Larger EU the big test for Spain's presidency

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The Independent Online


Spain is taking on the presidency of the European Union with relish, confident that with the same team in power as in 1989, when the caravan last stopped in Madrid, the machinery will run smoothly. But the agenda is more loaded than last time, and Spain's political scene more turbulent.

The government meets the European Commission here this afternoon to mark the first working day of Spain's presidency. The main event of its six-month tenure is likely to be the Euro-Mediterranean Conference in Barcelona at the end of November, on which Spain says its French predecessors have done much of the groundwork. All 15 EU members are due to attend, plus Maghreb and Middle Eastern countries bordering the Mediterranean.

The conference was given a fillip by last week's agreement at the EU summit in Cannes to devote pounds 37bn to southern Europe, the Middle East and North Africa over 10 years. The decision was hailed in Madrid as an important victory for the Prime Minister, Felipe Gonzalez, in the teeth of German resistance.

The tussle reflects the conflict within the EU that will dominate Spain's presidency - and probably that of Italy, which succeeds it next January - over enlargement: the battle for funds and political clout among the new members of Europe's north and east and the traditionally poorer countries of the south. Spain, with its Mediterranean partners, will fight tooth and nail to protect hard-won concessions for its fruit and vegetable production in the expanding union, and will have to clamour even more loudly for special treatment for its fishing industry.

The Foreign Minister, Javier Solana, said on Friday he hoped that by the end of the year Spain would be fully incorporated into the EU's common fishing policies. But he added: "I think there will be problems with this." Not only have Spain and Britain fallen out over Greenland halibut, but Madrid's dispute with Rabat over fishing rights in Moroccan waters is far from being solved.

Spain's other main task is to steer the committee that is redrafting the Maastricht treaty to accommodate the three new members - Sweden, Austria and Finland - and to pave the way for the eventual entry of countries from central and eastern Europe. The so-called Reflection Group, which held its third meeting at the weekend in Toledo, intends to put a draft of the revised treaty to an informal EU summit in September and a firmer version to December's summit in Madrid.

The mission of Carlos Westendorp, Spain's secretary of state for Europe, who chairs the group, is to rewrite the treaty in comprehensible language and to purge such gems as "subsidiarity" and "qualified majority voting" from our vocabulary for ever. "If we can explain clearly and in simple language what we are doing and why, we will have achieved a great step forward," Mr Westendorp said.