Spanish President Pedro Sánchez left a meeting Thursday in Barcelona with Catalan regional President Quim Torra thinking he had a deal with Torra to “agree to disagree” on specifics, while moving forward with a first meeting in early February of the so-called Mesa de Dialogo talks between representatives of the central and regional governments to resolve the political conflict in Catalonia.
But on Friday, Torra unveiled a new condition for those talks to proceed, one that he had failed to raise just 24 hours earlier in his meeting with Sánchez but now says is “indispensable” for the talks to begin — that the Mesa de Dialogo must be moderated by an independent international observer.
The surprise condition set down by Torra on Friday has been a red line in the past for any government in Madrid government because it is seen as giving any such discussions the air of bilateral negotiations between two sovereign governments. Within the hierarchy of government jurisdiction, rights and responsibilities set down in Spain’s Constitution of 1978, each of the country’s 17 autonomous regional governments — including Catalonia — is subordinate to and essentially an agent of Spain’s central government.
During the first Sánchez government in 2018, the demand for an international moderator was a deal-breaker that ultimately scuttled the beginning of any dialogue. To avoid a repeat of that occurring, the issue of an independent moderator was not included in the accord signed between Sánchez’s Socialist party and Catalonia’s centre-left Esquerra Republicana (ERC) party that resulted in the ERC’s abstention in the congressional voting that brought Sánchez to power last month.
Though signed by the ERC, the agreement nevertheless called for Catalonia’s regional government to be the party sitting across the table from the Sánchez, leaving Catalan President Quim Torra in the position of working out the final details of when and how the discussions would take place.
Immediately upon hearing the Torra demand for a moderator, Catalonia’s Vice-President Pere Aragonès of the ERC party issued a warning to the Catalan President not to go so far as “to miss the opportunity” to get the Spanish government to engage in talks to resolve the conflict politically.
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