Spain to open Catalonia talks before regional election, reversing earlier position

MADRID (Reuters) – Spain’s government said on Thursday it will begin talks on resolving the Catalan political conflict before elections are held in the region, walking back an earlier decision to postpone the negotiations until after the polls.

The talks were a precondition for left-wing separatist party Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya (ERC) to facilitate Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez’s recent investiture.

His decision to delay the negotiations drew sharp criticism from Catalan politicians, including a top ERC official who referred to it as an “absolute irresponsibility”.

Catalonia has been a dominant theme in Spanish politics since the region unilaterally declared independence in October 2017 following a referendum deemed illegal by courts, prompting Spain’s biggest political crisis in decades.

ERC’s support is crucial for the government’s budget proposal to be approved by the Spanish parliament, and the party has previously said its support for the bill would depend on the evolution of the negotiations.

“We asked for the agreement to be fulfilled and it will be done,” an ERC source with knowledge of the situation said, adding that Sanchez had met with ERC spokesman Gabriel Rufian on Thursday.

In a statement, the Spanish government said it wanted to reaffirm its commitment to the talks even though the current conditions were not ideal to begin negotiating.

“Throughout the day we have heard our willingness to talk and our commitment to the agreements be called into question,” the government said.

The reversal came a day after the pro-independence head of Catalonia’s regional government Quim Torra said he planned to call a snap local election, pending the approval of the region’s budget. The ballot is expected to be in late May at the earliest.

Torra’s Junts per Catalunya party and ERC, who are partners in the region’s ruling coalition, have been at odds lately.

The Catalan government did not address the postponement directly in a statement released after the announcement, but said Torra would seek to prepare for such talks at a meeting with Sanchez set for Feb. 6. The two would discuss the right of self-determination and an amnesty for the jailed and self-exiled Catalan separatist leaders.

“We are convinced that Prime Minister Sanchez will not close any door to dialogue in that meeting, nor exclude any topic,” it said, referring to next week’s meeting.

(Reporting by Inti Landauro and Joan Faus; Writing by Nathan Allen, Ashifa Kassam and Andrei Khalip; Editing by Alex Richardson and Catherine Evans)