Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez has met Catalan pro-independence groups in an attempt to ease tensions.
It included sitting down with regional president Pere Aragonès at the seat of the Catalan government in downtown Barcelona.
Expectations were low for any huge advances from Wednesday’s meeting which has caused a rift within the separatist camp. Aragonès and his Republican Left of Catalonia party called the talks a “historic opportunity”.
But leaders of the junior party in Aragonès’ government publicly voiced their doubts about the chances that there would be any real gains for the separatists. The influential grassroots group National Catalan Assembly went further, saying that the talks would only serve to derail their cause.
Afterwards, the Spanish PM said that the two-hour meeting was important to continue mending relations between their governments.
“Our positions are very different, it is important to underscore that … We are not going to resolve a decade-long crisis in one day,” Sánchez said. Ahead of the meeting he said that he had “always defended dialogue” due to “the need to open a new chapter”.
Aragonès repeated his demands that Spain authorise a referendum on independence, and grant a general amnesty of all those separatists in trouble with the law.
Polls and election results over the past five years consistently show that half of Catalonia wants to remain in Spain, while the other half wants to sever all ties.
Spain has said that any vote on Catalonia’s future would have to be on a proposal to improve the relationship of the northeast region with the rest of Spain.
While Sánchez has pledged to improve relations with Catalonia since he came to power in 2018, he has always stated that an independence referendum is “contrary to the Constitution”.
Spain was rocked by Catalonia’s push for independence in 2017.
Despite a court ban, the regional government of Carles Puigdemont held a referendum and later declared independence.
Madrid — who considered the vote illegal — responded by detaining the main leaders of the movement, and nine were subsequently jailed for their role in 2019.
In June, the imprisoned pro-independence leaders were pardoned by Sánchez’s government, in an effort to further improve relations.
Aragonès had announced that he was excluding a separatist party in his ruling regional coalition from the talks with the central government.
Together for Catalonia (JxCat) had proposed to send two of its members, who had served prison sentences for their role in the secession bid.
But Aragonès said the meeting was between the governments of Spain and Catalonia and not representatives of political parties.
JxCat has taken a more radical approach of confronting Spain’s central government, relations between Madrid and Barcelona have eased under Aragonès.
Catalonia is also hoping to obtain economic gains from talks with Sanchez’s left-wing coalition while still pushing for independence.