Protectionism row risks EU summit stumbles

23rd March 2006, Comments 0 comments

BRUSSELS, March 23, 2006 (AFP) - Tensions over resurgent protectionism in Europe threatened to sour the mood Thursday as EU leaders gathered for a summit aimed at re-dynamising reforms in the continent's long-lagging economy.

BRUSSELS, March 23, 2006 (AFP) - Tensions over resurgent protectionism in Europe threatened to sour the mood Thursday as EU leaders gathered for a summit aimed at re-dynamising reforms in the continent's long-lagging economy.

Plans to forge a joint energy strategy for the 25-nation European Union, caught in the crossfire of Russia's gas price war with Ukraine at the start of the year, are also high on the agenda of the annual two-day EU economic summit.

After a string of summits last year clouded by tension over everything from budget wrangling to Turkey, the spring summit provides a chance to focus almost exclusively on strengthening the economy, the EU's original raison d'etre.

"I think there is a good mood," said Austrian Chancellor Wolfgang Schuessel, chairing the summit as EU president.

But reflecting much pre-summit chatter in Brussels, Belgium's Guy Verhofstadt added: "We don't want protectionism at the heart of the European Union."

While the United States and Japan are enjoying an economic resurgence, much of Europe is still struggling to stimulate growth, with latest figures for last year putting economic expansion in the eurozone at a paltry 1.3 percent.

As they have done over the last five years, EU leaders will try to use the spring summit to push forward the so-called Lisbon Strategy aimed at transforming Europe into a leading knowledge-based society.

Britain's Tony Blair expects to pursue the case for a single, wide-open market in Europe in Brussels, his spokesman said.

"We have been at the forefront of completing the single market and market liberalisation," he said. "We are in favour of maximum openness. The performance of our economy suggests that it works."

But europhiles, already depressed by last year's French and Dutch rejections of the proposed first-ever constitution, now lament that the bloc is drifting towards greater protectionism.

A string of cases has underlined this in recent weeks, including Spanish efforts to block a German energy giant E.ON's hostile takeover bid for Endesa, and French machinations to protect Suez from Italian group Enel.

France is also a key opponent of plans to shake-up Europe's vast services sector, amid fears that workers from the EU's poorer ex-communist newcomer states will undercut their western European rivals.

Tensions over the issue threatened to explode on the eve of the summit, when Italy, deep in campaigning for elections in just over two weeks, sought support for a statement denouncing protectionism.

The statement was withdrawn — but some fear that Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi will nonetheless use the EU summit to take digs at France.

"The question is what message he wants to get over to his public opinion," said one French diplomat.

Also in Brussels, EU commission chief Barroso will press for the EU to forge a joint energy policy, seen as crucial to Europe's future fortunes amid rising oil prices and growing geopolitical uncertainties.

EU leaders were alarmed in January when Russia, which supplies over 20 percent of Europe's gas, briefly closed its taps in a price dispute with neighbouring Ukraine.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel urged her EU counterparts to avoid thinking of energy policy in "strictly national terms."

"The internal market cannot work unless electricity can flow freely and if we can agree on European champions and not think strictly in national terms," she said.

"Otherwise the internal market doesn't mean anything," she added.

Copyright AFP

Subject: French news

 

 

0 Comments To This Article