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Last Updated: Wednesday, 4 October 2006, 09:55 GMT 10:55 UK
Sun shines on UK-Spain relations
By Danny Wood
BBC News, Madrid

Tony Blair and Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero at a press conference at Palacio de la Quinta in Madrid, Spain
The UK and Spain have a lot of policy interests in common

After all the pressures and anxieties revolving around the timing of his departure as Labour leader, what better than a trip to Spain?

UK Prime Minister Tony Blair is in one of the UK's favourite holiday destinations for meetings with his counterpart Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero.

And 10 years ago, tourism could have been expected to dominate the trade talks at a bilateral summit between Spain and the UK.

Millions of Britons still take holidays in Spain each year, but European economic reforms and a spate of takeovers by Spanish companies have contributed to the convergence of the two economies on many other levels.

These include Spanish bank Santander absorbing Abbey National, or telecoms giant Telefonica buying up the UK's mobile phone group O2, to name a couple.

At a luxurious palace on the outskirts of Madrid - the location for their first round of discussions - both prime ministers were keen to emphasise the strength of the economic links between their two countries.

But rather than economics, another issue quickly moved to centre-stage.

Before Tony Blair touched down, the Spanish media were focusing on the possible contributions the British government could be making to the peace process in the Basque region.

After the armed, separatist group Eta announced a ceasefire in March, Mr Zapatero said he was launching a process of dialogue with Eta.

At Tuesday's news conference, the Spanish prime minister paid tribute to Mr Blair for his assistance and support as Spain begins the long and difficult process of trying to end the conflict in the Basque region.

Mr Zapatero said there was a lot of relevant information in the peace process in Northern Ireland that is useful to his own government's bid to end the violence.

Mr Blair applauded the Spanish prime minister's attempt to bring peace through dialogue, and said patient determination was vital for the peace process to succeed.

This will be seen across Spain as an important vindication of the government's willingness to hold dialogue with Eta, despite opposition from the conservative Popular Party and many victims associations.

Warmer relations

The UK prime minister also paid tribute to Mr Zapatero's leadership on the issue of illegal immigration and said that Europe must take a more united stance when it comes to protecting frontiers.

The anti-war stance of the Zapatero administration and willingness to strongly criticise British and American foreign policy associated with the struggle against international terrorism certainly had an impact on Anglo-Spanish relations

Both leaders were in a mutual praise-giving mood. But that verbal generosity perhaps hints at the fact that not so long ago, relations between the two governments were decidedly chilly.

In the pretty palatial surroundings of this bilateral meeting, it was easy to forget that in March 2004 Mr Zapatero swept to a surprising election victory, three days after the Madrid train bombings killed nearly 200 people.

One of the Spanish prime minister's first important acts was to pull Spain's troops out of the war in Iraq, a conflict he described as disastrous.

The former conservative Spanish government of Jose Maria Aznar had strongly supported the US-led invasion of Iraq and was one of the UK's strongest allies in Europe.

The anti-war stance of the Zapatero administration and willingness to strongly criticise British and American foreign policy associated with the struggle against international terrorism certainly had an impact on Anglo-Spanish relations.

But now - perhaps because Iraq has become just one of many urgent international problems including Lebanon, Darfur and the Iran nuclear issue - Iraq has apparently lost its sting.

And in September another issue that is a more traditional cause of sour relations between the UK and Spain actually helped to improve them.

Gibraltar deal

After 18 months of talks, ministers from Britain, Spain and Gibraltar signed a series of agreements aimed at improving living conditions for the people of Gibraltar.

Eta members announce a permanent ceasefire, March 2006
Eta announced a permanent ceasefire in March

The accords include easier border crossings and better transport and telecommunications links between Spain and the tiny territory known as "the Rock".

Mr Zapatero described the accord as the most significant agreement concerning the territory for more than 20 years.

The controversial issue of sovereignty over the territory was not touched on - Spain still wants control over what it calls Europe's last colony - but the agreement was a sign of improved relations.

Quite apart from this Gibraltar success and the decreasing impact of Iraq, Spain and the UK's friendlier terms are a result of being in situations where it is more important that they enlist each others support.

As the meeting of European heads of state in Finland approaches, the UK wants Spanish help to progress the so-called Lisbon Agenda - the ongoing economic liberalisation of the European Union.

Mr Blair is also after Spanish diplomatic support to ease the conflict in Darfur.

Spain, meanwhile, is facing its illegal immigration problem in the Canary Islands, where about 25,000 Africans have arrived by boat this year. It wants British backing in a push for more assistance from the European Union.

The UK and Spain appear to have found out that they are far more useful to each other as good allies.


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