BARCELONA, Spain (AP) — Spain’s prime minister and the president of the country’s Catalonia region sat down for formal meeting Thursday after intense political maneuvers to dictate the terms of the talks and whether the loaded topic of Catalan independence would be on the agenda.
Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez flew to Barcelona, Catalonia’s capital, to meet with the region’s pro-secession president, Quim Torra. The regional leader called the meeting a “summit” between the two governments, which the Spanish side rejected.
Torra greeted Sanchez with a handshake in front of the Palau de Pedralbes that once housed Spanish royalty. They spoke briefly as they walked into the former palace belongs to the regional government.
Sanchez had said he wanted to focus on social and economic issues in Catalonia rather than on the region’s divisive push for independence last year. Torra wanted Catalan self-determination to be on the agenda. The format of their meeting was not decided until hours before its start due to last-minute jockeying over the scope of the talks.
Ultimately, it was agreed that the vice presidents of the central and regional governments, along with two other members of Sanchez and Torra’s Cabinets, would hold a side meeting.
But hopes for solid results were dimmer than when the two leaders last met. Their talks in Madrid in early July were described as “long, sincere and frank.” The difficulty agreeing on the form of the meeting lowered observers’ expectations for progress.
Opposition parties on the right also have accused Sanchez of wanting to appease Catalonia’s separatists in exchange for their support for his national budget.
Various pro-independence groups called for protests in front of the palace and at a hotel where Sanchez was expected to attend a Catalan business forum later Thursday. Worker and student groups also called strikes for Friday, when the Spanish Cabinet at large holds its weekly meeting in Barcelona.
Security in the prosperous northeastern region of 7.4 million residents, normally in the hands of the Catalan police, was reinforced with hundreds of anti-riot national police officers.
The ministers’ council normally takes place in Madrid, but Sanchez’s center-left administration wanted to signal it has the right to conduct business anywhere on Spanish territory. Catalan authorities are supporting the protests, but said they would ensure both Sanchez’s right to hold the meeting and the right of citizens to protest.
Nine separatist leaders who were charged with rebellion and other offenses for their roles in a banned secession referendum and an illegal declaration of independence last year issued an open letter from prison urging Catalonia’s people to take their grievances to the streets “massively, with determination and peacefully.”
Four of the imprisoned politicians said Thursday they were abandoning the prison hunger strike they started at the beginning of the month to call attention on what they considered unfair treatment by Spain’s judiciary. Activist-turned-politician Jordi Sanchez and former Catalan Cabinet member Jordi Turull went without food for 19 days, and ex-regional ministers Josep Rull and Joaquim Forn for 17.
Their spokeswoman, Pilar Calvo, said at a news conference the strike brought attention to the separatists’ plight and prompted Spain’s Constitutional Court to review some of their appeals. The four want to exhaust all their appeals in Spain so they can take their case to the European Court of Human Rights.
The Constitutional Court had said the appeals were following the normal judicial calendar. On Thursday, it issued a new ruling, refusing to end Jordi Sanchez’s preventive jailing and denying that the case could be compared to that of a Kurdish politician in Turkey.
In Geneva, former Catalan President Carles Puigdemont, who has become one of the most prominent voices of the Catalan separatist movement, announced that he and five other Catalan politicians were filing a complaint to the U.N.’s Human Rights Committee because they consider that Spain violated their democratic rights as elected officials.
Puigdemont has fought off extradition to Spain after he fled to Belgium shortly after the secession attempt in 2017. He later won a seat in the Catalan parliament while campaigning from abroad but faces immediate arrest if he returns to Spain, where he is sought for rebellion.
Referring to the volatility of the situation in Catalonia, Puigdemont told reporters that Catalonia’s pro-independence movement “doesn’t have to show its commitment to non-violence” after one decade of massive peaceful demonstrations.