Spain's Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez speaks at a news conference after the first cabinet meeting at Moncloa Palace in Madrid, Spain, January 14, 2020. | REUTERS/Jon Nazca

Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez has decided to postpone talks on resolving the political conflict in the restive region of Catalonia until after a planned regional election, the government said today.

He will still meet the pro-independence head of Catalonia's regional government, Quim Torra, as previously scheduled, on Feb. 6 in Barcelona.

The announcement came a day after Torra said he planned to call an early regional election, pending the approval of the regional budget. The ballot is expected to be in late May at the earliest.

In a statement, the Spanish government said it respected Torra's decision to call the election and reiterated its willingness to "start a dialogue with Catalan institutions on resolving the political conflict" - but after a new Catalan parliament and government take office.

"The sooner the election happens and produces a new government, the sooner the dialogue will begin," it said.

The Catalan government did not address the postponement directly in a statement released after the announcement, but said Torra was seeking at the Feb. 6 meeting with Sanchez to prepare for such talks and would discuss the right of self-determination and an amnesty for the jailed and self-exiled Catalan separatist leaders.

"We are convinced that Prime Minister Sanchez will not close any door to dialogue in that meeting, nor exclude any topic," it said, referring to next week's meeting.

Talks between the Spanish and Catalan governments were a condition for Catalonia's left-wing separatist party Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya (ERC) to facilitate Sanchez's appointment as prime minister by Spain's national parliament earlier this month.

A top ERC official was critical of the postponement, calling it an "absolute irresponsibility" and a "flagrant breach" of the agreement with the Socialists to allow Sanchez to form a government.

"We don't have time to lose," tweeted Sergi Sabria, saying that at the Feb. 6 meeting a date should be agreed for the beginning of the negotiations between both governments.
The party's support is crucial for the government's budget proposal to be approved by the Spanish parliament, and ERC has earlier said its support for the bill would depend on the evolution of the negotiations.

Torra's Junts per Catalunya party and ERC, who are partners in the region's ruling coalition, have been at odds lately.

Catalonia has been a major driver of Spanish politics since the region unilaterally declared independence in October 2017 following a referendum deemed illegal by courts, prompting Spain's biggest political crisis in decades.