Loyola de Palacio

Politician and EU commissioner
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The Independent Online

Loyola de Palacio del Valle Lersundi, politician: born Madrid 16 September 1950; Member, Spanish Parliament 1989-99, Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food 1996-99; MEP 1999-2004; Vice-President, European Commission 1999-2004; died Madrid 13 December 2006.

Loyola de Palacio was Agriculture Minister during Spain's 1990s conservative government of José María Aznar, who was not known for promoting women to senior positions, especially such a sensible and un-Barbie-like woman. Articulate and unaffected, Palacio, who was later a European commissioner, became active in conservative politics from an early age, as Spain started its transition from Franco's dictatorship to democracy.

From a family with aristocratic origins, Palacio was the eldest of three brothers and four sisters. She was educated at the French lycée in Madrid, but her life was cruelly shaken at 22, when her mother died of lung cancer. She became mother to her seven siblings. "Someone had to take care of them, and it fell to me," she recalled.

She was especially close to her father, and never married because, she said, she could find no man to match him. She never felt the need to have children, not only because she spent so much time hopping from plane to plane but because she had a ready-made young family.

Politics grabbed her whilst she was studying Law at Madrid University. Guided by Manuel Fraga, Franco's former minister who became leader of the conservative Popular Alliance (Alianza Popular), she became the first leader of the party's youth organisation, which she dubbed New Generations (Nuevas Generaciones).

In 1986 she was elected senator, and joined the national executive of the renamed Popular Party (PP) in 1989. In elections later that year she became an MP, and spokeswoman for the party's parliamentary group.

Loyola de Palacio was on the right of a conservative party, and her devout Catholicism prompted accusations that she was a member of the ultra-conservative, secretive Opus Dei. Her riposte was unanswerable: "How can I be a member of Opus with a name like Loyola?" Ignacio Loyola's Jesuits are bitter opponents of Opus Dei.

Palacio's New Generations campaigned for José María Aznar to succeed Fraga as party leader, and when, in 1996, Aznar became prime minister of Spain's newly elected conservative government, he made her Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food.

Famed for her energy, she steamed through ministerial visits at a speed that left officials gasping. "Stop smoking and run more," she urged them. Palacio was keen on healthy living, and her style was simple and austere. Exasperating her image advisers in a government and a society that favoured a decorative feminine style, she stuck to tailored suits and comfortable shoes, and rarely wore make-up.

As minister she fought for the interests of Spanish olive oil producers, clashing fiercely with the EU's agriculture commissioner Franz Fischler. The bearded Austrian ended up admiring her, however, and always sent her flowers on her birthday.

She headed the PP list for the European elections in 1999, became MEP, and a month later Vice-President of the European Commission, responsible for transport and energy. Here she endured a trial of fire when the decrepit oil tanker Prestige sank off Spain's north-western coast in November 2002 and spewed black filth along the coastline. She had to orchestrate EU regulations to prevent another such catastrophe.

In 2004 she left her European post, and joined the boards of the French bank BNP Paribas, the pharmaceutical company Zeltia, and Rothschild bank.

Elizabeth Nash