July 9, 2018 / 11:25 AM / 9 months ago

In 'cordial' meeting with Catalan leader, Spain's PM signals thaw

MADRID (Reuters) - Spain’s Prime Minister signalled a thaw in relations with Catalonia on Monday, signing up to joint initiatives in a first meeting with the region’s leader but again ruling out any moves towards Catalan independence.

Spain's Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez gestures while meeting with pro-independence Catalan leader Quim Torra at the Moncloa Palace in Madrid, Spain, July 9, 2018. REUTERS/Juan Medina

In an atmosphere his office described as cordial, Pedro Sanchez spoke with pro-independence Catalan leader Quim Torra for more than two hours.

Catalonia unilaterally declared independence in October, prompting the then government of Mariano Rajoy to impose direct rule from Madrid.

Torra’s newly-elected administration continues to push for a split from Spain, but Socialist Sanchez has taken a less hardline tone on the region than his conservative predecessor, whom he replaced in June.

Sanchez and Torra agreed to re-instate a joint ministerial-level forum for discussing bilateral issues, Deputy Prime Minister Carmen Calvo told a news conference. It last met seven years ago.

They also discussed organising a joint commemorative event in the Catalan capital Barcelona for the 15 people killed in Islamist attacks in the region last August, Calvo said.

But she emphasised that, under Spain’s constitution, there was no possibility of a referendum on independence for the wealthy northeast region. Sanchez has made clear his firm opposition to any referendum or attempt at secession.

The two men smiled and shook hands before the meeting, which included a stroll around the grounds of the prime ministerial residence. Their next meeting will take place in Barcelona, Calvo said.

Torra - who presented Sanchez with a book of ancient Catalan maps and a bottle of ratafia, an after-dinner liquor - said his predecessor Carles Puigdemont should have been representing the region.

“But the meeting has been long, sincere and hard-working and we’ve been able to put forward our vision on Catalonia,” Torra said.

Puigdemont fled Spain after declaring independence following the referendum and is currently in Germany awaiting the outcome of a Spanish extradition request.

Reporting By Sonya Dowsett; Editing by John Stonestreet

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