Ambitious energy deal unlikely at EU summit

23rd March 2006, Comments 0 comments

23 March 2006, BRUSSELS - European Union leaders, arriving for summit talks Thursday, were lining up against calls to hand over control of national energy policies to the European Commission.

23 March 2006

BRUSSELS - European Union leaders, arriving for summit talks Thursday, were lining up against calls to hand over control of national energy policies to the European Commission.

Leaders were also set to clash over growing economic protectionism within the 25-nation bloc despite a last-minute decision by Rome to withdraw a letter attacking France for blocking Italian utility Enel from taking over Franco-Belgian Suez.

European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso has been lobbying hard to convince governments that the EU cannot go on having 25 different energy policies.

High oil prices and Russia's cut-off of natural gas supplies to Ukraine last January, which also led to brief shortages in western Europe, set off alarm bells across Europe.

But most EU member states reject any unified energy policy for the entire bloc and are unwilling to surrender such power to Brussels.

Even German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who will lead summit discussions on energy, opposes transferring authority on the issue to the commission.

"The German position presented by the chancellor, is perhaps less ambitious," said a senior German official, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

"We are of the opinion that a great deal has already taken place in Europe (regarding energy) and that these decisions should first be implemented," he said.

The official said that among member states "there was no disputing the fact...that the mix of energy sources utilised would remain a national question for the foreseeable future."

National energy policies vary widely among EU states. Nuclear power, for example, is backed by countries like Finland which is building a new nuclear plant but rejected by Germany which has ordered all its nuclear stations to close by 2020.

Given such differences, EU leaders appear set to approve a far more watered down energy declaration than that initially sought by Barroso.

What French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin has dubbed "economic patriotism" is also expected to provoke fierce debate.

Governments in the bloc are badly split between ardent free- marketeers - led by Britain and some of the new central European member states - and social welfare protectionists led by France.

Even though Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has withdrawn his protectionism protest letter, after all other EU states refused to sign it, diplomats said there would be summit "fireworks" over the issue.

Italy holds general elections next month and diplomats predict Berlusconi will try and use the summit for campaign purposes.

Another of Barroso's pet projects, the creation of a "European Institute of Technology" - modelled on the world-renowned Massachusetts Institute of Technology - is under threat.

Diplomats said many EU governments were sceptical of the initiative, believing it would be little more than an "empty envelope" of good intentions.

Also likely to trigger acrimony are demands by new central European states that barriers facing their workers in old EU states should be abolished as quickly as possible.

But Germany and Austria among others have already said they will maintain restrictions until at least 2009 to avoid disruption of national labour markets. German unemployment is currently over 12 per cent.

Meanwhile EU foreign ministers - meeting separately at the summit - are likely to remain split over further enlargement of the Union.

Divisions over how fast and how far the EU should expand into the Western Balkans were spotlighted at a meeting of foreign ministers earlier this month in Salzburg.

New member states such as Slovenia want fast-track membership for countries like Serbia. But old members like France are slamming on the brakes, arguing that European public opinion has turned against taking in more countries.

Relations between the EU and an incoming Hamas-led government in the Palestinian Territories are also on ministers' agenda.

Both the EU and the US have listed Hamas as a terrorist group and are calling for it to renounce violence, recognise Israel and accept previous peace agreements.

Despite this fact, the EU recently provided 120 million euros (145 million dollars) to the cash-strapped Palestinian government for a transition period.

But there has been no decision on whether the bloc will continue to be the biggest Palestinian paymaster, contributing 500 million euros a year, after the Hamas government is sworn in.

The summit will also warn Belarus of further sanctions following last week's presidential elections which were widely condemned as having been rigged.


Subject: German news

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