US President Barack Obama reportedly lauded Spain’s efforts to try to regain control of its economy during a very brief encounter he had with Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy as the two leaders walked together toward the G20 meeting room in St. Petersburg, the Spanish leader’s chief of staff said Thursday.
Video images of the encounter showed the two looking relaxed as they came down a hallway accompanied by a female interpreter and followed by aides. At one point Obama made a hand gesture imitating a plane taking off.
Cabinet chief Jorge Moragas said that Obama said he “saw how the reforms have begun to show results.” But Moragas added his own opinion: “The work needs to continue.”
There was no official White House version at press time of what Obama and Rajoy spoke about. The encounter only lasted a few minutes.
For nearly two years, Rajoy administration officials have been trying to set up a private meeting between the prime minister and Obama, which is seen by Rajoy officials as a major foreign policy achievement for the Spanish government. But the date of that encounter has been pushed back on several occasions.
Moragas insisted to reporters that the US president “gave instructions to his team to arrange that visit in the coming months.”
But officials at the prime minister’s office in Moncloa said that the meeting won’t take place before the end of the year. “We will do it in 2014 without any rush,” one official said.
Spain is no longer seen as the economic problem child it was at last year’s G20 Summit, which was held soon after the country sought European aid for its ailing banks, and its risk premium — the spread between the yield on the Spanish 10-year government bond and the German equivalent — rose to an historic high of 600 basis points.
Obama came to the G20 Summit looking for support for Washington’s limited attacks on Syria. But unlike other European partners such as Italy, which has said that it won’t support strikes without a UN resolution, and France, which supports the United States, Spain has been ambiguous.
Spanish officials have said they want to wait to study reports by UN inspectors before taking a position.
It is not known whether Obama mentioned Syria to Rajoy during their brief encounter — with cameras following them and the possibility that microphones could record the conversation, it is doubtful.
It is certain that the Spanish government doesn’t want to become a major player in this delicate issue, a matter that was firmly rejected by the British parliament. Rajoy remembers all too well the political fallout when his mentor, former Prime Minister José María Aznar, got involved in Iraq in 2003; he was serving as deputy prime minister at the time.
The United States and its European allies have come to the G20 Summit divided in trying to come up with a discreet policy between the continent’s five biggest nations, which include Spain, where they would neither support nor outwardly condemn any attack on Syria.