December 17, 2019 / 1:21 PM / a month ago

Spain's Sanchez promises dialogue on Catalonia if wins confirmation vote

MADRID (Reuters) - Spain’s acting Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez agreed on Tuesday to meet with Catalonia’s pro-independence regional head provided that the national parliament confirms him as premier - a vote in which separatists are likely to play a crucial role.

FILE PHOTO: Spain's acting Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez gestures during the first session of the Parliament following a general election in Madrid, Spain December 3, 2019. REUTERS/Juan Medina

According his office, Sanchez told Catalan president Quim Torra in a telephone conversation that he would try to promote dialogue and reduce tension should he form a government after months of political stalemate and two inconclusive elections this year.

The overture marks the first time Sanchez and Torra have talked after the Socialist premier refused on various occasions in October to answer Torra’s calls, saying that he had failed to condemn the at times violent separatist protests in Barcelona.

Protests erupted in October after Spain sentenced nine separatist leaders to long prison sentences for their role in a failed bid for independence in 2017.

The resumption of contacts comes at a time when Sanchez’s political future appears to hinge on Catalan separatists.

His Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE) has been negotiating with the pro-independence leftist party Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya (ERC) - which is not Torra’s party - to ask for its abstention vote in the confirmation ballot.

Left-wing ERC has conditioned its support in setting up a negotiation between the Spanish and Catalan government on the independence issue in the wealthy northeastern region.

So far no deal has been reached, but one of ERC’s demands was for Sanchez to call Torra as a goodwill sign.

The Socialists have struck a coalition deal with left-wing Podemos. It favours dialogue with Catalonia and, unlike the Socialists, supports a referendum on independence.

But both parties combined have only 155 seats in the 350-seat house, giving ERC’s 13 lawmakers a potential kingmaker role in unblocking the political stalemate.

Sanchez and Torra have not met since about a year ago and talks between both governments collapsed in February.

In his call, Sanchez said he would address the situation in Catalonia, where society is almost split in favour and against independence.

“The will...is to find a response to this political crisis,” his office said in a statement.

Torra defended the right of self-determination and the freedom of the jailed leaders as the solutions needed.

Sanchez plans to talk this week with the leaders of Spain’s 17 regions. After the potential investiture vote, he also seeks to hold bilateral meetings and then a summit with all of them, as well as to improve the regional financing system, his office said.

Reporting by Joan Faus, editing by Andrei Khalip and Angus MacSwan

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