Spanish cabinet to be met by protests as it meets in restive Catalonia

MADRID (Reuters) – A Spanish cabinet meeting in Barcelona on Friday will be greeted with protests by Catalan separatists, even though both governments agreed the previous day to work on a political solution to the dispute.

A demonstrator waves an Estelada (Catalan separatist flag) during a march towards Casa Llotja de Mar where Spain’s cabinet meeting will take place, in Barcelona, Spain, December 21, 2018. REUTERS/Susana Vera

For Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez, the choice of the venue is both a show of resolve not to allow full independence and part of a strategy to secure the survival of his minority government in Madrid with the help of Catalonian pro-independence parties by negotiating a greater degree of autonomy with their leaders.

On Thursday night, Sanchez met Catalonia’s pro-independence regional government head Quim Torra. They agreed to open a deeper dialogue and to work to reach a political solution to the conflict.

Nine separatist leaders being held in detention called on Thursday for large but peaceful protests to greet Sanchez; last year dozens were injured in numerous confrontations between national police and pro-independence protesters.

There were further signs of a spirit of compromise as four of the leaders ended a hunger strike, and their party said it would support Sanchez’s broad plan for the national budget in 2019 and 2020, currently blocked.

The region unilaterally declared independence in October 2017, triggering Spain’s worst political crisis in decades and prompting the previous conservative central government to seize control there for several months. Spain’s constitution prohibits regions from breaking away.

National police will be deployed in Barcelona again to guard the cabinet meeting due to fears of violence.

Activist networks known as the Committees for the Defence of the Republic began blocking various roads in and around Barcelona in the early hours of Friday, and planned to rally in the city center before noon. A large rally organized by the leftist pro-independence CUP party is planned in the evening.

Still, Antonio Barroso of London-based political consultants Teneo wrote in a research note that apparent divisions between the more radical and moderate secessionists, which had resulted in recent positive signals, were “more relevant than upcoming protests”.

He said a strategy of moderation “seems to be making inroads, opening the door to a potential negotiation around the budget”.

The Socialists control fewer than a quarter of seats in the Madrid parliament and need the support of smaller parties, including Catalan nationalists, to pass legislation.

Failure to approve the 2019 budget could topple Sanchez’s government, raising the possibility of a right-of-center government with stronger centralist preferences coming to power — a risk some Catalan politicians would prefer to avoid.

Writing by Andrei Khalip; Editing by Paul Day and Kevin Liffey

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