Spain's PM meets Catalan separatist leader, sets out roadmap for talks

BARCELONA (Reuters) - Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez met Catalonia’s pro-independence regional leader on Thursday for the first time in over a year to outline an agenda for wider negotiations with the region that are due to kick off later this month.

Catalan regional leader Quim Torra leaves a news conference after meeting with Spain's Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez at Palau de la Generalitat in Barcelona, Spain February 6, 2020. REUTERS/Albert Gea

The plan seeks to address Catalonia’s divisive push for independence and improve relations with the region that tried to break away from Spain in 2017. The 44-item agenda puts issues ranging from taxation to decentralization on the table, although notably not the actual right to self-determination.

“On balance, the past decade has been lamentable. Nobody has won, we all have lost,” Sanchez said after meeting with Quim Torra, head of the Catalan regional government, in Barcelona.

“What the government of Spain is proposing is a restart,” Sanchez told reporters.

Talks between Madrid and the Catalan government were a condition set out by left-wing separatists from the Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya (ERC) party, who were instrumental in facilitating Sanchez’s confirmation as prime minister last month after a months-long political stalemate.

The secessionist movement in the wealthy northeastern region plunged Spain into its biggest political crisis in decades in 2017 when Catalonia unilaterally declared independence after holding a referendum that courts had ruled illegal.

In the roadmap for the talks, Sanchez’s government has agreed to consider a Catalan request for more fiscal autonomy, promised to increase infrastructure investment in Catalonia and to study ways to change the region’s public financing system.

A previous round of talks on the Catalan political situation - the first since the regional government embraced a secessionist agenda in 2012 - collapsed in late 2018.

Both Sanchez and Torra said they were hopeful and willing to lead the renewed negotiating effort, but Torra said deep differences remain and Madrid’s proposal was still not clear.

It was regrettable that Sanchez rejected the idea of an authorized referendum on independence and that his request to grant an amnesty to jailed and self-exiled separatist leaders went unanswered, Torra said.

“What we are requesting is that it is a frank and honest dialogue that deals with the political conflict’s root,” he told reporters.

Torra’s party, Junts per Catalunya, is, along with ERC, part of a faltering pro-independence ruling coalition in the region.

Torra said last month he planned to call a snap regional election and, after meeting Sanchez, he said talks between both governments should not be affected by the electoral process. The election would be in May at the earliest.

The region saw sometimes violent protests in October after nine separatist leaders were handled long prison sentences.

Reporting by Joan Faus; Writing by Ashifa Kassam and Joan Faus; Editing by Andrei Khalip and Frances Kerry