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Caretaking Socialist prime minister Pedro Sánchez is right back where he didn't want to be - namely, relying on the support of Catalan separatists. It has emerged that the Catalan Republican Left (ERC) - whose leader Oriol Junqueras was sentenced to thirteen years in prison last month for his role in the 2017 independence referendum - is willing to abstain in the upcoming investiture votes (which, by the way, no-one seems to be in a hurry to schedule). In return, ERC, which sits on thirteen of the 350 seats in congress, wants the PSOE leader to establish an open "negotiating table" to discuss the Catalonia problem. So much for the last election, which Sánchez hoped would increase his share of power enough to render the support of such groups unnecessary.

ERC's spokeswoman said this week that no topics should be off this as-yet-hypothetical negotiating table, that a clear timeline of events be established and that both the central government and the Catalan parliament honour any agreements made. Yet it's hard to see how such talks could result in a "solution" deemed acceptable by both sides of the Catalonia debate. No matter how inclusive or wide-ranging these hoped-for discussions are, the base positions of Sánchez's Socialists and Junqueras' ERC are incompatible: the former will never allow a legitimate referendum on Catalan independence, which is precisely what the latter wants (or at least has done up until now).

ERC's ultimatum also poses a more nuanced problem for the acting prime minister, in that he could justifiably be criticised for flip-flopping whatever he decides to do. If Sánchez agrees to open up negotiations, he would backtrack on the tougher stance he took on Catalan separatists before the November 10th election, during which time he praised the legal process that resulted in their leaders' lengthy prison terms. But if he refuses to talk, as he has since the controversial sentences were handed down, he would thereby condemn the line he took on secessionists when he came to power last summer - i.e that the only way to find a solution to the Catalonia problem is with dialogue and compromise (which, ironically, is exactly what the ERC is now saying). He's damned if he does and more damned if he doesn't.

Yet Sánchez has to talk, even if the negotiations would be fraught and potentially fruitless. To make any headway with the Catalan problem, the PSOE leader needs to secure another term as prime minister, and to achieve that he requires the ERC's votes or abstention in the upcoming investiture sessions.

It's a situation that highlights the complexity and fragmentation of Spanish politics, and a very unpleasant one for the acting prime minister. But compromise and dialogue, as Sánchez was so fond of saying last year, really are the only ways forward.