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Hillary Clinton: "Spain still faces important challenges"

Besides meeting members of Zapatero administration, US secretary of state hears opposition leader Rajoy say country still requires "substantial reforms"

In her first visit to Spain since José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero became prime minister, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gave the Spanish leader a huge show of support by praising the tough money-saving measures he has adopted to combat the economic crisis. However, she urged him to continue persevering with reforms and to have patience despite a lack of short-term results.

In Saturday's joint press conference with Spanish Foreign Minister Trinidad Jiménez, Clinton said Spain has "made important steps under the leadership" of Zapatero in consolidating its finances, restructuring its banking sector and improving its competitiveness. "We understand the difficulty of those steps and we know that Spain still faces important challenges," she said. The US secretary of state added she was sure the government would "continue with the process of reforms until the end," even though achieving results was "something that takes time and patience."

Clinton rejected attempts to read anything into her meeting with Popular Party leader Mariano Rajoy, arguing it was part of her normal agenda to meet with opposition heads when abroad. During the encounter, Rajoy expressed his conviction that Spain has to make "substantial reforms" but underlined the "asymmetry" of its situation in relation to that of Greece, Ireland and Portugal, which have needed EU bailouts, Efe reported.

US concern over the state of the Spanish economy is nothing new. In May 2010 President Barack Obama called Zapatero to encourage him to undertake the reforms he announced later that month; since then numerous Washington economic chiefs have visited Madrid. The fear exists that any worsening of the European sovereign debt crisis would frustrate the US' own economic recovery.

Clinton began her busy day at the Foreign Ministry before traveling to La Moncloa to talk with Zapatero and the Zarzuela palace for an audience with King Juan Carlos, his first meeting since a knee operation on June 3. Her talks in Madrid also took in the most important issues on the international agenda: the military intervention in Libya, the Arab Spring protests, the war in Afghanistan and the Middle East peace process. Clinton thanked the Spanish military for its role in the Libya operation and played down comments by then-US Defense Secretary Robert Gates complaining about Spain and other NATO countries' lack of participation in attacks.