'Stingy' PM faces disdain in Spain

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The Independent Online
JOHN MAJOR, facing a less than hearty reception today from Felipe Gonzalez, his Spanish counterpart, after Britain's proposed cuts in the European Community Cohesion Fund, brought forward his visit to Madrid to hold tactical talks last night with Britain's ambassador, Sir Robin Fearn.

The Prime Minister, at first scheduled to arrive close to midnight, pushed his arrival forward by almost seven hours, apparently to ensure he was fully briefed on Spain's objections to Britain's EC financing proposals, described by officials here as 'stingy'. Sir Robin and his staff were to brief Mr Major at the ambassador's residence in advance of today's talks at the Moncloa Palace.

Mr Gonzalez, one of the most eager proponents of European union, was said by diplomatic sources to be increasingly 'frustrated, bordering on outright anger' over British and Danish delays to Maastricht even before Britain tabled what it called a 'compromise' EC financing plan last week. Mr Gonzalez has been hinting privately that Britain and Denmark should not be allowed to derail the European express.

The financing plan tabled by Norman Lamont, the Chancellor, in Brussels on Friday, which would slash the amount of cash Spain and the three other poorest EC nations are relying on to allow them to 'converge' with the wealthier economies, greatly annoyed Mr Gonzalez. His Foreign Minister, Javier Solana, was quoted in El Pais yesterday as hoping Mr Major showed up in Madrid 'with a less stingy spirit'. Mr Solana will be at today's talks. 'There's certainly a bit of scope for friction,' one British diplomat said last night. 'But there's also got to be scope for a bit of give and take.'

Mr Gonzalez's government, which faces a general election next year, has been relying on the cash injections for its aim of converging with the rest of Europe by 1997. Even before the EC's latest disagreement over financing, Spain's growing domestic economic crisis suggests any form of true convergence is unlikely this century.

Spain has already fully ratified the Maastricht treaty and yesterday the government, on the 'better late than never' principle, launched a television and press campaign to explain Maastricht. Cartoon leaflets showed 'The Seven Bad Attempts at European Union'. The first depicted Roman conquerors using other Europeans as slaves to row their boat and the last was a caricature of Hitler gorging himself on a Europe-shaped hunk of meat. Needless to say, the 'one good attempt' at European union was Maastricht, and showed smiling European faces alongside EC symbols.