France stalls EU debate on 'open services' plan

20th March 2005, Comments 0 comments

PARIS, March 20 (AFP) - The European Union's "open services" plan - one of the key subjects for discussion at this week's summit in Brussels - has run into the buffers thanks to the heated debate in France over whether to approve the EU's proposed new constitution.

PARIS, March 20 (AFP) - The European Union's "open services" plan - one of the key subjects for discussion at this week's summit in Brussels - has run into the buffers thanks to the heated debate in France over whether to approve the EU's proposed new constitution.

Ten weeks before a national referendum on the constitution - and with polls showing supporters and opponents neck-and-neck - President Jacques Chirac has decided that the so-called Bolkestein directive is a liberal reform too far and has thrown France's considerable weight against it.

In telephone conversations last week that were immediately passed on to the press, Chirac told Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso and EU acting president Jean-Claude Juncker that the directive - named after a former Dutch commissioner for the internal market - had to be re-written.

"The President of the Republic reminded the Commission president that the draft directive on services was unacceptable to France and to other European partners, and that it should be thoroughly reviewed," according to his spokesman.

Chirac "stressed that the revision must conform to the principle that has always applied to European construction: that development of the internal market goes hand-in-hand with harmonisation (of tax and social policies)," the spokesman said.

Originally conceived over a year ago, the Bolkestein directive is meant to complete the EU's single market by making it possible for service providers - anyone from accountants to architects - to operate without restriction throughout the 25 member states.

One of its key measures is the so-called "country of origin" principle, which means that companies offering services in all the member states can operate under the laws and regulations of any single one.

But this has been seized on by opponents as a sign that American-style big business economics are running rampant over the EU, and they warn that the directive will lead inevitably to "social dumping" - companies and jobs relocating to the low-cost economies of eastern Europe.

In the run-up to France's May 29 referendum, the directive has become the symbolic focus of the "no" camp's rejection of the EU constitution and what they see as its free-market bias.

As a poll at the end of last week for the first time gave the "no" camp victory in the referendum, Chirac had no choice but to voice his own hostility to the Bolkestein directive, or else risk being portrayed as soft on the social issues which count heavily with the French electorate.

Juncker and Barroso both hinted last week that some rewording of the directive is possible to take accounts of French - as well as German and Belgian - concerns, but it is doubtful any progress is possible till after the French referendum.

And even if the "yes" vote carries the day on May 29, there is still no guarantee a more flexible French position.

© AFP

Subject: French News

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