By Adrian Croft
TONY Blair and Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero ought to be ideological soulmates - both are reforming Socialists who led their parties back to power after years in the political wilderness.

Instead, Anglo-Spanish relations are at their coolest in years, chilled by divisions over Gibraltar and Iraq. The change is one of the most striking aspects of the transformation in Spanish foreign policy since Zapatero surprisingly won a general election three days after the Madrid train bombings killed 191 people in March. Conservative former Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar sided with U.S. President George W. Bush and Blair over Iraq and fell out with Germany and France over the same issue, while coming close to war with Morocco over an uninhabited islet. By contrast, Zapatero has distanced himself from America and Britain, sought to ally himself with France and Germany and moved to repair relations with Morocco. Relations with London and Washington were dealt a blow by Zapatero's decision, the day after he took office, to carry out an election pledge to bring home Spain's 1'400 troops from Iraq.

The historic dispute between London and Madrid over Gibraltar has boiled over into repeated public spats in the last few months as the colony commemorated 300 years of British rule. “The bilateral relationship was exceptionally close under Aznar and Blair and now we've returned to a more traditional, slightly aloof relationship,” said Charles Powell, deputy director of Spain's Real Instituto Elcano thinktank. Spain was enraged by Britain's decision to send Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon to Gibraltar for the highpoint of the 300th anniversary celebrations on Wednesday. Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos called it the latest in a series of “unfriendly gestures” by Britain which also included a trip to Gibraltar by Princess Anne and the docking there of a British nuclear submarine.

The Guardian linked the ill-feeling over Gibraltar to British displeasure over Zapatero's Iraq policy, suggesting in an editorial that Blair might have thought twice about sending Hoon “if the Spanish people had not so recently elected a government that disapproves of the Iraq war.” Historian Powell believes attempts to link the Gibraltar situation to Spain's Iraq withdrawal have been overstated. He believes Zapatero was being vocal about Gibraltar to prove it was serious about Spain's claim to the Rock, but expects no new initiative any time soon.

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