Spain hosts summit as it returns 'to the heart of Europe'

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The Independent Online

Spain's socialist Prime Minister, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, turned his back on the pro-Americanism of his conservative predecessor yesterday as he hosted a summit aligning his country firmly with France and Germany.

Spain's socialist Prime Minister, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, turned his back on the pro-Americanism of his conservative predecessor yesterday as he hosted a summit aligning his country firmly with France and Germany.

"You have before you three staunch Europeans," a beaming Mr Zapatero said after the meeting. "We're not the only pro-Europeans, but we are fervent ... This is not just any meeting. If asked to sum up the mood here, I'd say: 'Old Europe is renewed.'"

Yesterday's meeting with the French President, Jacques Chirac, and the German Chancellor, Gerhard Schröder, was the strongest demonstration yet of Mr Zapatero's determination to mend fences with Spain's traditional allies. It marked a clear contrast to the strong alliance between Mr Zapatero's predecessor, Jose Maria Aznar, and Tony Blair.

Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, played down the importance of the new relationship. "There are all kinds of bilateral, trilateral, quadrilateral and numerically higher alliances within the EU up to and including 25," he said, adding that it was good for the EU to have such arrangements.

Mr Zapatero's setpiece summit was designed in part to expunge the legacy of a pact immortalised by the notorious Azores photo in March last year of President George Bush, Mr Blair and Mr Aznar that heralded the onset of the Iraq war. He said: "It is in Spain's interest to have good relations with the two most powerful countries of the EU, which is our primary area of cohabitation in the international arena."

But the restored friendship between Spain, France and Germany narrows options for Mr Blair, because, on many issues, Mr Aznar was a dependable and powerful ally. Denis Macshane, Britain's minister for Europe, said that Mr Blair will meet Mr Zapatero at a summit in Budapest next month. He added: "There is a well-known difference on Iraq but we can be adult enough to have the closest co-operation with pushing forward the Lisbon agenda [on economic reform] and on other foreign policy ambitions."

Mr Zapatero's first important act after he was elected in March, four days after bombs killed 191 people in Madrid, was to order Spanish troops homes from Iraq. He then made a point of visiting Germany and France ­ Europe's main opponents of the war ­ on his first trips abroad as Prime Minister.

In recent days the Spanish leader has called on countries with troops still in Iraq to pull out, to help ease the violence and chaos there.

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