MADRID — Spain’s prime minister met Tuesday with the chief of Catalonia for the first time since his government pardoned nine separatist leaders of the affluent region’s separatist movement.
Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez sat down with Catalan regional president Pere Aragonès for two and a half hours at the Moncloa palace, the seat of Spain’s government.
The Spanish leader had warned that the road to normalizing relations with Catalonia’s separatists would be a long one. As expected, the meeting was more about getting the sides to talk again.
Aragonès repeated his demand for an authorized referendum on independence, as well as a complete amnesty for all those facing legal trouble for their roles in the region’s illegal 2017 secession bid. Sánchez had previously said that a ballot on independence by a region is unconstitutional and that the way forward is satisfying the Catalans’ needs by focusing on social and economic issues.
“The first meeting with Pedro Sánchez has shown how far apart our positions remain and the evident differences that exist to resolving the conflict,” Aragonès said afterwards.
But, Aragonès added that the two leaders agreed that delegations from their respective governments will meet in September to start “a new round” of negotiations.
Last week Sánchez’s government pardoned the nine separatists who had spent over three years in prison for instigating the 2017 secession bid that threw Spain into crisis.
Spain’s government hopes the meeting with Aragonès helps further mend relations with the nation’s northeastern corner surrounding Barcelona where roughly half the voters support pro-secession parties.
Sánchez, a Socialist, has made rebuilding bridges with the separatists a main goal of his left-wing coalition government. He and the separatists agreed to open talks in February 2020. But the issue of the imprisoned separatist leaders was a major stumbling block, and Sánchez had not met with a separatist leader since then.
While Sánchez has been accused by Spain’s right-wing opposition of appeasing radicals who want to rupture Spain, the meeting comes with political risks for Aragonès as well. Aragonès, who became the new regional leader of Catalonia in May, is being pressured to make another unilateral attempt at secession by his hard-line cohorts.
Despite the pardons, the legal plight of some separatists is not over. Some are still on the run from Spanish law after fleeing to other European countries, and Spain’s National Accountability watchdog said Tuesday that it will ask former Catalan officials to pay back millions of euros that they used to promote the secessionist cause abroad.