EU helm provides spur for Aznar’s reign in Spain

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Series Details Vol.7, No.46, 13.12.01, p19
Publication Date 13/12/2001
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Date: 13/12/01

Carlos Yarnoz of El Pais analyses the challenges facing Spain's EU presidency - and the politicians in the spotlight

THE two main issues that will dominate the Spanish presidency of the EU are the euro and enlargement.

The country's six months at the helm of Europe will also provide Prime Minister José María Aznar with a golden opportunity to finally lay the 'ghost' of his predecessor, Felipe Gonzalez, who has haunted the Popular Party leader since he came to power in 1996.

There is no doubt that Socialist Gonzalez played a decisive role in the construction of Europe, along with Helmut Kohl, François Mitterrand and Jacques Delors, when Spain took on the presidency in 1989 and 1995.

He persuaded the other major leaders in the Union to back a regional and cohesion policy, which was vital for Spain and other less-wealthy member states.

For 48-year-old Aznar, this will be the first and probably only chance to display his leadership abilities in Europe, since he has already declared he will not stand for re-election as prime minister in 2004.

Comparisons with Gonzalez have already surfaced in Spain: when presenting its EU presidency calendar in October, Aznar's government proudly announced it would be holding 72 European meetings compared with the 42 that took place in 1995.

In order to quash recurrent criticism of his European credentials, Aznar has chosen an unambiguous motto for the Spanish presidency - "More Europe". In his own party, there has been speculation that he could be a candidate for president of the European Commission in 2004, if the next six months goes well.

The prime minister can rely on important international support. In Mexico last month he was named president of Center Democratic International (previously known as Christian Democrat International). The organisation is composed of 89 Liberal and centre-right parties, including those in Latin America. For Spain, the EU-Latin America summit next May will be one of the most important events in the presidency.

The Euromed meeting in Valencia next April will also be crucial, not only because of Spain's geographical proximity to

the Magreb countries; a deterioration in bilateral relations with Morocco culminated in October in the withdrawal of its ambassador from Madrid. There are also strains in Aznar's relationship with other European leaders - particularly with German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder.

The two fell out last Easter after Spain expressed concerns about the loss of funding its less-developed regions will face after enlargement.

Schröder's difficulties with Aznar date back to 1999 when the Spanish premier refused to compromise during the Berlin negotiations on the EU's 2000-2006 financial plan.

On the other hand, Aznar enjoys excellent relations with UK Prime Minister Tony Blair.

Both are united in their objective to create full employment in a highly-competitive Europe. This will be one of the main subjects of the Barcelona summit next March. Aznar can also rely on a new ally, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, whose Forza Italia party is part of the European People's Party group.

From a domestic political point of view, there will be much attention on the relationship between Aznar and EU High Representative Javier Solana, who was minister for foreign affairs in Felipe Gonzalez's Socialist government. He is a man Aznar cannot ignore because of his considerable international prestige.

There is no doubt that the most difficult problem facing Spain during its presidency will be the accession negotiations over regional funding and the Common Agriculture Policy.

And matters are likely to be complicated further with elections on the horizon in France and Germany.

The Spanish government, a key promoter of the EU arrest warrant, will also concentrate on developing the common justice and security area.

Aznar wants to make the most of European sensitivity to terrorism in the wake of 11 September to tackle the paramilitary Basque separatist group Euskadi ta Askatasuna (ETA).

He has proposed that ETA's political wing, Batasuna, should be included in a European list of terrorist organisations.

Other major issues facing the new presidency will include the common immigration and asylum policy, the launch of the convention on the future of Europe, development of the European defence and security policy, the rapid reaction force and relations with the United States and Russia.

Expect, too, a series of initiatives designed to boost the global economy.

Author analyses the challenges facing Spain's EU presidency, and the politicians in the spotlight. Article is part of a special report on the Spanish Presidency of the EU, January-June 2002.

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