The Corner

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Earlier today I was in Madrid for the annual parliamentary reception in the Cortes. It is a splendid occasion in a very beautiful building, but also a surprisingly informal one. Those of us who were guests of the parliamentarians were allowed to be photographed speaking from the rostrum.

It was also a very sombre occasion. Two Spanish policemen had been murdered by ETA terrorists in southern France over the weekend.

(France and Spain have an agreement allowing their respective police agencies to “tail” terrorist suspects over frontiers.) We stood for one minute’s silence at the start of formal proceedings; the retiring Speaker of the Cortes delivered a valedictory address regretting the rise of partisan bitterness in politics; and the usual alcohol and refreshments were not served.

Even so all the leading figures in Spanish politics and the media stayed to mill around and chat after the formal speeches. Spain’s socialist prime minister, Mr. Zapatero, was the center of a throng. He looks amazingly like Mr. Bean, the comic character invented by British comedian Rowland Atkinson, and has been cruelly caricatured as such.

But one of the opposition conservative MPs thought that this worked to the prime minister’s advantage: “the public thinks he’s an ordinary guy, one of them.”

By contrast the opposition Popular Party leader, Mariano Rahoy, is a distinguished and somewhat imposing figure. I met Mr. Rahoy in the crush, but too briefly for any serious discussion. My conservative friends think that he has the respect of the Spanish people. They feel that what will determine the election—now about three months away–is whether Spain’s problems are thought to be serious enough to require the respected Rahoy or whether life is basically okay and the voters feel they can afford to stick with Mr. Bean.

That’s usually an economic question. In Spain today, however, even more important than the economy is terrorism. Zapatero has been a strong proponent of negotiations with the ETA terrorists over the opposition of the Popular Party. As the evidence mounts that the ETA terrorists are returning full time to terrorism–and the murder of the two policemen confirms this–the opposition of the Popular Party to negotiations to them looks far-sighted as well as principled. But three months is a long time in politics.

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