PRAGUE – U.S. President Barack Obama met on Sunday with Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero and praised his strong relationship with the Spanish leader, adding he can already call him “my friend.”
While television cameras and photographers captured the first images of the meeting and the first handshake between the two leaders at the entrance to the room flanked by two large flags of Spain and the United States, Obama said that Zapatero takes his responsibilities and the influence of Spain in the world “very seriously.”
The men shook hands four times in the presence of reporters and Obama lightly slapped Zapatero on the back, both of them smiling broadly.
The U.S. president acknowledged that he had appreciated Zapatero’s work during the days they were in Europe together, both at the G-20 meeting in London and at the U.N. assembly at Strasbourg.
Obama said that the Spanish leader understands quite well the “extraordinary influence” of Spain in the world, adding that he takes his responsibility “very seriously.”
Zapatero, for his part, noted that a new period in bilateral relations with Washington is opening up and the intention of his government – “because it’s the wish of my country” – is to work with Obama for a peaceful and fairer world order, as well as in the fight against poverty and to provide for future generations the chance for a better life.
U.S.-Spanish relations were badly frayed after Zapatero pulled Spain’s 1,300 troops out of Iraq in May 2004.
The premier, who campaigned on a promise to end Spanish involvement in Iraq, was swept into office in March 2004 when his Socialists upset the ruling conservatives in an election held just three days after 191 people were killed on Madrid commuter trains in bombings carried out by Muslim militants angry over the U.S.-led war in the Middle East.
Zapatero’s predecessor, Jose Maria Aznar, was President George W. Bush’s staunchest supporter in continental Europe.
Spanish troops are serving as part of a NATO-led force in Afghanistan.
Zapatero called Sunday on the European Union to coordinate its efforts with Obama’s administration and to take advantage of the impulse in Washington to work in a joint manner for peace in the Middle East.
The Spanish leader was the man tasked with explaining the European Union’s priorities in foreign policy and he did so in Obama’s presence during the informal summit between the EU and the United States that he attended, behind closed doors, in Prague.
Meanwhile, at their bilateral meeting, Obama expressed to Zapatero his desire to visit Spain, U.S. National Security Council spokesman Mike Hammer told Efe.
The U.S. president “showed great interest” in strengthening relations between the United States and Spain and “renewing the friendship” between the peoples of the two countries, Hammer said.
During the meeting, which went considerably longer than the scheduled half hour, the two leaders discussed matters in regions such at the Middle East and Iran, as well as Latin America.
In addition, Hammer said, Obama expressed to the Spanish premier his gratitude for Madrid’s commitment of troops to the NATO mission in Afghanistan.
Zapatero announced on Saturday at the NATO summit that Spain would send another 450 soldiers to the violence-plagued Central Asian country to strengthen local security during the Aug. 20 elections there. EFE