint statement calling for dialogue to settle the fight.
The statement said the central and regional governments recognize there is a conflict over Catalonia’s future. But, it added, “Despite the notable differences about its origin, nature and ways of resolution, they share, above all, the commitment for effective dialogue that is linked to a political proposal that has the backing of large part of Catalan society.” The two sides also agreed to have members of their governments meet again in January.
The Spanish and Catalan governments have been at odds since the Catalan Parliament issued an ineffective declaration of independence last year, which was ruled unconstitutional by the courts and led to a temporary takeover of regional affairs by Spanish authorities. Several leaders of the secession movement were jailed. Sanchez and Torra sat down for the first time last July in an initial step by the Spanish prime minister to mend relations with Catalonia’s separatist leaders since they both took power earlier this year.
Their second meeting took place in Barcelona’s Palau de Pedralbes, a former palace surrounded by walled gardens that once housed Spanish royalty. Torra shook hands with Sanchez on his arrival and they spoke briefly as they walked into the building, which belongs to the regional government. “We all must open a new chapter, a chapter in which confrontation becomes concord,” Sanchez told a Catalan business forum at a nearby hotel shortly after seeing Torra.
“Against the polarization of society, cohesion. Against posturing and noise, dialogue, dialogue and dialogue,” Sanchez said. Torra also attended the forum and said that “both governments share the idea of finding a democratic solution.” Despite the willingness shown by both sides to talk, neither hid how far apart they still are on agreeing to the way to resolve Spain’s worst political crisis in nearly three decades.
Catalan government spokeswoman Elsa Artadi told reporters after the meeting that Torra’s position remains that a legal binding referendum on independence is the answer. Spain’s minister of territorial affairs, Meritxell Batet, said the federal government has not budged from its position that such a referendum by a Spanish region is unconstitutional.
“We are convinced that we can continue forward toward a political solution within the constitution,” Batet said. “The crisis we are going through won’t be solved in a short period of time.” The sit-down with Torra comes with Sanchez struggling to keep his minority government afloat. His Socialist Party was dealt a huge setback in regional elections earlier this month in southern Spain when opposition parties campaigned against his maneuvers in Catalonia.
Right-wing parties have launched fierce attacks criticizing Sanchez of wanting to appease Catalonia’s separatists in exchange for their support for his national budget. “We have a president who in order to stay in power is capable of siding with those who want to break Spain apart,” Pablo Casado, leader of the conservative Popular Party, said after Sanchez saw Torra.
Torra is also having trouble within the separatist camp, which is divided into moderates and diehards who want independence now. Polls and election results show that roughly half of Catalonia’s 7.4 million residents want to remain a part of Spain. Due to forecasts of protests by radical separatists, security in the prosperous northeastern region, normally in the hands of the Catalan police, was reinforced with hundreds of anti-riot national police officers.
But only around 100 protestors gathered outside the hotel hosting the forum where Sanchez and Torra spoke to demand independence for the region. Worker and student groups also called strikes for Friday, when Sanchez has decided to hold his weekly meeting of the Spanish Cabinet in central Barcelona.
Hours before Thursday’s meeting, four imprisoned Catalan separatist leaders said they were abandoning the prison hunger strike they started at the beginning of the month to call attention to what they consider unfair treatment by Spain’s judiciary. Activist-turned-politician Jordi Sanchez and former Catalan Cabinet member Jordi Turull went without food for 19 days, while ex-regional ministers Josep Rull and Joaquim Forn abstained for 17.
Meanwhile, former Catalan president Carles Puigdemont announced in Geneva that he and five allies were filing a complaint with the U.N.’s Human Rights Committee contending Spain violated their democratic rights as elected officials. Puigdemont, Torra’s predecessor, has fought off extradition to Spain since fleeing to Belgium shortly after the secession attempt in 2017. He faces immediate arrest if he returns to Spain.