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‘Old Europe’ welcomes Spain back

PARIS, March 16 (AFP) – Two days after the left’s election victory in Spain, the French and German leaders met in Paris on Tuesday to contemplate a European scene profoundly altered by the Madrid bombings and the departure of one of their leading opponents inside the European Union.

President Jacques Chirac and Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder were accompanied by their foreign ministers Dominique de Villepin and Joschka Fischer for three hours of talks at the Elysee palace that focussed on the implications of conservative leader Jose Maria Aznar’s dramatic electoral collapse on Sunday.

Aznar’s surprise defeat – widely attributed to his mishandling of the aftermath of Thursday’s rail attacks in Madrid – removed a key figure in the pro-US group of EU nations that supported the war in Iraq and back liberalising reforms of the Franco-German protective social model.

By promptly stating his desire to restore “magnificent” relations with France and Germany, his replacement – the Socialist Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero – signalled a major shift in the EU’s balance of power back to what US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld referred to as “old Europe,” analysts said.

“By torpedoing the BAB axis – Blair-Aznar-Berlusconi – the change of government automatically strengthens the Franco-German position,” the daily Le Figaro said, arguing that Italian and British prime ministers Silvio Berlusconi and Tony Blair have been badly damaged by the Spanish election result.

“Spain once more in heart of Old Europe,” headlined the Times newspaper of London.

France and Germany were leaders of the so-called “peace camp” during last year’s invasion of Iraq, and the disavowal by the Spanish electorate of a leader who throughout the crisis tried to rally support for Washington clearly reinforced their standing in the EU, according to commentators.

While Britain, Italy and several other European nations maintain military contingents in Iraq, Zapatero’s proposal to withdraw Spain’s 1,300 troops by the end of June added weight to Chirac’s long-stated view that the war was a mistake and left its supporters increasingly isolated.

Aznar’s departure was also widely seen as likely to encourage progress towards the adoption of an EU constitution, which was blocked at the end of last year by a Spanish-Polish coalition opposed to changes to the bloc’s voting procedures supported by France and Germany.

With Poland – which joins the EU in May with nine other new members – indicating that it acknowledges the weakness of its position after Spain’s change of government, Chirac and Schroeder both said they hoped a favourable agreement could be in place by the end of the year.

“The earlier the better, and we place our confidence in the Irish presidency (of the EU) to find the right solutions,” Chirac said after the talks with Schroeder.

Chirac, who had poor relations with Aznar despite their being nominally both conservatives, will also be relieved that Spain is no longer aggressively pushing the free-market economic policies that made Aznar a natural ally of Blair inside the EU, according to commentators.

The Franco-German social model, with its generous welfare system though stubbornly high unemployment, is more in line with Zapatero’s thinking – though he has indicated he will not reverse many of his predecessor’s economic reforms.

However, though the Chirac-Schroeder axis has emerged strengthened from the momentous events of the last days, commentators warned that the event that triggered the shift – the carnage in Madrid on Thursday – could overshadow everything.

If the rail bombs, which killed 200 people, are shown to have been the work of al-Qaeda, all European nations will be forced to push the issue of Islamic terrorism to the top of their priorities – a move towards the US agenda far more profound than Aznar ever achieved in office.


                                                              Subject: France news