Leaders of the 15-member European Union have ended a two-day summit in Barcelona with a hard-fought agreement to partially open up their domestic energy markets. Although the leaders have now gone home, a big protest march against their plans for closer European integration is scheduled to take place in the Spanish city later on Saturday.
EU leaders agreed two years ago that they would make their bloc the most dynamic economy in the world. But every piecemeal step toward greater integration and more competition has been the result of tough bargaining.
That was the case Saturday with a deal that will allow competition in the supply of gas and electricity to industrial and commercial users by the year 2004. France blocked any extension of the deal to household consumers, but said it could reconsider in a year's time.
French politicians of every stripe are worried about offending powerful labor unions five weeks ahead of a presidential election. And they are also determined to defend the monopoly of the state-owned power company EDF.
Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar, who chaired the summit, said the compromise should still be seen as a shot in the arm for the economic reform process. He says the march toward open markets in such areas as energy and financial services is irreversible.
Romano Prodi, the head of the Brussels-based European Commission, the EU's executive arm, has been a driving force for opening up the European market.
He said the deal obtained Saturday is the best that could be hoped for, given the present circumstances.
The EU leaders also gave the green light to a network of navigation satellites called Galileo that will compete with the U.S. military global positioning system, or GPS. The idea has drawn fire from Washington, which sees the EU project as unnecessary duplication. But the EU is uncomfortable with being technologically dependent on the United States.
In foreign affairs, the leaders condemned the conduct of last week's elections in Zimbabwe, saying the vote could be judged neither free nor fair. They also demanded that Israel lift all travel restrictions against Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.
Barcelona is bracing for a protest march by a coalition of groups that fear closer European integration aids large multinational companies. The demonstrators are also concerned about any attempt by EU leaders to ditch the generous social safety nets that shield Europeans from the harsher aspects of no-holds-barred capitalism of the type the protesters say holds sway in the United States.