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Saturday June 6th, 2020 3:20AM

Spanish PM: Formal talks with Catalonia to start this month

By The Associated Press
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BARCELONA, Spain (AP) — Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez said Thursday that bilateral dialogue between the central and regional governments of Spain and Catalonia respectively will open this month in a bid to find an exit to the country's most dividing political crisis.

Sánchez made the announcement shortly after meeting with the separatist leader of the northeastern region, Quim Torra.

THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. AP’s earlier story follows below.

Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez met Thursday with the separatist leader of Catalonia in a bid to improve the strained relations between the central government and Spain’s restive northeast.

No major breakthrough came from Thursday's meeting with both sides starting from distant positions on the divisive issue of Catalonia's independence from the rest of Spain.

Catalan regional president Quim Torra had said before the meeting at the Catalan government seat in downtown Barcelona that he would insist on Sánchez allowing a legal referendum on secession for the wealthy region.

Sánchez’s government had said that a referendum was out of the question since it would violate the Spanish Constitution. Sánchez planned to steer the talk to social issues, financing for Spain’s regions and the impact of recent storms in eastern Spain.

Last month, Sánchez agreed to open talks between his central government and the Catalan government as part of a deal to win the support of some separatist lawmakers in the Spanish Parliament that he needed to form a government last month. Thursday’s meeting with Torra isn't considered to be part of that negotiation.

The two leaders appeared to chat amiably as they walked up an ornate stone staircase in the inner patio of the medieval Palace of the Generalitat, which is home to the Catalan government. Once inside the meeting room, Torra gave Sánchez two books on human rights.

The building was under extra police protection, but there were only a handful of protesters outside the building, in stark comparison to the last time Sánchez met with Torra in Decemeber 2018. The day before that meeting, protesters clashed violently with police while Sánchez held a meeting of his Cabinet in Barcelona.

Any significant outcome of this new meeting is also in question because Torra’s future as the leader of Catalonia is in serious doubt.

Torra was stripped of his seat in the regional parliament last month after a Catalan court barred him from public office for 18 months for disobedience. Torra has appealed the decision to Spain’s Supreme Court and is clinging to his presidency in the meantime.

Torra also recently announced that he will call a snap election as soon as the Catalan parliament can pass a budget because of the strained relations with the other separatist party that forms part of his coalition government.

Thursday’s meeting comes with Catalonia’s separatist movement in disarray. Nine of its leaders are serving prison sentences for holding an unauthorized secession referendum and attempting secession in 2017. Other leaders fled the country.

Polls and election results show that Catalonia's 7.5 million residents are roughly equally divided over the secession question.

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