Hotline on Maastricht dampens 'erotic' rivals

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The Independent Online
EVEN MADRID'S usually overburdened 'erotic phone lines' were left green with envy. Yesterday Maastricht blocked telephone lines in the Spanish capital.

Finally feeling obliged to inform the man in the street, the government initiated a campaign, including a telephone hotline, to explain the meaning of what until recently had been an abstract term. A growing public sense, in the face of economic crisis and the recent devaluation of the peseta, that Maastricht may entail give as well as take, led to the pounds 1.5m campaign by the government of Felipe Gonzalez.

The number chosen was Freephone 199701, ie 1 January 1997, the date the Maastricht treaty is due to take effect. Perhaps it was the continuing rain, keeping many Madrilenos indoors. But the number was jammed during most of the day as citizens took advantage of the free information to clarify increasing doubts. Those who expected anything as riveting as the 'erotic' lines were disappointed.

'Information on the treaty on European Union . . . What would you like to know?' a women's voice replied when a caller finally got through. Many callers were put off by the fact that the operators then proceeded to ask their name, phone number and address. Within living memory of the Franco dictatorship, that is information many are still reluctant to provide.

Callers were asked whether they wanted the whole text of Maastricht, a simplified version, or specific responses to specific queries. Whatever the case, the information would be provided by post. At that point, fearing a new onslaught of advertising brochures, many callers hung up.

The Foreign Minister, Javier Solana, launched the information campaign at a Madrid press conference. At the same time, the Deputy Prime Minister, Narcis Serra, a Catalonian and former mayor of Barcelona, was dispatched to the Catalonian capital to explain the treaty there.

The government spokespersons said 50,000 books containing the full text had been printed, as well as 2 million leaflets containing specific information on the treaty. Television advertisements explaining various aspects of the treaty are to begin soon.

Mr Gonzalez has based his foreign policy on European union, notably the idea of convergencia, or gradual convergence between the economies of the poorer European nations, such as Spain, and the better-off ones to the north. It was an idea to which most Spaniards could easily relate. But a growing economic crisis, forcing unpopular measures to try to control a soaring budget deficit and then the 5 per cent devaluation, began raising public questions over what Maastricht really entailed.

An opinion poll last month suggested that most Spaniards would prefer to see a referendum on the treaty - an idea the government rejects - but the same poll indicated a majority would vote in favour if a referendum were held.

Speculation grew yesterday that the peseta may have to be devalued again but the Finance Minister, Carlos Solchaga, denied any further drop was planned.