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Spanish PM to Meet Bush at White House Wednesday - 2004-01-13

Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar is in Washington for two days of consultation. He will make a final official visit with President Bush before leaving office ahead of Spain's general elections in March. The Spanish leader is promoting closer economic ties between the United States and Europe.

Prime Minister Aznar sees his country as a bridge between the European Union and the United States. In that context, he says he wants to promote closer trans-atlantic economic ties.

During a luncheon speech to the American Chamber of Commerce, Mr. Aznar proposed the United States and European Union set up a high-level economic committee to work on an action plan to do that. He spoke through an interpreter.

"The committee would be asked to draw up, within 12 months, an action plan pinpointing existing economic, trade or regulatory obstacles between the United States and Europe," he said. "It would also set a precise timetable to remove these obstacles during the coming decade."

The goal, Mr. Aznar says, is to remove all trade barriers and through improved economic ties also help repair diplomatic relations with the European Union, which have soured over the Iraq conflict.

"In adopting an initiative of this nature, the United States and the European Union would set an excellent example of openness. It would benefit not just our two countries but also the rest of the world," he said.

The Spanish leader, 50, was one of Washington's closest allies during the Iraq conflict. He joined President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair last March to pledge military action against Saddam Hussein despite the strong anti-war sentiment of his own public. Spain still has some 13 hundred troops serving with coalition forces in Iraq.

Mr. Aznar is expected to discuss Iraq and the stalled Middle East peace process during his talks with President Bush on Wednesday. The two leaders are sure to review developments in Latin America following President Bush's meeting with Latin American leaders during this week's America's Summit.