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EU: Leaders Expect Little From Spring Summit

European Union leaders, arriving in Barcelona later today ahead of the EU's annual spring summit, are doing so amid lowered expectations. The EU's spring summits are meant to take stock of the progress of EU economic reforms, but the pace of these reforms can best be described as sluggish, and further restructuring efforts will have to wait until after elections in France and Germany later in 2002. The highlight of the summit is expected to be the inclusion of leaders from EU candidate nations for the first time in a full summit working session.

Barcelona, 14 March 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Since the European Union's Lisbon summit in March 2000, the bloc's spring summits have been officially dedicated to reviewing the annual progress made toward realizing the so-called "Lisbon pledge" -- that the EU will become the most competitive knowledge-based economy in the world by 2010. This is expected to be achieved without undermining European values of solidarity and social justice and with the goal of attaining full employment in the process.

Two years on, however, EU officials have difficulty identifying any success stories achieved within the Lisbon agenda. In fact, quite the opposite seems to be the case in many fields, including economic restructuring, the liberalization of key markets or employment policies.

Presenting his objectives for the two-day Barcelona summit, which begins tomorrow, the president of the European Commission, Romano Prodi, called 2002 "crucial" and urged EU leaders to make progress on at least a limited range of issues.

"We must not lose sight of the fact that the first few years of the so-called Lisbon agenda are crucial to the overall success of the exercise, whose deadline we remember is 2010. I don't believe that our discussions in Barcelona should cover the whole strategy," Prodi said. "This time, we must focus on a limited number of priority areas. This means concentrating on active labor policies, reforming key networks and infrastructures and investing in knowledge and innovation."

Yet Prodi himself admitted there is no guarantee that any of his limited priorities will be attained in Barcelona.

Although Prodi spoke at length about the need to achieve what he called a "real opening of the EU's energy markets," he acknowledged that France has already ruled out the full liberalization of its electricity market in the foreseeable future. The best that can be achieved in Barcelona is the setting of a deadline for the opening of electricity markets that cater to non-domestic users.

Prodi noted that while these deliberations take place, the EU energy industry is losing 15 billion euros a year.

It is telling that one of Prodi's four pre-Barcelona priorities is actually an exhortation to EU heads of government to start putting into practice what has already been decided. "Setting priorities is good," Prodi said, "but it is not enough." He said EU leaders must instruct their governments to turn agreements already reached into binding EU rules.

Prodi also put great emphasis on the need to reach agreement on the planned "Galileo" network of EU communication satellites and the establishment of a community-wide patent. With regard to both goals, however, Prodi admitted he knows they cannot realistically be achieved in Barcelona.

The EU's external policy agenda is likely to be dominated by discussions of the deteriorating situation in the Middle East, but it is difficult to envisage any decisive initiatives emerging. Top EU foreign policy officials are meeting in Barcelona on the margins of the summit to draft a common declaration, but EU officials in Brussels admit it will first need to be agreed to by both the United States and Russia. Meanwhile, as Prodi noted yesterday in Brussels, the tens of millions of euros the EU has invested in building Palestinian infrastructure are currently represented by a single standing hospital.

The push to craft an inspirational common EU platform for next week's meeting on financing sustainable global development, being held in Monterrey, Mexico, is also expected to amount to little. An EU foreign ministers meeting earlier this week exposed deep divisions among member states, with only a few northern countries having fulfilled a long-standing UN-sponsored commitment to spend at least 0.7 percent of their gross domestic products on development aid. Right now, the most the EU is likely to commit to is 0.33 percent by the year 2006, and even that pledge is being questioned by a number of member states.

One of the few highlights of the summit is likely to be the presence of the prime ministers, foreign ministers, and finance ministers of EU candidate countries. They will participate for the first time in a full summit working session tomorrow.

Accession negotiations will not be on the agenda, although representatives of the EU's Spanish presidency are not ruling out background consultations on sensitive negotiating chapters such as agriculture and structural aid funds, which will have a bearing on the financial aspects of enlargement.