Catalan and Spanish Leaders Take Steps to Normalize Relations

Quim Torra and Pedro Sánchez meet for the first time.

Catalan president Quim Torra is welcomed by Spanish prime minister Pedro Sánchez in Madrid, July 9
Catalan president Quim Torra is welcomed by Spanish prime minister Pedro Sánchez in Madrid, July 9 (La Moncloa)

Spanish prime minister Pedro Sánchez and Catalan president Quim Torra have met for the first time.

The fact that a simple meeting is considered a step forward says something about how poorly Sánchez’ conservative predecessor, Mariano Rajoy, managed relations between the Spanish state and its richest — and rebellious — region.

Beyond the symbolism of the meeting, the two leaders made substantive progress.

What they agreed

  • Sánchez recognized that the Catalan issue is a political, rather than a legal, one.

Rajoy refused to so much as negotiate with the Catalan government. When it called a referendum on independence last year that had been forbidden by the Constitutional Court, he suspended Catalonia’s autonomy and allowed prosecutors and judges to put Catalan politicians in jail.

  • The two agreed to revive the bilateral Spain-Catalonia Commission, which hasn’t met since 2011. It will set up working groups to discuss energy policy, infrastructure and taxes. The commission will be chaired by the minister of public administration, Meritxell Batet, a Catalan.
  • Sánchez promised to normalize relations and meet again with Torra in two months’ time.

What they did not agree

Sánchez, like most mainstream politicians in Spain, maintains that Catalonia does not have a right to self-determination and therefore cannot have a legal referendum on independence.

Catalan nationalists like Torra do not agree that their home region is an “indissoluble” part of Spain, as the Constitution prescribes.

Catalan views

  • La Vanguardia, the biggest newspaper in Catalonia, welcomes the “thaw” in relations. It recognizes that big differences remain, but “the important thing is that an era of institutional normalization has now begun.”
  • El Periódico, the second newspaper in the region, calls the Sánchez-Torra meeting a “glimmer of hope”.
  • The pro-independence newspaper Ara argues that Sánchez must now prove he is really different from Rajoy.
  • José Antich, the editor of the pro-independence outlet El Nacional, welcomes the fact that the three major parties of Spain (the conservative People’s Party, the Socialists and the liberal Citizens) are no longer united in their approach to Catalonia’s separatist movement.

Spanish views

  • El País praises the two leaders for focusing on concrete ways to improve relations.
  • El Mundo, which is more conservative, accuses them of playing to the gallery. It points out that Torra did not back down and is afraid that Sánchez, who needs the Catalan nationalists for his majority in Congress, will make more concessions.