MIDWAY : Spanish PM gets travel bug

Most prime ministers love the glamour of foreign trips. A chance to leave behind humdrum domestic policy and unfriendly local criticism, jump in a limousine and pretend for a moment that they are, in fact, a world leader.

Tony Blair liked nothing better than to show off his credentials as a world-class politician (and forget the gathering storms at home). France’s Nicolas Sarkozy has a similar penchant for inviting the cameras on official trips and foreign holidays. The Spanish prime minister, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, is, however, famously reluctant to reach for his passport.

Zapatero has attracted unflattering headlines for only ever making trips abroad to see his opera-singing wife Sonsoles Espinosa perform around Europe.

When he has ventured abroad on ministerial business he has appeared ill at ease; at a recent NATO summit, he was pictured sitting alone while other leaders hovered around the US president George Bush.

He has annoyed a number of foreign governments — including Japan’s — by either postponing or cutting short trips.

And he seems to prefer to let other foreign leaders clock up their air miles on visits to Madrid.

So, in an attempt to dispel this image, Zapatero will travel to Morocco on May 7 for the first in a series of foreign visits.

It might not be the easiest way to start off. Zapatero will have to cool anti-Spanish anger after a visit last year by King Juan Carlos to Spain’s north-African enclaves, Ceuta and Melilla, caused a diplomatic row. (Morocco lays claim to Spain’s only African territories.) After that, globetrotting Zapatero is due in Lima, Peru, for a Latin American summit later this month. Then it’s off to Paris in July for a meeting with Sarkozy.

The big prize for Zapatero would be a visit to the White House; he has remained persona non grata during Bush’s reign because he pulled Spanish troops out of Iraq weeks after

coming to power.

But either way, these foreign visits should deflect criticism that Spain — despite its rapid economic growth in the past decade — has disappeared off the diplomatic radar under its latest leader.