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Spain opens talks with Catalonia over separatist conflict

MADRID (AP) — The Spanish government and the separatist leaders of Catalonia formally opened talks Wednesday on how to resolve the festering political crisis provoked by the region’s separatist movement.

As expected, the three-hour meeting between Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez and Catalan regional chief Quim Torra and their teams did not lead to any major breakthroughs. The two governments issued a joint statement afterward that that they had agreed to continue meeting every month, alternating between Madrid and Barcelona, the home to the regional Catalan government.

Torra repeated his demands for northeastern Catalonia to be allowed to hold an independence referendum and for the release of nine separatist leaders who are serving prison sentences for their role in an illegal 2017 secession attempt.

“We have had an honest and frank debate, an open debate that has made clear the discrepancies between the two sides," Torra said after the meeting. “We made it clear that these are talks to deal with the political conflict in Catalonia that is based on the issues of self-determination and amnesty (for separatist prisoners), and we still don’t have an answer from the Spanish government.”

Sánchez has repeatedly promised that his government won't consider an independence vote for the region. He has said instead he will focus on improving the relations between Spain and the restive region, while also decreasing tensions in Catalonia caused by the divisive issue.

“We are all aware of the differences that separate us, but this is a complex negotiation and we do not expect results in the short term,” Spanish government spokeswoman María Jesús Montero said after Wednesday's talks..

“We have expressed our intention of ending this deadlock,” Montero said. “The option of doing nothing was already tried (by Spain’s previous government) and didn’t help….That is why this dialogue is more necessary than ever before.”

Polls and the most recent election results indicate that roughly 50% of the 7.5 million residents of northeastern Catalonia are in favor of secession. The other half of Catalans, like most of the rest of Spain, are against it.

The talks, however, are seen favorably by many Catalans. Sánchez greeted Torra in the gardens outside the Moncloa Palace, the seat of Spain’s Government, where the two leaders appeared to chat amiably before the meeting.

The talks commenced at a delicate moment for both governments. In January, Sánchez agreed to open the talks in order to win the votes of some of Catalonia’s separatist lawmakers in the national parliament necessary to form a coalition government with the left-wing United We Can party.

Sánchez will now need to maintain that same backing to get a national budget passed. The trade-off has earned the Socialist leader criticism from Spain's right-of-center parties, which Sánchez accuses in turn of having done nothing to help defuse the conflict when the conservatives were in power.

Torra, meanwhile, has said he will soon call snap elections after frictions between his party and another separatist party currently in power in Catalonia have reached a breaking point. In-fighting among Catalonia's separatist parties could grow more intense as they enter a campaign for a regional election Torra expects to call in the coming months.

Sánchez and Torra tried to hold sustained talks after meeting in Barcelona in December 2018, but that attempt collapsed when Torra demanded to have an outside mediator monitor the talks.

Wilson reported from Barcelona.

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