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Volcanic ash interrupts EU business

There’s a dark cloud hanging over an informal meeting of European Union finance ministers in Madrid, and for a change it’s not Greeece's bloated deficit. This time it’s due to unusually high output from EU aspirant Iceland: volcanic ash drifting over the Atlantic so thick that it’s not safe for planes to fly.

Airspace has been closed or severely restricted in an arc from Ireland to Finland and down to Belgium, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and France, grounding Economic and Monetary Affairs Commissioner Olli Rehn and EU officials in Brussels, as well as finance ministers in their capitals. Luxembourg’s Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the Eurogroup that comprises the 16 countries that share the single currency, managed to make it to Madrid before Luxembourg shut down its airport, so there will be someone to chair the Eurogroup meeting that’s still scheduled to start early Friday, kicking off the three-day gathering.

European Parliament President Jerzy Buzek had to cancel his planned appointment with Pope Benedict XVI, scheduled for Friday, because he can’t get to Rome.

Experts say it’s not possible to know when the volcanic dust will disperse enough to allow jets to fly safely (the ash hampers visibility and can shut down jet engines), but most prognoses are not very optimistic things will be back to normal quickly.

Meanwhile, in a move sure to make the airlines feel better, EU Transport Commissioner Siim Kallas reminded passengers that they have a strong bill of rights in the EU and they should claim them. While complimenting airports and air traffic controllers for their cooperation and coordination and what he called “very swift and appropriate action to safeguard the public,” Kallas underscored in a statement that “even in exceptional circumstances EU passenger rights continue to apply and air travellers should speak up to claim their rights."

The three basics, according to Kallas, are the right to be kept informed by the airline; the right to food, drink or accommodation as appropriate; and the right to be reimbursed for the fare or re-routed to the destination. He also noted that under these circumstances no compensation from the airline would be warranted since the delay is not the company’s fault.