Wednesday, May 19, 2004

Here we go again ... and again

Another summit coming up, another row with Spain, which could be simply a coincidence. As the world media (in so far as it can be bothered to pay attention to the somewhat overwrought debates at the Foreign Ministers’ Council) wrings its hands over the lack of progress in negotiations about the text of the forthcoming constitution; as France, Germany and Britain go through their ritual dance of “Britain is the odd man out” despite Jack Straw clearly being prepared to abandon at least one “red line” and equally clearly staying out of the real discussions while popping up whenever there are journalists around; as the Scandinavians gear up to their own fight … up pops Spain.

This time the attack is indirect. In December, as most of us will recall, Spain under Prime Minister Aznar helped to bring about a stalemate by fighting for what it saw as its rightful number of votes in the Council. Since then we have had the Madrid bombs the surprise victory by Zapatero and the supposed great reversal in foreign politics.

Except that we clearly have not had anything of the kind, reversal that is. All Zapatero has done is to pull Spanish troops out of Iraq, a move to which the Spanish military have reacted ambivalently.

When it comes to dealing with its neighbours Spain remains Spain. Three weeks ago the new Spanish government ordered port authorities in Barcelona, Cadiz, Malaga and Tarragona to ban non-EU registered cruise ships that had berthed in Gibraltar to enter the ports. Their supposed justification is that there is an EU cabotage or freight regulation that allows non-EU ships to stop at only one EU port.

This regulation quite clearly applies to freight and not passenger cruises. Equally clearly tiny but rather stubborn Gibraltar relies on cruise ships and visitors rather heavily for income. One wonders, though not too much, why the Spanish authorities have decided to invoke this rule so inappropriately, just before crucial negotiations within the EU?

In fact, the Spanish may well find that not only Gibraltar and Britain are annoyed. The most recent ship that was denied docking is the Dutch registered Prinsendam. Spain is clearly breaking various EU rules, including one that says that EU citizens can travel anywhere they like within the EU.

Spanish reaction has been mixed. First they announced that this was a bureaucratic mistake, results of a rule left over from the last government. (When in doubt, blame your predecessor.) But the directive was issued three weeks ago. Even if it was simply an old directive re-issued by mistake, three weeks is quite long enough to revoke it. Then there was the story about the freight rules but as these are passenger ships and EU registered, that cannot possibly apply.

One can but wonder what concessions the Spanish government will demand in the constitutional dust-up that is likely to continue to June 18 (Waterloo Day, which is also something Spain might remember).

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