'Fiesta time' as Spain approves Maastricht

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The Independent Online
RACING through a crucial debate in only two hours, the Spanish parliament discussed the Maastricht treaty on European union yesterday and overwhelmingly approved it in time for lunch. It was, said one deputy, 'a day of fiesta for Spain and all of Europe'. The bill has to be ratified by a joint session of Congress on 25 November but that is considered a foregone conclusion.

On paper, it was Westminster in reverse. It was the Socialist government of the Prime Minister, Felipe Gonzalez, which had pushed for swift ratification while the conservative opposition agreed, sort of, with a certain reluctance and the mandatory reservations. But the conservative opposition Popular Party (PP) declined to 'do a Labour' and, rather than attempting to scupper approval, joined the Socialists in unanimously voting in favour.

Mr Gonzalez, who may have been celebrating the first day of his second decade in power yesterday - if, that is, he survives for another nine years and 364 days at the helm - expressed delight at the vote. There were 314 in favour, three radical Basque separatists against and eight left-wing abstentions, with 25 members absent from the 350-seat lower house. 'This clearly links the future of Spain to that of Europe,' Mr Gonzalez said, obviously optimistic that the latter is not going down the tubes. 'It is a vote of great social and political value.

'European union will add a plus to the possibilities of the citizens in the street, the businessman, the student. But it does not come free of charge. When I say a (Spanish) firm will have more opportunities, I add immediately that it must be prepared to compete,' he said.

The only deputies to vote against the treaty were from Herri Batasuna, the radical Basque separatist party widely seen as the political wing of the ETA terrorist group.

They had not taken part in legislative activities for more than two years. The eight abstentions were from the left-wing grouping Izquierda Unida (IU). The name means United Left but yesterday they were completely divided, as eight others went against their leadership and voted in favour, while their 17th deputy did not vote at all.

The IU leadership had called for abstention to protest against the government's refusal to call a referendum on Maastricht. Polls have shown that a majority of Spaniards favoured a referendum but that, were one held, the 'yes' vote would win the day.

European Union is the central plank of Mr Gonzalez's policies. In the wake of the political and economic turmoil over the issue during the past two months, he has been increasingly anxious to get Spain firmly on board the European bandwagon in case laggers were left behind. The Prime Minister clearly fears that Spain, one of the Community's four poorest nations, could miss out on top status were the Community to split into a 'premier league' and others. Signing up quickly and loyally while others dither, he hopes, will make it awkward for the wealthier nations to leave Spain behind.

Spaniards generally accepted Maastricht without question until the recent upheavals. Now, questions are being asked about specific Maastricht-related issues and how they will affect individuals. In general, however, there is a strong general sense that, regardless of the individual issues, European union is this country's big chance to be treated as an equal and to cast off its still-backward image.

ROME - Italy yesterday ratified Maastricht with an overwhelming vote of support by its lower chamber of parliament, Reuter reports. The House of Deputies voted 403 in favour, 46 opposed, with 18 abstentions. The Senate approved the treaty on 17 September.

Approval by both houses was a certainty, because nearly all political parties strongly back Maastricht, although most MPs had shown great indifference to the debate which preceded the vote.