BARCELONA, Spain (AP) – Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez and the leader of Catalonia emerged from a meeting Thursday with an agreement to find a solution to the political crisis that has festered since the region’s failed secession attempt last year.
Following the talks in the Catalan city of Barcelona between Sanchez and Catalan head Quim Torra, their governments issued a joint statement calling for dialogue to settle the fight.
The statement said the central and regional governments recognize there is a conflict over Catalonia’s future. But, it added, “Despite the notable differences about its origin, nature and ways of resolution, they share, above all, the commitment for effective dialogue that is linked to a political proposal that has the backing of large part of Catalan society.”
The two sides also agreed to have members of their governments meet again in January.
The Spanish and Catalan governments have been at odds since the Catalan Parliament issued an ineffective declaration of independence last year, which led to a temporary takeover of regional affairs by Spanish authorities and the jailing of several leaders of the secession movement.
Sanchez and Torra sat down for a first time in July in the first step by the Spanish prime minister to mend relations with Catalonia’s separatist leaders since they both took power earlier this year.
Despite the willingness shown by both sides to talk, neither hid how far apart they still are on agreeing to the way to resolve Spain’s worst political crisis in nearly three decades.
Catalan government spokeswoman Elsa Artadi told reporters after the meeting that Torra’s position remains that a legal binding referendum on independence is the answer.
Spain’s minister of territorial affairs, Meritxell Batet, said the federal government has not budged from its position that such a referendum by a Spanish region is illegal.
“We are convinced that we can continue forward toward a political solution within the constitution,” Batet said. “(Dialogue) is the only way to find a solution in the mid- to long-term. The crisis we are going through won’t be solved in a short period of time.”
The meeting took place in Barcelona’s Palau de Pedralbes, a former palace surrounded by walled gardens that once housed Spanish royalty. Torra greeted Sanchez on his arrival and they spoke briefly as they walked into the building, which belongs to the regional government.
The sit-down with Torra comes with Sanchez struggling to keep his minority government afloat. His Socialist Party was dealt a huge setback in regional elections earlier this month in southern Spain when opposition parties campaigned against his maneuvers in Catalonia.
Right-wing parties have accused Sanchez of wanting to appease Catalonia’s separatists in exchange for their support for his national budget.
Following the meeting, Sanchez attended a Catalan business forum at a nearby hotel, and around 100 separatists gathered outside to demand independence for the region. Worker and student groups also called strikes for Friday, when the Spanish Cabinet holds its weekly meeting in Barcelona.
The ministers’ council normally takes place in Madrid, but Sanchez’s center-left administration wanted to signal it has the right to conduct business anywhere on Spanish territory.
Security in the prosperous northeastern region of 7.4 million people, normally in the hands of the Catalan police, was reinforced with hundreds of anti-riot national police officers.
Hours before Thursday’s meeting, four imprisoned Catalan separatist leaders said they were abandoning the prison hunger strike they started at the beginning of the month to call attention to what they consider unfair treatment by Spain’s judiciary. Activist-turned-politician Jordi Sanchez and former Catalan Cabinet member Jordi Turull went without food for 19 days, while ex-regional ministers Josep Rull and Joaquim Forn abstained for 17.
Their spokeswoman, Pilar Calvo, said at a news conference that the strike brought attention to the separatists’ plight and prompted Spain’s Constitutional Court to review some of their appeals. The four want to exhaust all their appeals in Spain so they can take their case to the European Court of Human Rights.
The Constitutional Court had said the appeals were following the normal judicial calendar.
Meanwhile, former Catalan President Carles Puigdemont announced in Geneva that he and five other allies were filing a complaint with the U.N.’s Human Rights Committee contending Spain violated their democratic rights as elected officials.
Puigdemont, Torra’s predecessor, has fought off extradition to Spain since fleeing to Belgium shortly after the secession attempt in 2017. He faces immediate arrest if he returns to Spain.
Associated Press writer Joseph Wilson report this story in Barcelona and AP write Aritz Parra reported from Madrid. AP writer Jamey Keaten in Geneva contributed to this report.