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Spain: Aznar Visit May Open West's Door To Libya

Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar visited Libya this week for talks with Libyan leader Muammar Ghadaffi. The visit shows how far Libya has come in shedding its diplomatic isolation, and follows the lifting of UN sanctions last week.

Prague, 18 September 2003 (RFE/RL) -- As diplomatic visits go, this one at least looked pretty interesting. Spain's Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar, every inch the conservative in his dark suit and pale blue tie, chatting amicably with Libyan leader Muammar Ghadaffi, clad head-to-toe in glossy purple robes and a matching hat.

The two met last night and were due to hold talks again today, as Aznar paid the first-ever visit to the country by a Spanish prime minister.

It's the latest diplomatic victory for Ghadaffi, long a pariah in the West for his support of terrorism, most notoriously the 1988 bombing of an airliner over Lockerbie, Scotland.

Aznar's visit follows the lifting of UN sanctions last week after Libya accepted blame for that attack and agreed to pay compensation to victims' families.

Michael Emerson of the Center for European Policy Studies in Brussels said of Aznar's visit: "We may indeed be opening an important new chapter of normalization of relations between Libya and the West in general, but with respect to the EU in particular."

That may include a bigger role for Libya in the EU's partnership with 12 Mediterranean countries, known as the "Barcelona Process," where it currently only has observer status. The partnership aims to promote peace, stability, respect for human rights, and democracy, with an emphasis also on free trade.

Emerson said a less isolated Libya could also help reinvigorate another regional grouping of North African countries. "Aznar's visit would seem to be pointing in the direction [of better relations], with the Lockerbie affair more or less behind us and with Ghadaffi apparently tending more towards wishing to normalize the place of his country in the Mediterranean system. From an EU point of view, if Libya wishes to be more cooperative and normalize [relations with the bloc] it has its place in the Barcelona Process and more precisely it would have its place also in some attempt to revitalize the Arab Maghreb Union, that's to say Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and Libya. That organization is completely dormant partly because of the Sahara conflict but also because of Libya's idiosyncrasy," he said.

Aznar's visit may also herald a boost to economic ties between Europe and Libya. He's been accompanied by a delegation of Spanish businessmen, which includes an executive from an oil company, Repsol, that recently won a permit for oil and gas exploration in Libya.

Today, Aznar called Libya an "important partner" for Spain, and said conditions are now good "to strengthen commercial ties and investments between the two countries."

But Philip McCrum, a Libya analyst with the Economist Intelligence Unit in London, told RFE/RL that economic ties with Europe are already more or less normalized. That's because European firms took advantage of the suspension of UN sanctions four years ago.

Still, he said, European countries will now be keen to consolidate their interests and trade links with Libya -- in sharp contrast to their U.S. counterparts, who are still restricted by U.S. sanctions.

"Since Libya is now officially open for business, European companies will now be ratcheting up their efforts to make inroads into a Libyan market, which will be relatively lucrative, and conversely U.S. companies, which are still restricted by unilateral U.S. sanctions, will be getting fairly frustrated by their inability to make inroads into Libyan market and will therefore by putting considerable pressure upon the U.S. government to lift their embargo," McCrum said.

Aznar is a close ally of U.S. President George W. Bush -- which raised speculation over whether the Spanish prime minister would be conveying a message to Ghadaffi from the U.S. administration.

However, agencies quoted Spanish officials as saying this wouldn't be the case. And McCrum said there's no reason to think otherwise, since Ghadaffi knows "perfectly well" what the U.S. position is -- that U.S. sanctions will stay until Libya addresses U.S. concerns over Tripoli's human rights record and its alleged pursuit of weapons of mass destruction.