EU leaders meet in Brussels to hammer out a shared position on how to improve regulation of international financial markets. Tax havens, a touchy issue for some EU countries, are also on the agenda.
EU leaders will debate how to get the bloc's economy up and running again
The two-day spring meeting of the European Council in Brussels, which begins Thursday, March 19, is seen as a key stepping stone towards London's Group of 20 summit on April 2. That summit will be called on to overhaul the global financial sector and avoid future credit crunches.
EU heads of state and government officials are expected to issue "agreed language" on what they will want to see discussed in London.
According to drafts of the Brussels summit's conclusions, leaders will aim to "give priority to restoring the functioning of credit markets and facilitating the flow of lending to the economy," the dpa news agency reported.
They will also call on any form of protectionism to be avoided, and for world trade talks to reach an "ambitious and balanced" outcome.
The ECB and IMF predict the economy will pick up in 2010
Restoring confidence in the international markets should be achieved by granting more resources and monitoring powers to the International Monetary Fund, improving the transparency of hedge funds, other high-risk investments and credit rating agencies, and strengthening international supervision of major banks and insurance companies that operate in several countries, leaders have said.
In addition, banks should in future build up enough capital to better face the bad times, while their managers should be dissuaded from taking excessive risks by weakening the link between company bonuses and short-term profitability.
"We expect the common language which comes out of the European Council to be consistent with the preparatory discussions for the London summit," a British diplomat told dpa.
Tax havens remain contentious
While the bloc's Czech presidency expects an agreement on such common language to be reached over dinner on Thursday, one potential source of friction may come from calls, mainly from Paris and Berlin, to fight tax havens and other potential threats to "market integrity."
France and Germany want to make sure cash isn't being hidden from tax officials
The leaders of Austria, Belgium and Luxembourg fear being singled out by other government leaders because of their countries' bank secrecy rules and may well drive a hard bargain.
Luxembourg's Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker criticized pressure on Luxembourg and Switzerland's banking secrecy in an interview with the Swiss newspaper Le Temps, saying the French and German stance was tainted by arrogance and "mediocre" populism.
The meeting also comes amid fresh concerns over the poor state of the bloc's economy, which according to latest estimates, may shrink by as much as 3 percent this year and not recover before 2011.
The EU's economic recovery package totals about 400 billion euros ($519 billion), or 3.3 percent of the bloc's annual gross domestic product, spread over two years. About half of this amount is made up of so-called "automatic stabilizers" -- non-discretionary public spending, such as for unemployment benefits, that naturally increases during a downturn.
The package has been described as insufficient by the administration of US President Barack Obama, and most recently by American economist and Nobel laureate Paul Krugman. But officials in Brussels say it is too early to judge whether more money will be needed.
Merkel, Sarkozy: Stable public finances crucial
Sarkozy and Merkel are promoting regulation rather than spending to fight the recession
Moreover, they note that many member states are not in the position to spend more without running even bigger budget deficits, which in turn threaten the stability of the euro.
This point was made clear by French President Nicolas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel in a joint letter addressed to the Czech EU presidency and the EU Commission ahead of the summit.
"Excessive public indebtedness threatens long-term global stability," the two leaders wrote. "Healthy public finances thus remain crucial for the credibility and stability of the European Union."
At the same time, leaders will be called to discuss the need to increase the amount of capital that the European Commission is able to raise on the financial markets to help EU countries that run into financial difficulties as a result of the credit crunch.
The Commission, which can currently rely on 25 billion euros, has already bailed out Latvia and Hungary, and is now in talks with Romania.
Other issues due to be discussed by leaders include preparations for an April 5 EU-US summit in Prague with Obama, the fight against climate change, and ways to strengthen the bloc's ties to its Eastern European neighbors, including Belarus, Georgia and Azerbaijan.