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Last updated: July 27, 2005 3:18 pm

Blair welcomes 'alliance of civilizations'

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Tony Blair, the British prime minister, welcomed a Spanish proposal to create an “Alliance of civilizations” between Western and Muslim countries in the fight against terror in a meeting with Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, his Spanish counterpart, on Wednesday.

Mr Blair, who also held talks on Wednesday with RecepTayyip Erdogan, the Turkish prime minister, said that Turkey is particularly involved in this initiative.

Levels of co-operation between the two countries' security forces on terrorism and organised crime have improved dramatically over the past few years, and Mr Blair has shown particular interest in initiatives such as the "Alliance of Civilisations", a largely dormant EU proposal aimed at fostering closer socio-economic links between European and Arab countries. Spain will host a conference to relaunch the forum in November.

"Officials in London and Madrid have been working closely together on the project for several months now," says David Mathieson, a Madrid-based analyst on UK-Spanish relations, "but the recent bomb attacks in London have given the work a new impetus"

The biggest stumbling block to a closer partnership between Madrid and London is the dislike the two premiers share for each other. Mr Zapatero has not forgiven Mr Blair for ignoring him in the run-up to last year's general election in Spain, while Mr Blair finds his colleague sanctimonious and irritating, particularly on the subject of Iraq.

However, despite their differences on Iraq, the two leaders have found common ground in broader talks about Islamic extremism.

Mr Zapatero could play a pivotal role in EU affairs over the next two years in spite of being dismissed, at home and abroad, as an inexperienced political lightweight. Spain is vital to Mr Blair's agenda because it is one of the few big countries in Europe that is not hostile to economic reforms.

Mr Zapatero, 44, had no experience in foreign affairs before his surprise election victory in Spain last year. Some Spanish analysts say he has not yet grasped the intricacies of EU negotiations, and his lacklustre performance at the summit of EU leaders in Brussels last month was panned by the Spanish press.

But the domestic troubles of Europe's more experienced leaders mean that Mr Zapatero's star has been rising in Brussels, almost by default, diplomats say.

Gerhard Schröder, the German chancellor, is unlikely to survive a general election in September while Jacques Chirac, French president, is viewed as a "giant lame canard", according to one Madrid-based analyst, following the French No vote in the European constitution referendum. Silvio Berlusconi's coalition government in Italy is regarded as increasingly unstable.

By contrast, Mr Zapatero is one of the few leaders in continental Europe who is not viewed as a spent force.

"Spain has a stable government, a good record on structural reform and an economy that is growing strongly, which puts Zapatero in a strong position in Europe," says a British diplomat in Madrid. "We hope Spain will be a big help in getting the European economic reform act into gear during the UK's six-month presidency [of the EU]."

Mr Zapatero, for his part, needs a new focus for his European foreign policy that had been centred on the ratification process for the EU constitution, which Spain approved in February.

The Spanish premier has an additional problem. Having aligned Madrid with Paris and Berlin on key European issues, Mr Zapatero may find it difficult to shift alliances without causing offence.

The Spanish premier's aides make a distinction between the political project for Europe, where Spain and the UK differ, and economic issues, where the two countries share more in common.

Spanish officials say Mr Zapatero will support Mr Blair on any measure that increases competition and productivity in Europe.

Nevertheless, they say Spain will not back Mr Blair's calls to reform the EU's seven-year budget now. "Mr Zapatero thinks the idea is premature," a spokesman said. "But for the future we are open to the idea of budgetary reform."

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