Though the prime ministers of Spain and Italy have played down the idea that their exclusion from Saturday’s Franco-German-British summit is a snub, leading newspapers in both countries say that’s exactly what it is.
José Maria Aznar (left) and Silvio Berlusconi haven't been invited to Saturday's summit in Berlin.
Officially, there haven’t been any complaints. But behind the scenes, the decision not to invite the leaders of Spain and Italy to Saturday’s Iraq summit in Berlin has roiled the chattering classes in Madrid and Rome. Though the governments of the Mediterranean countries aren’t expressing it, observers say they feel left out.
At their meeting on Saturday, German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, French President Jacques Chirac and British Prime Minister Tony Blair will seek to end the rift that has lasted for months between the countries on the Iraq question. That’s all well and good, but major newspapers in Spain and Italy have complained in editorials that the exclusion of Spanish Prime Minister José Maria Aznar and Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi is a form of punishment from German and France for those leaders' steadfast support of U.S. President George W. Bush's hawkishness.
Describing the snub as an "affront" to Spain, the influential El Mundo wrote that "it’s obvious the leaders of Germany and France have deliberately excluded" Spanish Prime Minister José Maria Aznar. "More than any other European country Spain should have been at this meeting" because of its support for US President George W. Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair and its role as a UN Security Council member, the paper wrote.
Madrid has already contributed €81.9 million to the U.S.-led war effort in Iraq, and the Defense Ministry estimates the country’s contributions to the reconstruction of Iraq could reach €170 million. "How long," the paper asked, "are Paris and Berlin going to punish Aznar for his pro-American stance?"
El Mundo also wrote that Aznar’s snub may also have been influenced by his recent criticism of France for failing to do more to reign in its deficit spending. Earlier this month, French officials admitted the country would exceed the 3 percent ceiling in deficit spending required by the Stability and Growth Pact that guarantees the strength of the euro for the third year in a row. Aznar’s criticisms also drew a rebuke from German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, who reminded the Spaniards that their own economic growth has been fueled by EU subsidies – 25 percent of which are funded by Berlin.
Another major Spanish paper, El Periodico, opined that "Jose Maria Aznar is starting to pay for his unconditional support of President Bush’s warlike strategy. Chancellor Schröder has excluded him from the Berlin summit." The paper also noted that Aznar was unable to paper over his differences with France over the Iraq war at a recent meeting with Chirac.
And the country’s unofficial paper of record, El Pais, said the development showed Aznar "finds himself marginalized on major negotiations" over Iraq.
Criticism has also been strong in Italy, which currently holds the rotating presidency of the European Union. Rome’s La Repubblica opined this week that Berlusconi’s exclusion suggested that Italy was losing its diplomatic importance.
Playing down the tensions
Still, politicians in both countries have sought to play down the significance of their exclusion. Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini characterized the Berlin meeting as an "informal meal," and Aznar has taken pains to point out that he will be meeting in London with Blair one day after the meeting and that he has discussed the Iraq resolution with both Chirac and Berlusconi.
"Not everybody is invited everywhere," Spanish Foreign Minister Ana Palacio told reporters in Madrid. "It is a working meeting proposed by German so that France and the United Kingdom -- two key states in the construction of Europe -- can overcome certain positions that they have had at one time or another."
A spokesman for Tony Blair said on Tuesday that he valued his contacts with Aznar and other European leaders "as much as he valued his contacts with Chancellor Schröder and President Chirac." And a report in the British newspaper The Guardian suggested that Blair had argued unsuccessfully in favor of inviting Aznar to the meeting.
Meanwhile, German government spokesman Bela Anda also sought to play down the decision not to invite Italy or Spain to the informal meeting, saying the meeting was "not directed against anyone."
Additionally, the leaders of Germany, Britain and France have also contacted other EU member states to discuss the meeting, but have not extended invitations to any other countries.