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Europe

Spain Gets Back to Business

Spanish Prime Minister Zapatero is meeting with his German and French counterparts in Madrid on Monday, a further step in fine-tuning Spain's relationship to Europe.

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Zapatero: re-orienting Spanish policy toward the world

Spain is in the news again. Socialist Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero held up his country pulling troops out of Iraq as an example for others on Thursday.

"I can only say that the decision to withdraw the troops was a very correct decision," Zapatero told journalists during a visit to Tunis. "All respect to all the countries that are there, but if there were more decisions along the lines of the Spanish government's more favorable prospects would be opened up."

Since Zapatero kept the campaign pledge to bring Spanish troops home from Iraq that helped him to a surprise win in April parliamentary elections, Europe's press hasn't wasted many words on his country. But Spain has started re-orienting its foreign policies, and it aims to wield more influence, especially in the European Union.

Spanische Soldaten kehren zurück aus Irak

Spanish soldiers from the Plus Ultra II brigade who were based in Iraq, disembark with a Spanish flag with a bull printed on it on arrival at a Spanish military base in Talavera la Real, western Spain on April 20, 2004 after they were relieved by another contingent of troops.

French Prime Minister Jacques Chirac and German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, the current torch-bearers of the so-called "Franco-German axis" which many credit with determining EU policies, will be Zapatero's interlocutors on Monday. The agenda hasn't been set, but it's no secret what the Spanish leader wants to talk about: money.

Money at stake

Spain is a top beneficiary of EU structural funds -- aid to help less developed EU countries catch up -- which make up 1 percent of its GNP. It also receives more EU cohesion funds -- intended to improve the environment and develop transport infrastructure in member states whose per capita GNP is below 90 percent of the bloc average -- than any other country.

EU enlargement in May added 10 new -- and largely poorer -- countries to the union, simultaneously increasing Spain's per capita GNP to around 95 percent. Thus, according to the current criteria, Spain has no hope of pocketing any of the aid after this round of funds dry up at the end of 2006.

That explains, in part, Zapatero courting Chirac and Schröder, according to Jürgen Donges, a specialist on Spanish politics and economics at the University of Cologne.

"When you're in Spain you hear over and over: 'We want to play a part in this Franco-German axis,'" Donges told DW-WORLD. "The Spanish government says: 'If we behave like proper Europeans, we have better chances of getting support for structural funds."

Re-orientation

Deutsch-französischer Gipfel

German Chancellor Schröder (left) and French President Chirac

Donges pointed to the change in approach since Zapatero took over the reins of power from his conservative Partido Popular leader Jose Maria Aznar.

"The current government makes domestic policies according to the device: 'everything that Aznar did was bad; we have to do everything differently,'" he said.

Aznar cultivated Spanish ties to the United States and, ignoring popular opposition, sent 1,300 troops to Iraq to help US-led coalition forces there. In doing so, he rubbed wrong his German and French counterparts, who were vehemently opposed to the Iraq war.

"But since the new orientation Spain has become less important to Germany," Donges said. "It's disappeared into a no man's land -- from the viewpoint of the Franco-German axis.

Spain may be less visible now, but that's only because it's less vocal, not less important, Manuel Ecuvero, a macro-economic and international political analyst at Instituto de Empresa, Spain's leading business school, told DW-WORLD.

EU Kommission in Brüssel

European Commission headquarters in Brussels

But Spain has no leverage to prevent an end to its Brussels cash flow, Ecuvero said. Spain may wish structural funds wouldn't run out for it, but Zapatero can't realistically expect to stop the practically inevitable when he meets with Schröder and Chirac. Berlin, in particular, one of the countries that pays the highest per capita contribution to the EU, has made clear that that amount should decrease.

"More and more there is the certainty that the structural funds will run out and we will have to stand on our own," Ecuvero conceded.

No longer upside-down


Madrid has indeed changed its policies toward the EU under Zapatero, including cultivating relations to France and Germany. But according to Ecuvero, the aim wasn't to create an overt alliance.

"Aznar turned traditional Spanish international relations upside-down," he said. "We are refocusing our policy toward Europe, toward Latin America, toward the world. Zapatero is recovering the lines that Spanish foreign policy has pursued for 50 years."

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