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Europe

Old Europe's New Alliance

Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero used a summit meeting Monday with French President Jacques Chirac and German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder to declare that the EU has embarked on a decisive new phase.

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The leaders of Germany, Spain and France met in Madrid

Zapatero, seeking to place Spain back in the bloc's mainstream five months after taking office in the wake of the Madrid train bombings which left 191 people dead, directed a thinly-veiled barb in the direction of Washington to declare that "the old Europe is brand new."

The comment was a brutal put-down to US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who ruffled feathers last year by lambasting France and Germany and their allies as the "old" Europe over their refusal to back the US-led intervention and subsequent occupation of Iraq.

Zapatero's surprise general election win three days after the Madrid blasts led to a clean break with eight years of rightwing government under his predecessor Jose Maria Aznar, a solid US ally who had backed the Iraq conflict.

Aznar's foreign policies caused a major breach in relations between Madrid and most of its EU partners, with the notable exception of Britain.

Zapatero told reporters he sees Spain as belonging to "the heart of Europe," which he sees European Union heavyweights France and Germany as representing.

Ratifying a constitution

"We must make a maximum effort to agree a constitution and bring it close to the peoples of Europe so they can see how it affects their future and rights. I have no doubt it will be ratified."

Aside from the constitutional issue, Monday's talks also revolved around fighting terrorism and Turkey's application to join the 25-member European Union, as well as deepening cooperation in the fields of defence and security.

On the bulk of those issues both Zapatero and Schröder took their lead from Chirac, the EU's older statesman.

Chirac stressed that on Iraq, he did not want to "sit in judgement on the position of any country," but insisted that progress required broad international agreement.

"The situation is serious and not getting any better. I think a Pandora's box has been opened and we are not able to close it."

Chirac also took the lead on discussion of EU finances, a bone of contention during Aznar's stewardship of Spain when Madrid rigidly stuck to the EU Stability and Growth Pact in slashing deficits while Paris and Berlin exceeded the Pact's financial straitjacket.

"Unfortunately there are limits as to how much we can spend. We have to be reasonable," said Chirac, who said solidarity and negotiation were the way forward in a spirit of compromise as EU aid is diverted in future to the bloc's 10 mainly eastern European new members.

"The best recipe is to be open to discussion. There must be no brutal ruptures" of policy, said Chirac, acknowledging Germany's role as the biggest contributor the state budget -- and Spain's position as, to date, the prime beneficiary of EU largesse.

United against terrorism

On terrorism, Zapatero took the lead.

"Terrorism is a general threat to us all and is blind," he insisted when asked if a different approach should be adopted to different kinds of terrorism. "The best way to deal with it is through international cooperation and the sharing of judicial and intelligence information."

To that end, the three leaders said they had agreed to make available information to each other's police forces on criminal records of each other's nationals.

Schröder said Germany was committed to the fight against terrorism in all its forms.

"It has become crystal clear that terrorism is something which threatens us all," said the German leader, who lamented "the terrible attacks we saw in Madrid."

On Turkey's efforts to join the EU club, Schroeder noted that "Turkey has made enormous progress -- I think everyone will acknowledge that fact."

The European Commission is to publish a report on Turkey next month ahead of a European Council decision in December on when or if access talks should go ahead.

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