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EU: Summit Failed To Reach Major Economic Reforms

Barcelona, 18 March 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The European Union summit in Barcelona -- intended to assess the progress of market-oriented reforms initiated in the Portuguese capital Lisbon two years ago -- ended on the afternoon of 16 March with little to show in the way of concrete results.

Germany's Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder began a postsummit news conference by highlighting that the leaders of the 13 accession countries on 14 March attended for the first time a full EU summit working session.

On 15 March, most candidate prime ministers described the joint session as a success. Some -- like Hungary and the Czech Republic -- joined the EU's reform debate.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and British Prime Minister Tony Blair signed a joint memorandum on ways of promoting what they called "the information society." Czech Prime Minister Milos Zeman launched a joint proposal with Dutch Prime Minister Wim Kok aimed at modernizing the EU's pension system.

Participating candidate ministers, however, said that the real economic decisions facing the EU for the foreseeable future would be made by EU leaders among themselves.

Observers and many EU officials described the reform efforts of the summit proper as unsatisfactory.

The most signal failure of the two-day gathering was to postpone agreement on full liberalization (opening to EU-wide private competition) of the union's electricity and gas markets. France opposed the move. The idea is unpopular there, and parliamentary and presidential elections are due in 2002.

The summit's vague commitment to cut back red tape to open labor markets and make creating jobs easier was undercut by the insistence of many EU leaders that the bloc stick to European values like solidarity and social justice.

The two-day summit addressed some foreign policy issues. EU leaders praised Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica and Montenegrin President Milo Djukanovic -- both present in Barcelona yesterday -- for their agreement to retain the loose federation between the two countries.

In a concluding statement, EU leaders express readiness to intensify consultations with NATO on the role the European Union could take concerning the future of the peacekeeping force in Macedonia, called Amber Fox.

The statement does not, however, amount to a full commitment by the EU to take over Amber Fox from NATO. Although some leaders -- led by France's President Jacques Chirac -- said the EU should assume leadership of the Macedonian peacekeeping operation to assert its fledgling defense role, other remained cautious.

Neutral Finland's prime minister, Paavo Lipponen, told reporters that the summit did not lay the basis for any EU-led defense operations, whether in Macedonia or elsewhere. He said the EU's first concern in any such undertaking is to ensure the security and safety of its troops. He said this concern remains unaddressed as long as Greece continues blocking an EU deal with Turkey allowing the bloc access to vital NATO assets.

EU leaders also adopted a declaration welcoming the recent UN Security Council resolution that supports the creation of a Palestinian state. The declaration also says the EU is ready to send observers to the Middle East to help revive peace efforts in the region.

The issue of possible U.S. military action against Iraq came up in the margins of the summit, but according to the German chancellor, no common EU line emerged. Earlier, Schroeder said Germany will not support military action against Iraq without prior UN approval.