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Spain tops Chirac-Schroeder talks in Paris

PARIS, March 15 (AFP) – Following the Madrid attacks, Europe’s fight against terrorism is likely to top the agenda when French President Jacques Chirac and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder meet in Paris on Tuesday, the Elysee said.

The two leaders are also expected to reaffirm their commitment to thrashing out an deal on a constitution for an enlarged European Union, a task likely made easier by the Socialist Party’s upset win in Spain’s general election.

Chirac and Schroeder will hold informal talks followed by a working lunch with their foreign ministers, Dominique de Villepin and Joschka Fischer, ahead of next week’s EU summit in Brussels, set for March 25 and 26.

Tuesday’s bilateral meeting will be the 18th gathering under the so-called Blaesheim process, launched in January 2001 to improve coordination between the two countries often seen as the driving force behind European integration.

“Five days after the terrorist attacks in Madrid, the president of the Republic and Chancellor Schroeder will reaffirm their solidarity with Spain,” Chirac’s spokeswoman Catherine Colonna told reporters on Monday.

“They will also discuss the responses on the European level in terms of the fight against terrorism, notably in line with the European action plan adopted in September 2001” after the strikes on New York and Washington, she added.

That package of anti-terrorism measures, among other things, called for the creation of a Europe-wide arrest warrant and for choking off funding to terror groups.

Colonna said EU leaders would undoubtedly devote significant time next week in Brussels to the fight against terrorism in the wake of the devastating March 11 train bombings in Madrid, which killed 200 people and wounded 1,500 others.

Several European leaders have called for tighter EU cooperation, as the looming threat of attacks has thrown stock markets into chaos and could stamp out hopes for an economic recovery in France and Germany.

The future EU constitution will also be on the agenda for Chirac and Schroeder, the French leader’s spokeswoman said, adding the two hoped an agreement could be reached “if possible before the end of June.”

But she tiptoed around questions about the impact of the defeat in Spain of the ruling conservative Popular Party of outgoing Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar, seen in Paris and Berlin as the main obstacle to a constitution accord.

Aznar’s successor, Socialist Party leader Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, said Monday he hoped to “accelerate” the adoption of an EU constitution, but Colonna said simply: “It’s too early to tell.”

Officially, France and Germany are maintaining their stated positions on the constitution, notably with respect to the contentious issue of voting rights, demanding that the proposed principle of double-majority voting be kept.

At present, the double-majority system suggested in the draft constitution stipulates that EU measures would require the support of at least 50 percent of EU member states representing at least 60 percent of the bloc’s population.

But both Paris and Berlin have shown a willingness to budge, so long as any compromise helps to streamline the EU’s decision-making process.

Two German MEPs who helped draft the constitution said last week that under a new compromise, these figures could be tweaked to 55 percent on both counts – which would give a slightly bigger say to smaller member states.


                                                              Subject: France news