EU leaders to discuss plans to create a union of Mediterranean coutries

EU leaders to discuss plans to create a union of Mediterranean coutries

European Union leaders humbled French President Nicolas Sarkozy on Thursday by watering down his ambitious plans to create a union of Mediterranean countries. ( dpa )

They also gave British premier Gordon Brown thumbs down by opposing his idea of reducing VAT rates for environmentally-friendly fridges and televisions.

The EU's traditional spring summit in Brussels, which was due to end on Friday, was largely devoted to finding ways of reviving the European economy, securing its energy supplies and stopping global warming.

But much of the discussion turned to French proposals for a Union of Mediterranean states.

Sarkozy's original idea was to make all the countries of the Mediterranean basin work together on such diverse issues as migration, the environment, energy, development, trade, and the fight against crime and terrorism.

But the latest draft of the proposal, brokered by Germany earlier this week and submitted to leaders over dinner on Thursday, includes all EU member states and vaguely talks about "projects with an accent on regional cooperation."

The downsizing came after EU countries with no borders on the Mediterranean expressed scepticism at the proposal. Member states from Eastern Europe were particularly concerned that a Union for the Mediterranean would divert precious EU funds away from the region.

Many also noted that the EU already has a similar neighbourhood policy known as the Barcelona process.

In the end, EU leaders agreed that the best thing to do would be to relaunch the Barcelona process and give it a new name.

"The project for a Union for the Mediterranean was presented as an upgrade of the Barcelona process," said Slovenia Prime Minister Janez Jansa, whose country currently holds the EU's rotating presidency.

"And sometimes, changes get a new name," he added.

Sarkozy nevertheless presented Thursday's deal as an "important step" for Europe and the Mediterranean.

"Europe will not turn its back on the Mediterranean any more," he said.

France now plans to launch the Union for the Mediterranean on July 13, during its stint as EU president.

On climate change, presidents and prime ministers gave their backing to a proposal by the EU executive, the commission, to cut the bloc's emissions of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide (CO2) to at least 20 per cent below 1990 levels - a legally-binding goal which they set themselves a year ago.

However, they did not get into detailed exchanges on some of its most controversial aspects, including how to share the burden of meeting that target. Discussions are now expected to drag on well into 2009.

Several countries also blocked British plans to reduce the VAT rate on household goods which carry a high eco-friendly rating for low energy consumption.

"Everything to do with taxes requires unanimity. And some member states do not accept this idea," said commission chief Jose Manuel Barroso.

EU leaders also defended an EU competitiveness policy known as the Lisbon strategy.

Officials said the policy had helped create 6.5 million jobs and produce a gross domestic product growth rate of 3 per cent in 2007.

Among the objectives of the strategy's second three-year cycle is to equip every school in Europe with broadband connection by 2010.

Leaders spent much of their dinner engaged in acrimonious talks on another commission plan designed to make energy markets more competitive by splitting up companies which both sell energy to consumers and manage power lines.

The idea is strongly backed by Britain but is resisted by France and Germany.

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