Hurd woos Madrid to stall EU reforms

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The Independent Online
Britain and Spain appear to have forged a working relationship to see them through Spain's presidency of the European Union with a minimum of political pain for John Major's government.

The Prime Minister will be hoping to build on the understandings at next week's European summit in Cannes. But Britain has failed to win Spain over to a sceptical approach towards the EU and will not be able to prevent Spain from pressing ahead with a discussion of plans to deepen the Union. Spain takes over the EU presidency from France on 1 July for the second half of this year.

Talks in Madrid this week between the Foreign Secretary, Douglas Hurd, and his Spanish opposite number, Javier Solana, were aimed at defusing the Gibraltar issue and any other other matters that could complicate relations between the two countries during the Spanish presidency.

Mr Hurd said Britain would "strongly oppose" proposals to extend majority voting in the EU to foreign affairs. Spanish officials detected signs that Britain is solidifying its stance against a single currency.

Spain remains formally committed to the goal of economic and monetary union and Madrid insists that in spite of the doubts of central bankers, it will try to meet the criteria for a single currency by 1999.

A key question that threatened to bedevil the Spanish presidency was nearly solved with a draft agreement on the quantity of aid that the EU should allocate to the Mediterranean countries and to Eastern Europe. It envisages a minimum expenditure of 3.7bn ecu (pounds 3bn) to the Mediterranean and 6.1bn ecu to the east. These figures reflect concern in Madrid and Rome that the EU has not paid sufficient attention to the festering problems that have generated Islamic fundamentalism in North Africa.

Germany has reserved its position on the deal but Mr Hurd said Britain, formerly opposed to lavish spending in the south, was happy with it. He voiced support for Spanish plans to host a Mediterranean conference in Barcelona next autumn.

Officials in Madrid believe that Britain has adopted a cautious stand because it needs Spanish goodwill over the next six months. One key reason is that Spain's Minister for European Affairs, Carlos Westendorp, is chairing the study group working on the revision of the Maastricht treaty.

Although British officials played down any connection, Mr Hurd used his trip to Madrid to prevent arguments over Gibraltar. He acknowledged Spanish concern about drug smuggling and money laundering, while condemning Spain's rigorous checks at the frontier.

British and Spanish officials both claimed that frayed relations over the recent fishing dispute with Canada were on the mend. But Mr Hurd conceded that there could be new fishing disputes in the future.

Britain will back Spain over the ratification by the European Parliament of the customs union between Turkey and the EU. It is also not hostile to Spanish aspirations to see a trade deal between the EU and Cuba.

Spain will also be involved in the negotiations over Bosnia, as its EU presidency gives it membership of the Contact Group of countries negotiating a peace-settlement. Mr Hurd complimented Spain for contributing 1,500 troops to peace-keeping in the former Yugoslavia.