He is scheduled to meet with Quim Torra at 7 pm (1800 GMT) on the eve of a cabinet meeting in the Catalan capital.

It will be the first meeting between the two since Madrid talks in July a month after Sanchez came to power.

The gathering comes amid simmering tensions between Madrid and Catalonia's separatist government since the wealthy northeastern region's failed bid to break away from Spain last year.

"Our positions are very far apart, this is a reality we are all aware of," said Catalan government spokeswoman Elsa Artadi, who stated there needs to be a "stable mechanism" for dialogue.

"We can't advance if we have a meeting in July, the following one in December, if there isn't a formal way to advance," she added.

Sanchez took office in June after winning a surprise vote of no-confidence against the previous conservative government with the support of Catalan separatist parties.

But the separatists withdrew their support for his minority government after public prosecutors in November called for prison sentences of up to 25 years for 18 Catalan separatist leaders facing trial early next year over Catalonia's failed separatist push.

'Invented grievances'

In October 2017, Catalan leaders pushed ahead with a controversial independence referendum despite a court ban, then declared independence on the basis of the results.

Madrid responded by deposing the Catalan executive, dissolving the regional parliament and calling early elections in Catalonia where separatist parties renewed their majority.

While Sanchez initially adopted a more conciliatory tone towards Catalonia than his predecessor, his position hardened after far-right party Vox, which takes a tough line against Catalan separatism, won seats for the first time in a December 2 regional parliament poll in in Andalusia, a Socialist stronghold.

During a recent debate in parliament Sanchez compared Catalonia's secession drive to Britain's campaign to leave the European Union, saying both movements were built on "a tale of invented grievances, magnified by manipulation".

In a sign ties may be warming again, separatist parties said Thursday they were willing to back the government's deficit target for 2019, a step needed to adopt a budget for next year.

But the separatist parties stressed that this "gesture" does not mean that they will back the government 2019 budget.

Protests planned

Separatists are still reeling from the steps Spain's central government took to block Catalonia's independence bid and pro-independence groups have urged their supporters to rally in Barcelona on Friday to protest at Sanchez's visit.

Friday's cabinet meeting comes a year to the day after Madrid held snap elections in Catalonia after blocking the wealthy northeastern region's move for independence and many separatists have called the timing of the meeting "a provocation".

Grassroots separatist organisation ANC, which has previously staged massive pro-independence street demonstrations in Barcelona, has urged supporters to block the streets of Barcelona on Friday with their vehicles and to march.

A radical separatist group, the Committees for the Defence of the Republic (CDRs), planed to protest later Thursday outside of the Pedralbes palace as Sanchez and Torra meet.

"We will be ungovernable on December 21," the group said in a tweet alongside a picture of Spain's King Felipe VI on fire.

Thousands of police will be deployed to provide security in Barcelona amid fears extreme elements of the independence movement could foment violence.

Sanchez's cabinet will approve a 22 percent hike in the minimum wage which the government has stressed will also benefit Catalan workers.

Against this backdrop, four jailed Catalan separatist leaders awaiting trial over their role in last year's separatist bid, on Thursday called off a hunger strike which they began at the beginning of December.