Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez on Wednesday resumed dialogue with Catalonia's separatist leadership in a bid to resolve a political crisis triggered by the region's failed independence bid in 2017.
After an 18-month hiatus, Sanchez travelled to Barcelona where he met recently elected Catalan leader Pere Aragones for two hours, saying afterwards that the two sides were still "very far apart".
In October 2017, the Catalan regional government staged a referendum banned by Madrid then issued a shortlived declaration of independence, triggering Spain's worst political crisis in decades.
Since then, Catalonia has remained a major issue in Spanish politics and one that Sanchez's government has vowed to tackle through negotiations.
"The ideas we have on how to resolve the crisis in Catalonia are very different, radically different from those of the Catalan government," Sanchez told reporters after the meeting.
The separatists came to the talks bent on securing an amnesty for everyone involved in the failed independence bid, as well as a new referendum on self-determination.
But Spain is implacably opposed to both ideas.
"For us, neither a referendum nor amnesty is possible," Sanchez said, while insisting on the Spanish government's desire "to resolve this crisis".
"The most important thing is to move forward without setting dates for the resolution of this conflict," he said, pledging to work "without haste, without breaks and without setting deadlines".
"We are going to need time, a lot of time."
- Quid pro quo -
"If we go with a list of maximalist demands, the conversation won't last very long," Sanchez had said earlier this week, while admitting he was open to a possible vote on Catalonia's place within Spain, but within limits.
The Spanish leader had promised to resume talks in January 2020 after ERC -- Catalonia's oldest and largest separatist party -- offered crucial parliamentary support to his minority government.
Initial talks began a month later but were soon suspended as the coronavirus pandemic took hold.
Many things have changed since the October 2017 referendum and the ensuing crisis.
Those responsible were tried and jailed while others fled abroad to avoid prosecution, leaving the separatist movement decapitated and deeply at odds over how to move forward.
The issue of dialogue with Madrid has been a huge point of friction in the region of 7.8 million people, who remain divided over the question of independence.
Despite the differences, negotiations are thought to have a better chance this time thanks to shake-up within Catalonia's separatist-dominated leadership, with moderate leftist ERC taking the reins several months ago.
Last time, its hardline counterpart JxC was in charge.
The shift had an immediate effect: within weeks, the Spanish government had pardoned the jailed separatist leaders and agreed to resume top-level talks on the Catalan crisis.
ERC favours a negotiated strategy to achieve independence via dialogue with Madrid, while JxC, now the junior coalition partner, which wants to maintain a confrontational approach.
The split within the separatist ranks has also affected morale among their supporters, Ernesto Pascual, a political scientist at Catalonia's Open University said.
"People are beginning to turn their attention to more tangible issues than Catalan independence, which is why we're seeking this lack of motivation," said Pascual.
"People get tired of just focusing on the national issue.. especially during this health crisis and the economic crisis that will follow."