Spanish PM opens talks with Catalan separatists

Patrick RAHIR
Spanish ministers welcome the Catalan government delegation prior to holding a meeting between both executives at the Moncloa Palace in Madrid

Spain's prime minister opened talks with Catalan separatists on Wednesday to try and defuse a crisis over the region's separatist push that could hold the key to the survival of his minority government.

The long simmering crisis was sparked with Catalonia's failed independence bid in 2017 that plunged Spain into its worst crisis in decades.

Now, the minority government of Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez relies on Catalan separatist party ERC to pass legislation.

The survival of Sanchez's government could hinge on the fate of the talks, which are aimed at walking back tensions with Catalonian separatists.

The meeting opened Wednesday in Madrid with Quim Torra, the separatist head of Catalonia's regional government, and members of the ERC party.

But talks are off to a rough start with both camps disagreeing on the agenda.

The Catalans want a green light to hold a binding independence referendum in the wealthy northeastern region.

They also want amnesty for nine of their leaders who were jailed or exiled after the failed independence bid.

Spain's central government has rejected both requests.

ERC demanded the dialogue in exchange for its continued support for Sanchez's government and as a precondition for possibly backing his 2020 budget.

Getting a budget approved for 2020 could guarantee the Socialist premier several years of stability as it will allow him to roll over his existing spending plan.

But if the budget is not approved by parliament, fresh elections would have to be held, as happened in 2019 when ERC withdrew its support for Sanchez.

Spain's government wants to use the meeting to analyse the causes of the separatist crisis in Catalonia, where nearly half the population supports independence.

"The best agenda is to sit down and listen to each other," Deputy Prime Minister Carmen Calvo said Tuesday.

Sanchez's government -- comprised of the Socialists and hard-left Podemos -- is prepared to change the definition of "sedition" in the penal code, which would reduce the penalty for the jailed and exiled Catalan separatist.

It remains to be seen if this will be enough to convince the ERC to support Sanchez even if the talks do not lead to concrete results.

The talks come at a time of increased tension between Catalonia's two main separatist parties ahead of an early regional election later this year.

ERC's rival JxC is headed from Brussels by former Catalan president Carles Puigdemont, who nominated Torra as his successor when he fled to Belgium in 2017 after the Catalan parliament declared independence.