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EU: Terrorism, Not Enlargement, Priority For Spanish Presidency

In Madrid today, the European Commission held its first weekly meeting of the year, sitting jointly with the Spanish government, which holds the European Union's rotating presidency until the end of June. After the meeting, Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar and European Commission President Romano Prodi gave a joint press conference to outline the EU's main objectives during Spain's presidency. They are led by the fight against terrorism, with enlargement coming a distant third after economic reforms.

Brussels/Madrid, 8 January 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Rarely in recent history has a European Union presidency faced a more daunting array of competing "historic" objectives than those confronting Spain between January and June this year, when it occupies the EU's driving seat.

Spain's "foremost priority," according to comments made today by Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar, will be the fight against terrorism. Simultaneously, it must oversee the successful phasing out of the 12 national currencies replaced by the euro on 1 January. In the words of European Commission President Romano Prodi, who today held a joint press conference with Aznar, the introduction of the euro is the "most important thing" to happen to the EU since its creation.

And then, of course, there is enlargement -- "a great opportunity for Spain and a vocation for Europe," according to Aznar.

Ranking his priorities, Aznar left little doubt that in practical terms, the fight against terrorism would top his agenda for the next six months. This is an obvious choice in view of the changed situation in the world and in Europe in the wake of the September attacks on the United States. The choice is also natural, considering that Spain is home to the most serious terrorist threat in Europe, the pro-Basque ETA. ETA -- which in December was put on an EU-wide list of terrorist organizations -- has claimed responsibility for more than 800 killings in the last 30 years.

EU leaders also agreed to a joint definition of terrorism and adopted a uniform EU-wide arrest warrant in December. Aznar now says Spain's main aim, besides improving the coordination of the EU effort, is to develop better contacts with outside countries like the U.S. and Russia.

"It is important to continue to intensify our relations in the field of security and the fight against terrorists with all the countries, especially with the United States, and we would like to do the same with Russia," Aznar said.

This will not be easy. Most EU countries object to the use of the death penalty in the United States and have expressed deep misgivings over U.S. plans to try terrorist suspects in military tribunals.

European Commission President Prodi indicated that concrete progress in this respect may have to wait: "What we have decided is that we shall work hand-in-hand on this subject [the fight against terrorism] with the United States. This is clearly our intention, because we think that cooperation in the fight against terrorism is one of the main goals that we have now in the European Union."

Prime Minister Aznar said he did not rule out an EU-U.S. extradition treaty that provides for the exemption of extradited suspects from the death penalty. He said that strengthening the EU's crime-fighting links with the United States was a "historic priority."

Aznar said the EU would also develop antiterrorist cooperation with Russia, adding that the EU's justice and home affairs ministers would soon hold a joint meeting with their Russian counterparts for the first time ever.

Addressing the euro single currency and economic reform, Aznar said Spain would work to "guarantee the success" of the euro, especially during the up to two-month period when the 12 national currencies will remain in circulation.

Both Aznar and Prodi described the euro's first eight days of physical existence as a "great success" but reiterated the need to buttress the EU's economy with radical modernizing reforms. Repeating long-standing EU concerns, Aznar said moves toward enhancing the EU's competitiveness must be complemented by progress toward what he termed "social objectives" -- including full employment by 2010.

Enlargement came third on Aznar's list of priorities, a ranking that probably accurately reflects its relative importance over the course of the next half-year.

Aznar said Spain would remain committed to the timetable endorsed by EU leaders at the Laeken summit in December, which foresees the closure of accession talks with leading candidates by the end of 2002 and indicates the first accessions could take place in 2004.

Aznar sidestepped a question on how Spain intends to tackle the apparent conflict of interest inherent in guiding accession talks on the sensitive issues of regional development aid and agricultural subsidies, while remaining the EU's single biggest recipient of regional support funds as well as having one of the largest agricultural sectors in the EU.

On 7 January, Spain's agriculture minister told reporters in Madrid that Spain would be prepared to close talks on agriculture by the end of June. Many observers doubt talks on either of the two "money chapters" on the table during the Spanish presidency can be concluded before the French and German elections are held later this year.

This view was tacitly supported by Prodi today when he said that although the Spanish presidency would be "decisive" for enlargement, it was "obvious" that enlargement negotiations would not be finalized by June.