Madrid, Spain – Long-awaited high-profile negotiations between Spain’s central government and Catalonia’s officials over the troubled region’s future finally got under way this afternoon in Madrid, in a bid to break years of deadlock, with regional nationalists adamant that Catalan independence should be included in discussions.
Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez and Catalan regional leader and separatist Quim Torra, each flanked by small but politically heavy-weight delegations of advisers and ministers, met at the former’s official residence of the Moncloa to get the bridge-building discussions rolling.
Expectations of an early breakthrough are understandably low given the tumultuous relationship between Spain’s central government and Catalonia in recent years, and with a dozen top Catalan politicians in prison or self-imposed exile following a failed independence bid in 2017 looming large in the background.
In a joint statement, it was agreed that further meetings would be held monthly, alternating between Barcelona and Madrid, and recognising that as a “conflict of a political nature … a political solution is required”.
In separate press conferences, government spokeswoman Maria Jesus Montero emphasised that there would no short-term solutions, but called the meeting “satisfactory” and “dynamic.”
For his part, Torra said it had “established a frank dialogue between institutions, but also to confirm the differences that exist between us”.
Germa Capdevila, a political analyst with naciodigital.cat told Al Jazeera: “This isn’t the start of a long road, it’s the start of a very long one – but the important thing is both the nature of the talks and that they are happening at all.
“Catalonia has recognised that it can’t just act without bearing Spain in mind, and the Spanish government has effectively recognised that Catalonia needs to be talked to as a political entity. Those are both new developments.
“But this is a major political conflict which has been going on for a very long time. Nobody should expect that in a couple of meetings, it all gets resolved. What’s more encouraging is a willingness to negotiate that we’ve never seen before.”
Sanchez had warned the Spanish government on Wednesday morning that “it will be a long, difficult and complex process”. But he insisted that the negotiations represented a break with earlier intransigence towards the Catalan question shown by the previous right-wing government.
“As things stand, and as has happened before, the left-wing forces governing Spain need to count on the country’s political and cultural minorities” – like the Catalans, Manuel Lopez, a professor of history at Spain’s Open University, told Al Jazeera.
“If the two sides don’t back each other up at moments like this, they both lose – and other minorities, like the Basque Nationalists, would also lose out as well.”
The Socialist Party is eager to avoid controversy in the early stages of the talks, as it is keenly aware that as a minority government it needs the ongoing neutrality of the Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC) party in Parliament. A major test of that neutrality is coming up very shortly: on Thursday, the state budget, unchanged since 2015 because of Spain’s seemingly permanent political instability, is set to be voted through.
After their abstention in early January ended months of caretaker governments, the ERC has insisted that their continuing neutrality is conditional on the talks on Catalonia taking place, and have yet to guarantee they will abstain on Thursday.
In Catalonia, the start of talks coincides with the buildup to regional elections, with the ERC jostling with the Junts per Catalunya party – to which Torra belongs – for superiority in the nationalist camp, and potentially boosting a more bullish attitude in the Madrid negotiations.
Spain’s opposition parties have done little to lower the tension by continuing their strong attacks against the Spanish Socialists for allegedly selling out to the nationalists. On Tuesday, Spain’s Minister of Justice Juan Carlos Campo said jail sentences for sedition – such as those meted out to the imprisoned Catalan leaders – were “unusually long” and an “anomaly”. His comments were greeted with fierce criticism.
Come what may, Lopez is convinced the fact the talks are taking place represents a potentially very significant milestone in the country’s recent political history. Or as he puts it: “That two parties of the calibre of the Socialists and ERC are sitting down and talking like this constitutes a break with the recent past and a very big step forwards.”