The leaders of the Spanish government and that in Catalonia have met across the table—but the gap between them remains large.
The Spanish premier, Pedro Sánchez, rejected both amnesty and a second independence referendum in the highly-anticipated dialogue between Spain and Catalonia on Wednesday. But the Catalan leader, Pere Aragonès, said the initiation of negotiation between the two sides was a win in itself.
The purpose of the meeting, which lasted two hours at the Palau de la Generalitat in Barcelona, was to discuss the ‘process’—the issue of Catalan independence from Spain. In 2017, Catalans voted in a referendum which the Spanish state considered to be unconstitutional, leading to the 2019 sentencing of nine political and cultural leaders to 9-13 years in prison.
The date for the dialogue between the president of the Generalitat and the prime minister of Spain was organised in June, following the pardons issued by Sánchez to former political prisoners. It symbolised the start of what both sides describe as a transition towards progressive deliberation between Spain and Catalonia.
Both came out of the meeting on Wednesday agreeing that the table of dialogue was the right instrument for resolving the conflict. The Spanish PM said that he was committed to ‘the agenda of reunion’ (l’agenda del retrobament in Catalan), meaning that his ambition was to promote discourse and negotiation between the two sides rather than a unilateral approach. Aragonès, who is from the Republican Left Party of Catalonia (ERC), has been a proponent of the deliberative approach since taking power earlier this year and agreed that Wednesday’s meeting was the first of many to come. Both leaders agreed to engage in ‘public and non-public’ reunions to work through the negotiations ‘without haste’ and ‘without deadlines’. But both sides admitted to starkly contrasting positions.
Aragonès has consistently championed two main objectives for the dialogue: amnesty for exiles and former political prisoners and another referendum for Catalan independence. Sánchez, referencing the Spanish constitution (a clause about Spain’s ‘indivisibility’) and consistent with his dialogue throughout this year, said ‘neither amnesty nor a referendum are possible’ and suggested the two sides need to talk about ‘closer issues’.
The PM’s stance led Aragonès to label the two executives as ‘very far [apart] in positions’ but did not discourage him from praising the meeting, saying they had achieved ‘what seemed impossible’—referring to the Spanish executive coming to the table of dialogue. The Catalan republican stood by his ambition for another referendum and said that ‘there is room to raise options’ in regards to constitutional limitations.
Aragonès acknowledged the pardons issued in June as a progressive step towards recognition by the executive but said that ‘repression continues’. The Catalan leader will continue to fight for amnesty for all who were persecuted by the Spanish Supreme Court for their involvement in the 2017 independence referendum. The difference between amnesty and the pardons would be an acknowledgment by the Spanish executive that the condemned former leaders had not actually broken the law—rather than what some consider as an olive-branch offering of forgiveness.
Controversy was sparked the day before the dialogue when the Catalan president rejected proposed attendees for the meeting from Junts—the other half of the ruling Catalan coalition. Aragonès justified his decision by saying that the attendees should only consist of members of the government.
Jordi Sànchez, a former Catalan political prisoner and the secretary general of Junts, responded that this was not a necessary requirement. But he blamed the Spanish executive for what he labelled a ‘veto’ of his party’s members. ‘We have felt that we have been vetoed by Pedro Sánchez’s government. This veto represents the conviction that the Spanish side fails to address the dialogue,’ said Sànchez on Tuesday.
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Junts, which governed Catalonia under the leadership of the now-exiled Carles Puigdemont at the time of the 2017 referendum, was thus not represented at the table of dialogue. The Catalan side consisted of Aragonès, Laura Vilagrà (minister for the presidency) and Roger Torrent (minister and former president of the Catalan parliament). The Spanish side consisted of Sánchez, Yolanda Díaz as vice-president and ministers Félix Bolaños, Isabel Rodríguez and Miquel Iceta. Sánchez reduced the number of attendees from the Spanish side to account for the absence of Junts members.
How these discussions unfold, and their circumstantial outcomes, will surely have an impact on Sánchez’s fate in next year’s general election.